Students need to know what SUs think about things

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

We’ll never know whether, had the contest gone ahead in May 2021, Iceland’s Daði Freyr would have won the Eurovision Song Contest with his infectious synth-pop viral hit “Think About Things”.

In the Icelandic version of the song, Freyr sings about Gagnamagnið – the fictional band in the music video that comes from the future and outer space to save the world with their brand new dance, just like the new crop of student officers appears each year in SUs.

But the English (and “real”) version of the song is actually about Freyr’s infant daughter, who was born April 2020:

I am talking about the feeling you get in the first few days and weeks where you know that you love this person with all your heart even though you don’t really get that much interaction. In the start she doesn’t do so much, so I am very excited to know what she thinks about all kinds of things. Now she is almost 10 months and has become such a character so the lyrics don’t really apply as much anymore, she is starting to let us know what she is thinking.”

Could that be about incoming student officers too? A summer of interminable inductions and introductions when we’re all just waiting to find out what officers think about things? Or does the period in fact at best mask and at worst suppress that kind of communication?

Puzzle time

I ask because a few weeks ago, I posed a puzzle on Twitter that had been on my mind all summer when touring around the country delivering training to new SU officers.

On every visit, I hear a lot about what SUs and their officers believe in when it comes to the student condition – what ought to be in place, what should be better, what has to change and so on. It’s compelling, infectious and exciting to be among those who are keen to make courses, campuses and communities better places to be.

But I only know this because I’m there. That set of opinions, beliefs and priorities is like a strange secret – accessible only through the creation of exercises involving post-it notes, scented markers and flipchart paper.

Isn’t trust fostered in demonstrating you understand my condition, have an agenda around it and a signal that you’ll back me in a fight? The passion for change is high. Why can’t I find out in online manifestations of SUs?

A few years back now, I became concerned that SUs weren’t making clear to students what their rights are. But something has changed in the intervening period. For some reason, we’re now not even asserting students’ rights – in fact, we don’t seem to be asserung anything other than how great the SU is, how it can help, or how easy it is to get involved in.

Why are the views of SUs and their officers on the student condition such a secret? Why can I find almost no evidence of these beliefs or agendas on SU websites, Facebook pages, Instagram or Twitter? What is stopping SUs from amplifying the views of their members – as per the promise in the “representation” function? And without it, is it any wonder that SUs do so badly on NSS Q26?

Big banned theory

Helpfully, I got plenty of ideas and theories back when I posed the question – although perhaps tellingly, lots of the material came in in secret via DMs, emails and furtive conversations at the national Communities of Practice and Membership Services events that have both been staged recently.

One explanation suggested to me was that student officers and their SUs are anxious about sharing opinions – because controversy on any social media network can cause a pile-on, and nobody wants that early on in their year in office. That makes lots of sense – but surely there are opinions that officers can safely share without controversy? Aren’t there a whole host of things – like noticing that students suffered during the pandemic, and arguing for better mental health services, almost universally popular? Why are priorities and opinions during elections encouraged but then hidden for 50 weeks of the year?

Another idea was that many SUs and their officers simply don’t have “opinions” or “agendas” early on in the academic year – officers need time to discuss their manifestos and project ideas with eachother and staff, and the union needs to learn about and listen to these discussions before it can assert a view. But if this is true, surely that’s a problem? Are we saying that there’s a long-term strategic plan for the union’s building or funding, but an annual and short termist plan when it comes to student housing or student mental health? Surely SUs have “views” and “priorities” all the time – even if at any given time, they can be amended, refined or changed?

Another idea was that it’s better to talk about the sort of people that SU officers are, and the sort of organisation that an SU is – a theory where showing off inoffensive personality and the personal is better than flaunting potentially controversial opinions. But a research paper I was reading a while ago suggested that citizens don’t develop affinity, understanding or loyalty from seeing representatives talk about themselves – in fact, it can be a turn off unless what they’re seeing is extraordinary. What citizens want is for representatives to talk about and demonstrate understanding of citizens.

A related theory put to me is that once officers become trustees with a portfolio of responsibility, they are obviously keen to talk about that area of work – that service, project or set of events, all of which can be of real benefit to students. I was shown profiles of officers that explain their role rather than their platform. I was also reminded that staff with KPIs that relate to tickets sold or students engaged are going to talk about the events and opportunities driving those targets. That all makes sense, but again the research would warn us of the dangers of representative bodies or people talking about themselves to the detriment of messaging about those they seek to serve.

One explanation suggested to me was that most SUs have a “secret” chapter to their strategic plan – one that is overtly critical of their university, with specific reference to particular departments or people. Calling in public for the registrar to resign or calling for the closure of a failing careers department is hardly the way for a new team to ingratiate itself and is likely to harm the cause rather than further it. But while that makes sense, those proposed actions will be driven by a desire to make things better for students – so why not say those things out loud? If someone in the university is blocking things, or there’s a part of the university being difficult, shouldn’t we be talking about how great things would be if the thing was unblocked, or if the university department was being helpful rather than a hindrance?

One suggestion was that we like as people to talk about meetings, actions, and achievements, rather than opinions, theories and ideas – because the former makes you look successful and productive, while the latter makes you look ineffective or angry. But again, the research points in the opposite direction. What citizens need is to know what their representative (in human or organisational form) knows about them and what it thinks about that. In other words, displaying knowledge about students’ rising costs, concern for that situation and an agenda aimed at getting the costs down is more important to students than saying you’ve been to a working group or proclaiming a new discount scheme.

One theory was that there’s a big difference between “backstage” and “frontstage” culture – and being public with criticism can harm relationships with the university which is worried about reputation. But isn’t there a danger that never being critical of failings in public makes SUs look complacent or complicit in those failures? Aren’t SUs supposed to be open and democratic in character generally rather than just once a year during elections? And anyway – aren’t there ways of communicating hopes and higher expectations from a university without getting personal and or nasty in tone?

Cummings and goings

There’s an important article in Vice this week that quotes a student who says he works 48 hours a week during term time. “My mental health is through the cellar floor,” he says. “My grades have dropped.” Why is Vice having to tell us this, rather than that student’s SU?

One thing I was reminded of recently is that if you look at the issues that the two campaigns talked about during the Brexit referendum, the remain campaign talked about the EU, the economy and what those things were doing for citizens. Vote Leave, on the other hand, almost completely avoided talking about the EU itself. It talked about the issues that were on the minds of the voters it needed to convert – the NHS, jobs and immigration. We know what happened next.

That’s not to say that SUs and their officers should play fast and loose with what is possible, or arbitrarily link their work to students’ lives where such a link is weak. But it is to say that service providers, traditional charities and goods suppliers get to position their work and products as solving problems for people – all they have to do then have to meet or exceed expectations.

For representatives – organisations and people – things are different. They have to make clear that they have listened to those they represent, have understood those things, and have views on priorities and policies that should come from them. It’s a world where trust is based less on “we did” than “you said”, and fostered less in “we will” and more in “we think”.

After all, unless SUs and their officers talk out loud about what it’s like to be a student, what it should be like, and what should be done about it, who else will?

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