Isn’t SU awards season all a bit elitist?

Amber Snary is Education Officer at The SU Bath

Lightning crashes across the city of Bath, buildings illuminated with shocks of blue-ish white light, curtains and windows closed to the world.

Not because of the light rain, but because as I write, it’s 4am.

I am not some extreme early bird (though my fellow officers may argue so), instead I am fresh(ish) out of our beloved Blues – a lavish awards ceremony where we celebrate our athletes here at Bath.

It’s set against the background of the iconic eponymous Baths and Pump Rooms, with a black tie dress code, torchlight to illuminate the perfect turquoise of the waters, and such grandeur that people brace against the rain to peek in at us through the windows.

Officially, we are an engineering university.

The Blues is an amazing ceremony – but it is my domain, so picture a different scene – as if I am some sickening fortune teller in a Peter Cushing anthology film. Imagine, instead, our Education Awards.

Drumroll please

Every year, since 2016, we have flocked towards a hotel in Bath to celebrate all things academic excellence and representation – from the traditional academic rep of the year (once called “Excellence in Academic Representation”, now an affair that selects from each faculty) to the brand new and shiny “Outstanding Contribution to Education at Bath” presented by our outgoing VC, Ian White.

At least, it’s as shiny as a responsibly sourced wooden award can be.

This is an amazing event – it’s integrated into the planning efforts of the SU – but in a time when students are volunteering and contributing their time alongside ever limited budgets, it’s easy to pause and think – “is this really the way we should be celebrating?”.

Your exclusive invitation

Award ceremonies are inherently exclusive. As well as only focusing on a limited number of prizes with prescribed marking criteria, they rely on students engaging in increasingly more labour – mental and physical, in order to stand out from the crowd.

Advance HE‘s Student Academic Experience Survey shows the ticking over of the majority into undertaking paid employment – and as exam season approached here at Bath, it wasn’t at all rare for me to open my inbox to students working at least 20 hours to make ends meet.

How can we expect them, unless coming from a more privileged background or benefitting from bursaries to have this spare time?

Who says they’re the best?

The nomination process isn’t perfect. Despite how much we know about the student, with a newly formed panel integrating those who see students far less than we do, we need to rely on what is said in the application, and the resource is simply not the same.

We often see a huge number of nominations, for example, from Management, who benefit from Student Experience Officers – staff whose whole job, in the crudest form, is to act in a way to improve the student experience through elevating their achievements, looking after their wellbeing, and organising social events.

Other faculties simply do not have this.

On a smaller scale, our beloved Computer Science dept has an amazingly supportive staff network and an academic community amongst its students which congregates in the blissfully named “Temple” and “Sanctuary” of computer labs.

Here, they form friendships in ways you simply couldn’t in other places on campus – the stranger you sit next to in the quiet area of the library may never see you again, let alone be from the same course, and they are significantly less likely to offer you a snack.

In that community, we get nominations that sing the praise of someone who is genuinely doing amazing work, but might have flown under the radar had they been elsewhere.

Individualismism

Then there is the competition of it all. Student leader training focuses on collaboration and helping your peers – so that you don’t dig yourself into a pit of despair mid-coursework season when you forgot to submit a risk assessment.

Yet when it comes to awards, there can so very often only be one. If you have been a rep for years, and repeatedly don’t see your work rewarded at this scale, how do you feel? Do you continue to push as you have for years? Do you feel seen? Do you feel appreciated?

And all the same issues and arguments above may well be true for student-led teaching awards, too.

There are other ways to say thanks

The good news? This isn’t the only way that we recognise our reps.

Reward and recognition has been a massive thing among our officer team this year. In Education alone, the culture we create around our reps is the absolute jewel in my crown of a year, and second only in my pride to our reps themselves:

  • We shout-out and provide small prizes for multiple reps every month.
  • We take them to fortnightly breakfasts with the VC for them to get a stellar croissant and their ideas in front of the figurehead of the university – who later talks so fondly of what he has learnt in front of the highest level meetings.
  • We message them with encouragement, whenever they need it, but especially when they speak up in staff-student meetings.
  • We keep our doors open.
  • We create a culture whereby they feel they can, and subsequently do email or turn up for help with extensions and mitigating circumstances.
  • We prioritise them for paid and rewarded research because we know their names, their faces, and how they convey themselves so well.
  • We care for them in so many ways – and yet I am still disappointed that we can’t give them all a hoodie, even if it is simply because that is what I had (and what the SU had the budget for) half a decade ago.

But does that mean we should swap all the glitz and glamour of these ceremonies, and how truly special and appreciated these few reps feel at one event for hoodies? Does one great reward weigh the same as many small ones?

Maybe we should be better at getting reps to work in teams within schools, faculties and departments. Sometimes – often in fact given my experience in this sabb team – it’s the reward and thanks you get from being in a group that’s more important than the recognition from “on high”.

It isn’t something easy to work out, but it is something I am glad to have a supportive team around for – and with reps that aren’t shy to have their opinions heard, I am sure we will do what is right for them.

And given I’m the first Education Officer here at Bath to continue in the role in fourteen years, I luckily have the time.

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