This article is more than 1 year old

SU elections season is complete. What now?

This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Livia Scott is Partnerships Coordinator at Wonkhe

One of the questions we get asked a lot is about whether what’s going on in the SU is reflected in other places.

And it’s a question that comes up a lot during and after (sabbatical) election season.

The headlines from this year are fascinating. Overall, for example, the number of women candidates seems be down, and is some distance from its high in 2021.

Many SUs have also continued to struggle to attract substantial numbers of candidates – with an unusually high number of unions reporting single candidate or even no candidate positions at close of noms.

If you assume that a prolonged student anxiety crisis is impacting the student body at large, it’s a reasonable assumption that “putting yourself out there” – something that previous research has suggested is a particular issue for women – will be feeding through to SU elections.

And our provisional tally suggests that while a fairly normal number of incumbent officers decided to re-stand, a record number of those restanding didn’t get back in.

We are a few weeks away from being able to put proper numbers on the above – there’s still some intel gathering to be done and we’d be grateful for SU participation in our survey – but we are fairly confident about the trend lines.

And one other trend that we’re confident is manifesting around the UK is a notable rise in the number of international PGT candidates and winners.

Size and shape

We’ve been talking on the main site for some time this year about the dramatic rise in the number of international PGT students now being recruited into UK higher education.

In some cases the change has been really very pronounced and quite rapid – with concerns raised about the infrastructure and capacity required to properly support the students being attracted to the UK.

What’s interesting about that is that previous increases in international students have not necessarily fed through into substantial electoral participation – at least not in terms of sabbatical candidates or sabbatical winners.

This wave feels different. A number of SUs are telling us that where pre-pandemic they might have struggled to attract a single international or PGT student to stand, now such students feature prominently on candidate lists, and in some cases dominate winner’s photos.

Given that much of the talk over the years has suggested that both international students and PGT students are somehow “hard to reach”, this is great news.

It should mean that SUs will become – necessarily if we look at the student numbers profiles of many student bodies – more internationally focussed and more focussed around PGT students and their needs.

Research tells us, for example, that international students are less likely to experience harassment and sexual misconduct as being against the rules and so are less likely to report. So having full time international sabbs whose programme length in any event mitigates against waiting around for a university to investigate and process an allegation will likely be a powerful set of stories when universities in England come to carry out their risk assessments on the issue.

And given what we know about international students and patterns of allegations of academic misconduct, issues relating to housing affordability and availability, and the often apparently discriminatory approaches to hardship funding, more sabbatical voices pressing for action on these issues is an exciting prospect.

In particular UK HE’s failure to properly address careers and employment support suitable for international students is about to get a sharp kick up the backside.

We do need to get the bottom of why many unions are reporting a more “rumbuncious” election period – with complaints about candidates up in many cases.

Elections are often a signal or symptom of wider conversations on campus – and having invested heavily in “good campus relations” work focussed on building “bridging” social capital between different groups of students in the past, in recent years the sector has tended to address different types of EDI issue focussed on single identities and groups. It will be important to persuade universities of the need to take deliberate steps to avoid conflict from flaring up and maximise the learning when groups with diverse values mix and interact.

On the complaints issue, there have been previous waves of increases in ethnic and social diversity in SU elections, that at one stage coincided with so many disqualifications that NUS developed guidance to ensure that racial bias wasn’t creeping into election rules and their application. If the anecdotes are a pattern, SUs should be more proactive and self-critical about understanding what has happened this time – and why.

In the context of forthcoming legislation in England offering protection for freedom of speech on campus, the need to differentiate properly between conduct and speech, and what can be legally restricted and what must be left for the electorate to resolve, has never been more important. Merely “applying the union’s values” may not be lawful, let along appropriate.

But what this all tells us about social capital and confidence is also especially interesting.

If you accept that most candidates and even winners tend to be drawn from what we might call “confidence pools”, the theory has gone that those with the highest levels of belonging – home domiciled undergrads – are bound to have dominated elections in the past.

So an early read of this year’s results suggests that economies of scale and “bonding” social capital within large international societies/communities are carrying more international/PGT students both to the starting line and the winner’s podium than ever before.

Revisiting assumptions

There are naturally some important things to think about from here.

First there’s supporting officers. For example where at Wonkhe we tend to run webinars on international students and postgraduate students over the summer – on the unspoken basis that the majority of officers are home domiciled undergrads – we’ll almost certainly need to be putting on some hours of intel on knowledge we might previously have taken for granted.

The same goes for experience too. If a higher proportion of international PGT students are being elected, that almost certainly means a higher proportion of winners that do not have substantial prior UK SU experience.

It will be more important than ever for SUs to design officer training, education and induction around the knowledge and skills that each officer has, rather than rolling out the standard programme with tweaks.

There will be some culture and structure clash – and not just in social terms. For example in the universities where the Education sabb is plonked on the Access and Participation working group, this might be time to revisit the “stick a sabb on it” culture that pervades the UK’s way of doing university committees given that bit of OfS regulation only really concerns home domiciled undergrads.

