Most of us like to imagine that SUs are the vibrant heartbeats of campuses across the UK, serving as champions of student voices and interests.
We all recognise the significance of funding in enabling SUs to fulfil their missions, but I think there is a more vital element that should define SUs – courage.
In the little time there has been this summer to reflect on my own job over the past year, and in conversations with colleagues around the country, I’ve detected a lingering and noticeable fear that’s holding back activity, decisions or experimentation – with things like the annual block grant allocation, or worry about the reaction of university colleagues holding both officers and staff back.
So I was particularly struck by this piece on the UCD Student Life Office and its strategic focus on “Being Brave and Being Bold” – and what it might mean for us in the UK in practice.
You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug
At the core, an SU’s mission is to be an unwavering advocate for students and their needs. We’re well-versed in the legalese of the 1994 Education Act, and over the summer, we will have dusted off our boxes of resources and dished out the flip chart paper and post-it notes to help our student officers plan how they will do exactly that.
But I wonder how often we reflect on the courage it takes to take a stand, especially in public, when it means going against influential external interests and pressures – particularly when rumblings about block grant allocations are in the air. It’s a tough balancing act, but the authentic representation of student concerns should always come first.
This isn’t just about an analysis of the external pressures either. We know that student anxiety remains high – and while it’s a reasonable assumption that officers who’ve stood in an election will be braver than most, it’s still an extraordinary ask even to expect officers to ask a challenging question in a room of people ostentatiously flaunting their age and experience.
Our interventions should recognise that – because those challenges make for better university decision making.
Kept on the inside and no sunlight
The Office for Students (OfS) may have its politically motivated checks and balances for the higher education sector, but it’s local SUs that should serve as watchdogs for universities. This involves supporting our officers to ask the tough questions, demanding transparency, and, when necessary, publicly challenging an administration’s actions.
Universities – especially their staff that work below a more confident senior level – may naturally prefer officers tucked away in meetings labelled “Strictly Confidential”, after all it allows for a quiet life and the avoidance of being called out publicly.
But when students can see the challenges and work of their elected representatives in the open, authentic representation has its true power. And while funding concerns might make some SUs hesitant to challenge the status quo, those that prioritise accountability are displaying that unwavering commitment to students’ academic success and well-being. That takes courage – from both officers and those that support them.
Bow down to the mighty
SU staff play a crucial role in fostering productive relationships with university colleagues. But I also worry that those relationships can come at the expense of supporting our officers and avoiding difficult conversations.
One of my key roles is to provide professional expertise and sector insight to enable our elected representatives to fulfil their roles. But I don’t appear in the constitution – staff are not the union, and nor do we represent the students of an institution.
There have been times where I’ve looked in dismay at a decision by the union council, or worried a lot that a stance from our officers will upset a carefully balanced apple cart. But more often than not, they’ve been things that our university needed to hear – and over time, I’ve watched as the best university managers learn the value that a more assertive partnership with students can bring to the way they run the place.
Even if it means going against our better judgement – which, if we are all honest can be bloody annoying – we must support their instincts. This may bring some backlash from university colleagues, but being brave in the face of it means coaching colleagues through those challenges, rather than rolling our eyes in tandem or promising to put a blanket on the fire.
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
We all know (or should know) the foundations on which the modern SU sector is built on – students as change-makers. They’re eager to lead movements for climate action, social justice, diversity, inclusion, and more. For me, a brave SU would not shy away from these critical issues – even if it means ruffling feathers.
At UEA over the years we’ve had our fair share of marxists, climate activists, liberation campaigners and advocates of free education – who have often disrupted campus life in ways that the university has found upsetting, annoying, or “counterproductive” to student recruitment.
But if university isn’t a space to explore those ideas and their SU isn’t a platform on which to test them out, we run the risk of embodying the opposite values to those we might interpret as important in forthcoming free speech regulation.
That means that staff need to match the bravery of our student leaders by fully supporting them on these issues. So as Just Stop Oil steps up a strategy for societies in many SUs, prioritising courage over comfort may well mean thinking about the risks to free speech and student passion – as well as the well-worn risks on an event form or those that might damage the SU’s corporate reputation.
And even if we’re not thinking about the traditional activism of a banner drop or an occupation, my advice colleagues around the UK will be familiar with the steady stream of heartbreaking casework where we explain how a student might make a complaint or raise a concern – but ends up fading away, often out of fear for their student status or marks.
When our officers and our activists (and the comms that surround them) display bravery, I suspect it signals to other students that they can and should stand up for themselves too. That’s a powerful gift that SUs can give to students that I think we can underestimate.
Let your words be anything but empty
Courage isn’t just about supporting student representatives or taking bold stances – it’s also about re-evaluating our business-as-usual practices. In a challenging labour market and amid financial pressures, I won’t be the only department head who’s had one or two recruitment headaches over the recent SU transfer season.
Career staff are often positioned as the safe bet – the people we can mould with experience that we can expect to exercise sober judgement. But while more student staff might mean unreliability and risk, they may also provide ideas and energy that our cultures of annual appraisals and performance indicators lack.
Technology can help us gather data, gain insights, and close feedback loops in real time in ways that would take staff endless hours to do. Likewise, we should explore ways to involve students in delivering functions of the SU that were traditionally handled by career staff. This not only ensures tasks get done but also provides valuable work experience and injects money back into the student community. There’s surely a postgrad in the politics department looking for experience in the running of an election.
Why don’t you tell them the truth?
There are lots of other ways in which I think fear can paralyse us – sometimes because the risks are real, but often because of the way in which we respond to our own and others’ anxieties about what might happen next.
But when we work together to recognise that reaction, we’re better positioned to advocate for students, address critical issues, defend free speech, hold institutions accountable, and inspire future leaders.
Being a trustee, nurturing a close partnership or even just being “the grown up in the room” can mean that things we’ve heard that have happened in the past are avoided and the people we employ are protected. But it’s also about both being brave and signalling that bravery matters to getting things done.
Doing so means we can better fulfil our mission of representing and empowering students – and the lasting impact that SUs and their members make.