Is a “social policy” approach key to supporting officers?

Michael Hewitson is Representation & Organising Manager at Sheffield Students' Union

Emily Saunders is Advice Centre Manager at Sheffield.Students' Union

Our officers are invited to ever increasing numbers of boards, committees and meetings.

And staff supporting them are being pulled in all sorts of different directions.

The question becomes – how do SU’s best back-up their officers, and other student leaders, to ensure that they feel informed, impactful and powerful in those spaces?

Here at Sheffield SU we’re using a social policy approach that draws on the strengths of several teams without overwhelming them individually – with research at the heart of it.

Our Advice Centre and Representation & Organising Team have been sharing data from advice cases, academic reps, student council and forums to build a better picture of the issues facing our students.

Our institution repeatedly asks officers for data/proof when they are presenting the views of students. We want to empower them in the spaces they go into with this data and give them confidence to speak on behalf of the student body both locally and nationally.

It’s not perfect. We want to improve how we work with our own mar/comms staff to share our existing data and insight better within our SU and with our institution. We also want to work better with our partners and peers in the sector.

Going social down in acapulco

But what even is “social policy”? There are many different definitions – and one which resonates a lot with us comes from the Social Policy Association when they say:

Social policy touches all of our lives. Its fundamental concerns are about human need, social justice, and individual and collective wellbeing. Social policy is the academic study, prescription, and practice of ways in which Governments can best distribute, and redistribute resources to provide and deliver welfare facilities, services and opportunities.”

Switch out government for students’ union/association and hopefully that feels recognisable as the core purpose of an SU or Association – research, action and resourcing towards equity of opportunity, wellbeing and welfare provision and suitable facilities for all of our members.

In practice this means all parts of the SU utilising their individual expertise and research for a collective goal – building and sharing an understanding of what our teams all do and the data/insight which we hold.

By working with our officers we build an understanding of what the whole SU knows and how we can work together to support their objectives and the student body.

It’s about breaking down siloed working and collaborating, sharing our research and knowledge.

Through working together, officers recognise the wide range of “disciplines” available to them, and can work in a way that most institutions would see as eminently credible to boost the chances of success in negotiations, partnerships and stakeholder investment.

But this is not limited to what we can do on our own in individual SUs. We are all part of a national network and we can and should use this research and development model on a larger scale, SUs could and should be working together.

Every SU has something to offer

All SUs are experts in their students and the issues which they are facing.

We all operate at different scales, with different resources, roles and knowledge but do we share what we know?

Do we have the capacity and mechanisms in place to hear from all SUs? Do we hear about all the creativity which is taking place across the movement?

We would like to encourage all SUs to consider how we can feed into local, regional and national research to make collective change which benefits the lives of the students we work with and represent.

There are examples of where this is happening such as the recent NUS Cost of Living campaign but this is not done consistently at present.

Taking another step back – a lot of us exist alongside the largest research bodies in the country – but very few of us work with them in that capacity. Certainly here in Sheffield we have steps to make in that area (gaps were looking to close in particular with our PGR colleagues and support staff, including a shared bid for Research Funding).

[As an aside, most of us struggle to engage with PGRs, you will almost certainly have PGRs at your institution researching in areas relevant to your members – talk to them].

Our MSC session didn’t attempt to deliver all the answers or present Sheffield SU as getting it all right – we certainly don’t think we’re even close – but we did explore these issues which we’d welcome your feedback on if you couldn’t make it:

  • What is Social Policy? Do you do it? Are you aware that work you do might or could come under this term? How do you do it?
  • How can we better share what our students are thinking? And why should we?
  • Can we collaboratively give our Officers rich insight? Is a world of co-created white papers a utopian pipe dream or a blue-sky reality?
  • What role can NUS and other national bodies like Wonkhe, UKCISA, the Russell Group play?

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