Faculty-based officers are about giving student communities power

Anuoluwapo (Ayo) Ubikitan is Health and Society Officer at the University of Salford SU

The role of an officer in a students’ union is both strange and unique.

At Salford SU, we stand out even more with our faculty-based student officers. Each officer represents one of our “schools” (more like faculties in most universities), and I am the officer for the School of Health and Society.

It’s a school that has over 9,000 students – including those in nursing, midwifery, social work, sports nutrition, exercise science, criminology, physiotherapy, public health, and more.

As the leader of other student leaders (for example school reps, course reps and academic society chairs) within the school, I believe this model, which we refer to as the “Salford model” has unique strengths, as well as challenges.

It isn’t just about having a sabb for each academic area – it’s a model borne out of communitarianism, where we’re aiming to generate communities on campus, and bring student representation and advocacy as close as possible to the students themselves.

Fitness to practise

One of the first major issues I tackled involved fitness to practise concerns, which our excellent SU advice team told me disproportionately affected students of minoritised ethnic backgrounds.

Each case was taking an excessive amount of time to resolve – often putting students’ lives on hold for months or even years. In some cases, students were eventually told there was no case to answer, after enduring lengthy and stressful delays.

Working with the school we transformed this process, reducing resolution times to just a few weeks. The change allowed students to continue their courses without prolonged uncertainty and anxiety, particularly benefiting international students concerned about their visa conditions.

The school still meets its professional standard and regulatory body requirements – but with less bureaucracy and better student retention.

I imagine that other students’ unions would have been able to do this with a similar level of success, particularly if they had excellent academic quality-focussed student officers and/or outstanding advice teams, like ours.

But I do think that my local knowledge and relationships, alongside my voice being considered the authentic voice of students, enabled this change to take place more quickly.

Combatting discrimination on placements

Discrimination on placements was another critical issue, ominously similar to fitness to practice. This affected students from various backgrounds who reported experiences of racism, bullying, harassment, and other forms of discrimination.

Given the nature of my school, this was often found in NHS settings. Many students felt unsupported by the university and were reluctant to report their experiences.

Through my role, we collected feedback from around 50 students and presented a comprehensive report to the senate and university council (board of governors), as well as the school itself.

This prompted both the school and the broader university leadership to take immediate action – setting in motion efforts to address and resolve these issues.

While the process is ongoing, it demonstrates how students’ union advocacy can spur meaningful change. With my encouragement, the school has now raised this at a national level – and is starting to coordinate a response to this issue alongside other regional universities.

I think that students viewing me as a trusted and authentic leader in the school, with the primary aim of looking after their interests and their interests alone, helped me to receive responses.

This wasn’t the case when the school made similar efforts to gather information around issues students encountered while on placements. Without the responses we obtained from students, this issue would not have received the attention it deserves – and students would still be suffering in silence.

Community first

As well as the above examples, when the school proposed dropping our winter graduation ceremony I successfully advocated for its continuation – benefiting around 700 students annually.

I’m not sure that this issue would have been prioritised, or that anyone would have stood up for these students, if we had a “normal” officer model.

Similarly, when I said I wanted to put on a wellbeing event for students in the school, I don’t think that other SUs would have had more than 200 students attend, particularly when you consider we’re talking about healthcare students.

For me, it’s clear that without community, advocacy cannot occur. Our model facilitates community first, and then allows student leaders to springboard off that to generate positive change.

Not just the school

At a university level I’ve also made changes. I pushed for a pilot of a Peer Assisted Learning program, set to launch in September 2024.

While this will be piloted in the Business School, I’m hopeful that the School of Health and Society will be next.

Finally, my work alongside many colleagues on an anti-loneliness strategy has positioned the university and students’ union as potential leaders in addressing the issue.

And my involvement in various university committees has led to clearer and more empathetic communication over results letters, personal mitigating circumstances (PMCs) and academic procedures, ensuring students receive the support they need.

I think I can be proud of what I’ve managed to achieve. While of course there are pros and cons of any system or structure, my final thought in support of the Salford model is this.

As a middle-aged man from Nigeria with a wife and children who happened to study for Masters at Salford, I never would have applied for a traditional “academic quality officer” or “education officer” role in the SU, and nor would I have stood to be the “welfare” or “wellbeing” officer.

My interest to serve was aroused by the desire to represent the students in my school – and that’s why I’m writing this blog today.

I believe the school when it says it is committed to listening to and acting on student feedback. While more effort is needed to enhance the student experience, through its student-community focus the students’ union has been instrumental in amplifying student voices and driving change, working in partnership with them.

Our model of school-based representation has proven effective because it is grounded in the issues students in the school face and the communities and groups in the school. Other students’ unions might consider adopting this approach for more targeted and impactful advocacy.

Ultimately, persistence, patience, and prioritising student issues are key. With the right community, leadership and relationships, universities will listen and act, even if change happens slowly. The SU remains a critical friend and a persistent advocate for positive change.

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