How to grow a student voice team

Across SUs, we have a knack for creating departments with the same name that do wildly different things

So for context when we talk about the “Student Voice” department we mean democracy, representation, campaigns, policy support, and a little bit (a lot) of research.

Some of us have tiny departments – some very large. For many of us, the question is how we persuade the rest of the SU or the university that that department should grow.

This session at Membership Services Conference will cover several key areas of how we grew the team over four years from three people to 11. The presentation will take you through a chronological journey with the underlying themes presented within this article.

Outsider

When I began at Cardiff University Students’ Union (CUSU) I was an oddity in that not many staff came from other students’ unions.

My first few months were spent saying “In other unions…” reflecting both my own experiences but also from attending conferences (like Membership Services) and visiting other SUs.

I found out who we were comparing ourselves to and began to research their departmental structures, number of academic reps, voter turnout, and other outputs that showed a correlation between bigger staff teams and larger outputs.

From my first presentation about my department to our SMT I was honest about the need to expand the department to achieve strategic objectives as well as bringing us up to par with our sibling unions.

There were areas of “quick wins” that I also found from embedding deadlines within the department and a full-scale project plan that assisted other departments to understand their role in major projects like elections. I also made sure that the team supported other departments with events like Varsity. An element of preseentism – but with actual impact in the delivery.

There was also the aspect of building credibility with the university. Accessing stakeholders that we had never spoken to before. Taking advantage of the fact the department was linked to the academic experience of students. Working with the university and helping with the delivery of programmes like Academic Practice and again, telling SMT that this was happening meant that we were showing our impact across not just the students’ union but the institution as well.

Staff Turnover and student staff

When we had turnover of staff I reviewed the team. What worked for that post? How could we better support that post to achieve? At CUSU we (like many other unions) have incremental pay. Each time a member of staff left I submitted a business case to retain the funds where a post would return to the bottom of the pay spine. Said business cases gave options as to what it could fund, each time it was a new student staff member with a particular remit.

It began with administrative assistance for democratic processes, with quicker and quicker turnaround of papers and a more efficient delivery of committee services. Starting with a few hours each week to now the 10 – 20 hours average per student staff member.

From there the request grew to support with the large amount of data we were collecting from thousands of free text comments in our campaigns to analysing training feedback allowing us to make responsive changes quickly.

With our new strategic plan it also created the opportunity for us to align our student staff with objectives of the entire organisation.

Increases in engagement

In my first year at CUSU our team increased engagement significantly, particularly in our annual Speak Week. This increase in engagement activity meant additional administrative and analytical burden. Showing the number of hours worked on report writing and being open about how long it was taking due to the sheer amount of feedback we were receiving from students. Explaining this to our SMT and asking for modest support through one Student Staff member eased the burden.

As we got smarter and better at engaging students the student staff became more and more valuable. Each addition of a student staff member saw an increase. Granted, one cannot draw causation and correlation but our efficiency with each student staff member led to increases in our responsiveness as well as capacity.

Nominations, Voter turnout, Speak Week cards, Enriching Student Life Award nominations, and everything else the department does has seen increases. We reached a point very quickly where resource had been outstripped by engagement in the services we provide.

New strategic plan and quality enhancement review

Our new strategic plan outlines student voice as a key theme. To deliver said theme with challenging objectives, significant investment was required. As noted throughout, there were multiple business cases submitted to create new student staff roles within the department linking directly to objectives of the organisation. SMT were used to Student Voice presenting options for recruitment by this point.

This led to business case for a shift in the department to have three coordinators linked to each college within the university with dedicated support from Dean level through to programme director and the ability to link each staff member to the ‘most relevant’ sabbatical officer. With this new structure came student staff reporting into each of them – this was also provided as a development opportunity for line management.

As we reach the new academic year, we have had an additional post generously funded by the university to support the Quality Enhancement Review. Our union produces an annual Student Written Submission, which is submitted to university Council. The institution is aware of what we can provide and trust us to use resource appropriately. Writing a business case and an additional value-added case directly to the academic registrar to explain our vision for what we can provide QAA and how we can enhance our annual submissions to better the experience of students at Cardiff University.

In summary…work with your strategic management team, work with your officers, work with your university, understand your strategy, and where you can bring students directly into the delivery of services providing them employment opportunities and skills development.

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