There’s nothing wrong with international students representing home students – the reverse has happened for years – but this might be a good opportunity to press home how daft it is that we ask sabbs (especially those with an Education portfolio) to spend quite so much time in committees in general rather than drawing on a broader range of student talent.

As we’ve noted before on the site, models around Europe suggest much wider distribution of such opportunities around far more student leaders.

And as well as all of that, some of the complexities that surround immigration and visas – especially for those whose academic year doesn’t match the traditional September to Summer cycle – will be new to many SUs and their universities’ international teams. Do get in touch if some of that is a posing a headache.

Building community and connection

Beyond the immediate questions of putting things in place to make the year ahead a success, one thing we do think that the trend lines indicate is an increasing set of questions that challenge the conception of community on campus.

The model is as follows. Universities and their student bodies are single communities, where students are invited to democratically resolve their competing interests through a large popularity contest each spring.

Most unions bolt on some extra positions, committees or structures to account for the fact that some students lack the social capital or confidence to succeed in a process like that – but the model itself dominates.

The students of X university are one big group, and they pick someone to lead work on Welfare, Education, Activities or whatever.

But the truth about most universities hasn’t really reflected that reality for a long time.

On the basis that democracy is as much about responsibilities towards other citizens as it is about rights – and learning about others’ needs and interests as much as it is about asserting one’s own – community cohesion theory would tell us that once you hit around 2,000 people, it’s hard to keep that sense of togetherness… together.

It’s why – with a whole range of notable exceptions – winners tend to come from campuses, courses and cohorts that “feel” dominant on campus.

And so having been in a situation where both international students and postgraduate students have tended to be shut out from full-time officer positions for years, it would be outrageous if universities’ or SUs’ response to that was to baulk at the collective view of the electorate on who should lead the study body.

Yet if it is the case that some subject areas or students with shared characteristics feel more belonging and community than others, it’s surely also the case that SUs should double down on building the confidence and social capital of those that need it most.

Not least because that kind of social capital and confidence – measurable though things like NSS Q21 last year, polling on loneliness, or engagement data in societies or volunteering opportunities – is what leads to better outcomes whichever students we’re talking about.

If Chinese students are more likely to stand than Pakistani students, or biology students are less likely to take part than geographers, it may well be time for an opportunities and voice strategy that targets community development work on students from particular countries or particular subjects.

But perhaps more importantly, even though the Education Act 1994 is in the way, assuming the student body is a single community is almost certainly a daft idea.

Structures that have as their base “students”, with specialised portfolio staff or officers to serve them, probably over generalise about who “students” are.

Most SUs have education sabbs, voice staff, commercial departments or activities officers serving the generality of students.

But why not have generalist staff and officers that specialise in particular groups of students?

If nursing students aren’t getting involved, it’s hard to see how a busy student activities coordinator or a busy VP Education might get around to meeting the needs of that cohort.

A generalist nursing students staffer or officer – drawing on specialist expertise from elsewhere in the union when developing that community’s voice and activities – may be able to make it all make sense for that cohort.

A model of full time specialists and part time Disabled students’ officers has not really moved the dial on getting reasonable adjustments sorted. Would generalist staff and officers that specialise in Disabled students have more success?

And if there’s a full time person that just does Sport or Advice for all kinds of students, why isn’t there a full time Indian students’ staff member that knows enough about voice, advocacy and activities to make student life successful for those students if that’s a group that has expanded so much?

Tip of the iceberg

What SU elections are in many ways is a representation of the wider culture of community on campus. They tell us who feels confident, who doesn’t, and who almost certainly needs our help.

The irony has always been that through osmosis and manifesto goals we have tended to prioritise the issues of those who need that help the least.

The old, dated assumptions – of PGT students not “wanting” to be engaged in student life, or international students being “assimilated” into the UK and then spreading the UK’s values around the world through “soft power” – all need urgent re-evaluation.

A community development model – that recognises that students are not members of a single community but multiple communities, based around subjects, ethnicities, domicile, interests and accommodation – is surely one that SUs should now embrace.

Bridging social capital – where we learn by spending time with and understanding those not like us – tends only to be possible once bonding social capital is built.

And student leadership structures that work with the grain of the student body – rather than asking it to bend to our assumptions about activity or function – are also surely now overdue.

Fifteen years of SUs being registered as charities, developing their boards and professionalising their services has seen real gains in making the train set better, for students. But maybe it’s now time to focus on and boost up the power of the passengers – by students.

A belonging strategy that spots that Chemistry students are lonely, that first in the family need friends and that Nigerian students need to network to find housing is probably what SUs are all about.

And structures that both amplify the concerns of multiple student communities, and cause those concerns to be addressed and rationalised with the concerns of others, is the prize on offer.

The international PGT surge – if it is indeed borne out in the final figures – represents an impossibly exciting time to be involved in SUs. It will be important to embrace it as the inspiration for new forms of representation, leadership, organising and delivery – rather than dangerous forms of nostalgia for officers that were somehow “easier” to train, understand or support.

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