SU staffers have been experimenting with making part time officer (PTO) roles more effective for years, and more recently, with an increased interest as many struggle to bounce back to pre-pandemic engagement levels.
Perhaps the most difficult part of it all – no one seems to agree on how exactly we improve these roles.
For some, the problem is confusion around the purpose of these liberation roles amongst the student body.
For others, it comes down to concerns over where their role fits alongside the other representative roles in the SU, as well as a frustration at feeling unable to make “real” change unless they are in a full-time officer role – with access to the right university meetings and connections.
These issues were reflected in my time as a Women’s Officer in Reading SU and were the first things I focused on when taking up my position as Representation and Democracy Coordinator at Royal Holloway SU.
Disengagement from the PTOs
Engagement, or lack thereof, is something we focus on a lot in SUs as we recover from the impact of the pandemic. We have seen the direct impact on a lot of voluntary positions, with students either unwilling to nominate themselves or, for those that do, the excitement and energy dwindle the further into the academic year we get.
Considering the number of hours students are spending in paid work due to the cost of living crisis, their ability to engage in voluntary roles has understandably lowered, and as SUs we need to be aware of that.
As well as better support being readily available to support students in financial hardship and to ease the strain of taking on paid employment, students need to see how volunteering benefits them.
They need to know how it can directly help them in their future careers; can they get academic credit for it, does it go on their transcript, and are they supported to reflect on their own skill development in a way that would help boost their confidence when applying for jobs? Especially in the current climate, it is not always enough to expect students to do it for the “greater good.”
In light of this, at our SU we have begun to push a strong focus on skill development and training opportunities, as part of our support.
This includes offering monthly email check-ins, drop-in hours, round tables to discuss ideas for improvements, and termly review forms that rate training, meetings, and support they received from sabbs and staff.
One thing that’s stuck out to me when looking more closely at this supposed “lack of engagement” is it is often not because PTOs forget about their responsibilities and more a case of their academic workload being heavier than expected, so they have less time to spare.
Additionally, many PTOs are representatives of marginalised communities they also belonged to, so for many, there were feelings of guilt and shame at being unable to do as much as they promised in their manifestos. This sense of feeling like they were “failing” prevented a lot of PTOs from raising their concerns with the SU.
Confusion about responsibilities
When researching SUs to build Royal Holloway SU’s Community Officer referendum proposal, it was interesting to investigate how different SUs positioned their PTOs, especially in comparison to FTOs and other voluntary roles.
The questions we asked were;
- Are they elected in the main SU elections with the sabbs?
- How many people get to vote for them? Is it a self-definition feature or a similar structure to a student group election?
- Do they engage in candidate development?
- Do they get spoken about as much as academic reps do during the elections period?
There seems to be an underlying frustration with PTOs, especially around this perception that they don’t “do their jobs” once they’re elected. However, often the officers themselves were unsure about their specific responsibilities.
For example, what does it actually mean to “represent all disabled students.” I remember often being asked what my role entailed when I was a PTO and not knowing where to start.
So it makes sense to have some detailed guidelines of what you expect from the officer; covering what a typical week looks like, what minimum hours they are expected to volunteer, examples of previous PTO projects, and what training and support you offer them throughout the year.
Some of this stuff sounds overly simplistic, yet SUs often struggle to communicate this to their volunteers. Part-Time Officers are a fantastic, yet untapped, resource for SUs and, if nurtured, can be game changers in improving the SU’s wider impact – as well as making some incredible future sabb candidates!
To tackle low engagement we have tried to create an environment where volunteers feel able to say no to things and be honest when things are getting too much. We make it clear that any feedback given, verbal or written, will not be shared with others and that the objective is to improve their experience.
These drop-in sessions are also an opportunity for our staff to remind students we do not expect them to take on every piece of work that comes their way; there is a whole team of staff and other volunteers who can help lighten their workload.
Sometimes students will disengage, disappear, forget about the support their SU has for them, and just not attend training, even if you spend countless hours chasing them. Trust me, I know how frustrating it can be to spend precious time and energy trying to “improve engagement” for it to result in a year of fickle engagement.
Unfortunately, this risk is likely always going to be present, especially in the current climate. However, trying out some new techniques aimed at improving future PTOs’ experience can help build connections and create a generally more rewarding experience for all involved.
Firstly, if you are thinking about reaching out to students who seem to have disappeared, take a second (and a few deep breaths) to think about why they may be disengaged. Secondly, you can think about phrasing your PTO agreement to make it two-way; the PTOs can agree to carry out their expected activities and the SU agrees to support and train them – this can spread accountability to include both parties and hopefully open a level-playing field for communication between students and the SU.
In some cases, these volunteers know they have missed a student assembly meeting or training and may feel it’s now too late – but this is the perfect time to remind them that their mental health, well-being, and studies will always come before their volunteer position, and the SU is there to support them in whatever they need to be effective in the role in a way that works for them.
Be patient when you can, while there may be a lot of pressure on you to reach certain engagement targets and KPIs, the stakes can feel just as sky-high for students as well. They need to be encouraged with training, support, and opportunities to develop as a leader in order to be a successful, and satisfied, student representative.