It’s all coming up: Nine issues for SUs to prep for in the year ahead

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s impossible trying to predict the future – but you can prepare for it.

For example, it’s hard to predict what the next higher education “culture wars” story will be that goes viral and global, or which issue or university it will be focussed on – but we can confidently predict that there will be plenty of them again in the year ahead as the (Westminster) government’s free speech bill continues its weave around Parliament. As such it does no harm for SUs to think about how they might respond if an issue hits locally, and how to be proactive in the year ahead about demonstrating a visible commitment to free speech and debate.

It’s also true of the big review of fees and funding that’s coming this Autumn in England. We don’t know precisely what the government will propose from its various options to get the cost of higher education down (restricting entry, reducing spend per student, getting graduates to pay more back) but we do know it wants to save money. Again, it does no harm for SUs to be reflecting on which version of changes would be better or worse for students and graduates and to be proactive on lobbying and campaigning in the run up to the Treasury’s spending review.

We tend to call this contrast between delivering manifesto objectives and plans versus preparing for the events and issues that might come up in the year ahead as “hunting” versus “fishing” – where the former is about proactively going out to secure changes or deliver projects, and the latter is preparing to respond when a big opportunity or threat comes along. Doing the prep and running scenarios locally can also help us feel more prepared and in control as anxiety about the year ahead rises.

We already know that of the four classic measures of self-perception of wellbeing and mental health, anxiety was the one that rose fastest during the pandemic for students. In our conversations with SU officers this summer, there appear to be feeds through to our officer teams – with major feelings of overwhelm about the things that could happen that we can’t control dominating many of the conversations. Evidence shows that preparing for some of the things that could happen tends to reduce anxiety – as long as we know what they are.

You’ll know better than us about the sports of things that could be happening locally you might need to prep for – here we’ve picked out ten more issues we think could be worth thinking about now in the last few weeks of calm before the Freshers’ storm.

1. There’s a recruitment crisis on

It’s now becoming clear that there is something of a recruitment crisis on across students’ unions. A huge number of SUs are reporting that they’re struggling to fill vacancies and that (in particular in junior, entry level roles) where there might have been 30 applicants two years ago, there’s now nobody suitable.

Opinion is split over whether what looks like a major problem with recruiting roles usually filled by under-35s is a temporary one (time of year, temporary hospitality reopening blips) or a sign of longer term changes in the labour market triggered by Brexit and hidden for a whole by the pandemic and furlough. If it’s the former, SUs may have to find ways to improve pay to compete, or change some of their delivery models – deprofessionalizing some activities and services after a couple of decades of doing the reverse. Either way it’s worth thinking about how the SU might cope if the situation persists.

2. Universities are changing how they make decisions

Most unis are pretty pleased with how they managed to move mountains and implement blended learning in a rapid way in March 2020 – with many declaring that more change was achieved in a month than had been for about a decade. Many now want to hold onto the strengthening of management “power” that was developed for the pandemic – with “Gold Command” meetings morphing into regular ways to run the place, supplanting slow committees in the process.

This presents dilemmas for SUs. On the one hand running things “by committee” often guarantees that students will be included in decisions and will be in the room. But nobody could argue that taking 15 years to implement lecture capture was good – and even then it took a pandemic to drive major change where it was still voluntary. SUs will want to consider the meetings they go to and the access they have to senior managers if it’s true that some of this “agility” by retaining more management meetings and ditching/sidelining committees is to remain.

3. Anti racism work

Buried inside the (Westminster) government’s free speech agenda is a set of concerns and actions that are really about opposition to “critical race theory” and proactive work on race and racism. There could be explosive public conflicts as the free speech moves through parliament – but we could also see quiet deprioritision by some in the sector who are less keen on picking fights with the government.

SUs that have made progress on anonymous harassment reporting, decolonisation work or bystander initiatives will want to consider how that work is protected and strengthened in the coming months.

4. Shared crunch

Right across higher education, some universities and plenty of courses are more than “full”. That means that in some cases there just won’t be enough chairs, academics or bits of equipment in the gym when students return.

SUs that interrogate the figures at a granular level – finding out which courses and types of student are “up” or “down” are the ones likely to be able to head off issues at the pass and request investment in the right places before a “crunch” comes on shared services.

5. Industrial strife

It could be a tricky year when it comes to the industrial situation for academic staff. Before the pandemic UCU had a “three fights” dispute running on pay, workload and pensions – and not only have those issues not gone away over the past 16 months, if anything they may well have been exacerbated. That could mean a year of industrial disputes where SUs tend to get caught up in difficult debates over whether and how to support their local trade union branch.

If we do see strike action, that debate could be even worse than usual. Many SUs instinctively want to support their local UCU – but the challenge of getting students to support any suspension to face to face teaching could be tough. SUs discussing the major issues with UCU branches this summer and scenario planning some of the things that could happen will be inevitably better prepared.

6. Activist consumers (and their parents)

We tend to think of students either as “passive consumers” or activists, but in the wider policy world there’s lots of discussion emerging about “activist consumers” – a new generation of people (and often their parents) vocally demanding redress, better value or refunds when a supplier doesn’t deliver.

This year we will start to see the culmination of lots of student complaints about HE – and when it emerges that lots of students who didn’t sign a complaint will miss out on compensation, there will be a challenge for SUs. Thinking through internally how to handle this type of action and demand – where it “goes” in the SU, and who should lead on supporting this sort of energy – could be helpful.

7. Cry freedom

We’ve been reading a lot about both the end of pandemics, and the other moments in UK history where “youth culture” has undergone a revolutionary rather than evolutionary change – and they are characterised by bursts of freedom that follow restrictions – as in particular the young respond to being cooped up by embracing much riskier behaviour than previously:

First, most people have not been to festivals or nightclubs for a year. Their tolerance is going to be much lower, and also because they have not been partying for a year we can imagine there is going to be some pent-up demand for partying. We are concerned that combination of lowered tolerance to drugs plus the greater desire to be partying could be quite a problematic combination.

There are therefore big strategy questions for those involved in student wellbeing and welfare. SUs may need to pull a sharp pivot, and quickly – and both rediscover ways to help enable their members to engage in risky and radical behaviours in ways that avoid tragedies, and encourage universities, local authorities, police and government to adopt harm reduction policies that fly in the face of the prevailing tone from the Mail, the Telegraph and the Times.

8. Students abroad

The news this week about students trying to get to France and Spain struggling with their visa ought to be an interesting canary in the coalmine. Most UK students have done year abroad in Europe, and that will continue – but these days visa issues will kick in in ways that they haven’t in the past (but certainly have for international students in the UK!). Are the university and SU ready with strong two-way strong communication with students both before and during the year, picking up and responding at issues that could be being faced by students alone in another country?

9. Hopes and dreams

Finally, some good news. If you do a kind of “meta-analysis” of surveys of young people, there are some clues as to what a new generation of students wants to see from their education, their SU and their world.

Consistently, five messages come through. They want:

  • A world that doesn’t harm them on the basis of who they are
  • A world that takes the climate crisis seriously
  • A world that displays active care for others
  • A world that doesn’t harbour hate in the name of free speech
  • A world that is less competitive and kinder

SUs that, through their activities and services, proactively and obviously offer students a platform on which to realise these ambitions may find themselves more successful in the year to come.

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