A big advantage of being an older cousin in a large family is that when you’re a teenager the babysitting gig becomes lucrative.
As the children of the next generation turn 16 I have passed on some of my tricks – such as getting the parents to tell the kids they need to go to bed an hour earlier than usual so you can appear like you’re letting them stay up late.
Some aspects of the bedtime routine are necessary but boring. Some can be made exciting and the way you present activities can make all the difference.
Halfway through November, Wonkhe SUs held an online discussion between amazing democracy and governance folks. I used to describe my old NUS job supporting the governance structures as being one third company secretary, one third democracy officer and one third babysitter.
I was reminded of this during the autumn discussion where staff in unions raised the challenge of making the annual meeting interesting and engaging.
This is not about to recommend a condescending approach to members for this important part of an SU’s democratic year – if anything I think in many cases we should be trusting students with more decisions to help build a sense of belonging and offer opportunities for development.
However, I do think that, like the babysitting gigs of old, thinking about how you describe things that may seem less exciting may be helpful.
Why and what?
Travel back in time with me to the distant past of 2002. I’m a student at Reading University. There’s no broadband in the rooms and internet phones are beyond the combined reach of my student loan and part time wage from Boots.
To get online it’s either fighting over the terminals in the computer room (my halls was the only one with this luxury) or a trek onto campus to use the ones in the library.
In this environment the physical meeting, of friends, of seminars and of the students’ union take on a very different context to that today. Unbelievably large, physical meetings of students were more common, more practical and more efficient than trying to engage in other ways.
I’ve found that many SUs haven’t changed their arrangements for general meetings since then and while I outline how you can later, I’m not always sure they should.
Unions have rightly developed new structures and ways of engaging in democratic policy setting. I’ve discussed elsewhere on this site my concerns on reducing accountability but the methods for this have often changed too. Annual meetings are often the thing that got missed in these changes.
An old school meeting open to all students might be a good thing – just once a year – to do “democracy with the bonnet up” as a wise colleague once put it.
Discussions live rather than through the lens of voting up or down on a website widget, bringing the sports teams and welfare reps into the same room, talking about the practicality of finances (a £2M organisation but only 6% of that being headroom to spend flexibly) I think is good for students.
I return to the model charitable objects for SUs and there we have the provision of “forums for discussion and debate…. for the personal development of students”. Yes it’s tougher but it’s a great opportunity to learn what happens in companies and charities all over the world and approach something new. It’s a development opportunity not just a process.
Ok but do we need to have one?
Your Articles or Constitution will explain if you need to have an annual meeting. Since the 2006 Companies Act the requirement to have one in private companies was removed but it’s more likely to be required for other forms of SU.
However, even if you don’t need to comply with that piece of legislation, everyone’s favourite niche parliamentary publication the 1994 education act does set out annual reporting requirements for finances and affiliations. If you don’t have an annual meeting you’ll need to chat to the institution to make sure they’re happy about how this requirements are being met.
(You may notice that apart from the terrible pun in the title I’m using “annual meeting” not AGM. AGM’s have a specific company law meeting and depending on who your company law membership is may just apply to your trustees rather than all students.)
Channel your backstabbing family
In the third Season of “Succession” the political machinations of the media moguls takes place behind the scenes of a shareholders meeting.
I’m not suggesting that your executive team should modernise the King Lear story (though I’m happy to provide support for sabb teams who are “storming”), but pay attention to what happens aside from the backstabbing Waystar Royco team. Shareholders are treated to a series of presentations about the organisation’s plans and successes, their values and hopes.
How often have you heard students say that they don’t know what the union does (despite the best efforts of underappreciated comms colleagues)? Many SU annual meetings focus on the numbers from the audited accounts but barely mention the trustees annual report.
The section that explains what the union has done, the hard work of officers and the way in which the union can be improved might get a slide and some unprepared words from the president.
The annual meeting is the place where the trustees have accountability to the membership directly and while you should invite all your student and lay trustees as well as the officers, it doesn’t mean they need to be the ones reporting everything.
Get the student society of the year to talk about their experiences and then explain what’s been done to help student groups. Your activists can talk about the SU’s support for their campaigning and your course reps can explain how they are able to change the seminars with your help.
If I described something as a “legal requirement to meet the stipulations of a parliamentary act and the university’s regulatory environment” then it’s hardly going to get a student to come along. No one would describe elections like this, but I see annual meetings talked about in dry terms that aren’t so far off. This is an opportunity to celebrate and improve the union – focus on that rather than the use of the SORP in the accounts.
As mentioned you’ll need to have your annual accounts from the previous year and so depending on your Auditors schedule this is likely to mean you hold your annual meeting in the spring.
I’ve known plenty of SUs to combine the annual meeting with the hustings for student officers. As well as a slightly cheeky way of improving quorum it also means that some of the candidates will have a better understanding of what the union does and the context it is facing. Perhaps even give the candidates an opportunity to see a pre-briefing a few days before so they can see what the SU is like to help improve their manifestos and plans.
Change the future
There are practical considerations too and if your Articles or Constitution are too restrictive you might need to change these. Cheeky consultant point that I’d be happy to advise on this aside (though do get in touch) you’ll want to consider whether the quorum and location are appropriate. I’d suggest that you look at some possibilities for hybrid meetings.
You can often place many of the requirements into the byelaws which makes it more flexible. Changes to the governing document will need institution approval under the 1994 education act and you’d hope would also be an area they want to make sure is right in terms of the accountability.
General meetings may feel like a burden but I honestly believe they can be a great part of the SU calendar. Hopefully the above will make them less of a nightmare prospect and even a reason for more pleasant dreams.