The work of sabbatical officers is a 1-2 year sprint – quickly getting to know the complex university structures, reading page after page for committee papers and getting to work on those all-important manifesto points that got you a seat at the table.
Your time in office normally goes quite quickly, with the final months being all about the handover and wrapping up on the amazing work you have done and passing it on to the incoming officer. But what happens when all of this is overshadowed by Covid-19?
The unexpected hits you between the eyes
As many say, the year goes quick and you work on so many things you couldn’t have imagined when you came up with your manifesto. At that point, it sounds like an amazing opportunity to represent students, to be involved in the key decisions and work to improve the student experience – and once you’re elected and the training kicks in and you speak to the outgoing officers you get to see the sheer breadth of what your role is going to be for the next year or so.
The year or takes its natural cycle, you settle in and start to get grips with it all, and make some great progress and work on your manifesto. But this year has been different. You suddenly get hit with the one thing nobody could add into your training or ever put into a handover – a global pandemic.
The days of being able to focus purely on your manifesto and key projects at the union and university have rapidly morphed into approving emails to staff and students, filming videos explaining the situation (which changes the second that video goes live), lobbying for hardship funds, moving a whole university online (and hoping for only a few IT issues) and the colossal job of re-shaping what a normal academic year looks like.
It’s a lot, isn’t it?
You’ve just adjusted and got quite comfortable with the typical university jargon, and then there’s new stuff to learn – a wave of admissions jargon, graduation and examination structures, and procedures which don’t make sense even after the tenth explanation.
The typical period of wrapping up projects and looking for jobs becomes very much overshadowed by the ongoing and indefinite issues – students do not know when they are coming back to university, and are they coming back to a semester online or is it all face-to-face?
There are broader questions that linger. Financially, can all students come back? As a student who relied on part-time work due to a student loan that left me with £20, the job market isn’t going to look like how it used to, so how as officers can we help and add this to the never-ending list of demands?
There’s a lot of opportunities
This could be an opportunity to shape university the way many officers have always wanted to: a chance to reduce the amount of assessment, embed more resources being accessible online or be more trusting of students submitting mitigating circumstances. But the process is too quick to have a lot of these discussions – within days of being in lockdown, you have already moved to online learning. The consideration of a safety-net policy is brought to the table as well as the pending question of, well, how do we do summer assessments online? How can we cope without having the exam halls to assess students?
Officers are trying to figure out all the answers – offering not just their view but a view they try to ensure is in the student interest. It almost feels like a quickfire round of Mastermind or the Chase where you have to go with what comes to you – it’s a lot of instinct and quick guessing and the longer you spend thinking about the decision, the more queries come to mind, and the more that already flooded inbox overwhelms.
Stop, collaborate and listen
As time goes on, the momentum doesn’t drop, although you feel like you get more chances to catch a breath and to review what’s been done in just a few weeks – we have moved university teaching and many support services online, set up a huge hardship fund, cut university-owned accommodation costs, and managed to move summer assessments online. All in the space of a few weeks, where if we hadn’t had all of this, universities would still be pulling their faces at the idea of putting more learning resources online.
Some amazing things have come out of all this and we’ll need to make sure we keep them. Students with caring and childcare responsibilities are being taken seriously, student hardship is finally being recognised at a higher degree, and more than anything we’ve shown that it is possible to make decisions quicker and more effectively – showing that months and months of consultation and limited decision making is reductive and we need quick responses.
SUs have been amazing too – with societies moving all activity online, advice services being beyond inundated with queries and rapidly responding, and the amazing teams that support officers keep the normality as much as we can.
Nobody wanted a pandemic – but all of the above makes me feel grateful to have been a sabbatical officer this year. Whilst it has been an intense period, we’ve been able to impact on work that is happening right at this moment in the student interest, and had a real impact on projects that will happen over the next few years. So let’s pause, praise ourselves for the work we’ve done so far, and spend the final couple of months we have working towards what comes next.