This article is more than 4 years old

#SUFutures – Time to go back to the future

This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

A general election has been held and decisively won, Brexit is now a reality, and the Westminster government is poised to respond to both a major review of higher education funding and the framework it uses to judge teaching and student outcomes – with almost inevitable national knock-on impacts around the UK. “Generation Z” are now the mainstream generation on campus, and concerns about mental health and technology dominate the discourse.

Meanwhile SUs and universities across the country are in the middle of, or at least preparing to, refresh or renew their strategies to mark the turn of the decade. Several even described their “2020 visions” in previous documents – some of which have been realised, but many of which have inevitably fallen by the wayside.

Ten long years of hurt

A similar sense of major change accompanied the turn of the decade in 2010. A major review of higher education funding – set to accelerate the “market” for courses – was poised to be released, and an election was inevitable. To mark the period, NUS launched an ambitious programme of work designed to help SUs analyse and respond to the external environment. “A Wave of Change” and its companion “Surfing the Wave” appeared on the agenda of many an SU Trustee Board agenda (those bodies at the time in their infancy), and collective outputs helped to shape the strategies of SUs both as organisations and as representative bodies.

SUs, HE and NUS are in a different place now, and whilst at Wonkhe we can’t hope to match the ambition and scale of that work, we did want to do what we can to contribute to SUs strategic thinking and curate thought leadership and challenge from across our subscribers. #SUFutures aims to help SUs understand the landscape, set out key challenges facing student organisations and their members, and inspire questions and ideas from across our community of SU officers and staff.

Throughout February we’ll be publishing contributions from SUs that identify big strategic issues in the landscape – social change, student changes, political changes and so on. Contributors might argue that what SUs do now isn’t quite right in relation to that issue, and they might speculate about things that SUs ought to think about or do as a result. We think everybody involved in SUs – officers and staff, junior and senior, full and part time – has something to contribute, and if you’d like to pitch us a short piece or even just an idea, do get in touch.

Pestle and mortarboards

To kick of us off, we’ve got a starter – our stab at a classic PESTLE analysis. It’s a mnemonic which in its expanded form denotes P for Political, E for Economic, S for Social, T for Technological, L for Legal and E for Environmental, and the idea is to give a bird’s eye view of the whole environment that an organisation works in from different angles. It’s not designed to be comprehensive, it’s not tailored to local circumstances, we’re bound to have missed some things and we’re certain that it will be out of date almost as soon as we hit upload. We’re not even sure that PESTLE analyses (or indeed strategic plans in general) are the right thing to do – and next week we’ll look at “strategy” and ask if the traditional strategic plan is right or appropriate.

But we do hope that it helps boards and both student and staff leaders to start to think through the major issues that SUs and their members will face in the coming decade, and to start to identify what responses to those issues might be. We’re grateful to SU consultant Alan Roberts for his input and to NCVO whose annual “Road Ahead” work inspires some of the content. All of the issues highlighted present opportunities and challenges, and we hope that officers, trustees and staff can benefit from using the analysis to explore the implications of these issues for their organisations when planning for the short and medium term. It’s worth noting that this is only a starting point. There will be plenty of other issues and questions to consider that are more relevant to what your organisation does and the context in which it operates.

One thing that we are clear on – since 2010 student representation and policy work has become more complex and has seen investment (at all levels of staffing teams) from SUs. The traditional strategic plan – both in universities and their SUs – tends to focus on organisations, and in unions the student experience is often something where policy work or influencing actions are determined annually by officers and priorities. Actively responding to democratic input from student leaders and structures is crucial in democratic environments. But some of the student movement’s responses to the long term challenges facing students – like housing, university funding, attainment gaps and mental health – have all arguably suffered from a lack of long term strategic thinking and planning.

We hope the #SUFutures work reflects our central view – that the issues facing SUs’ members are too complex, “wicked” and long term to leave to manifestos and annual officer away days – they require officer and staff collaboration, SU collaboration, external input, assertive institutional partnerships, distributed leadership and plenty of creativity in a sector that loves instead to copy and steal. The long term development of SUs has always depended on creativity, collaboration and bravery from today’s today’s student leaders as a way to “pay forward” strong organisations for the future, and however “choppy” the “waves of change” are today, we’re certain that that tradition can and will continue.

We’ll compile links here as we publish them.

7th February 2020

Coming in February – Is the course rep dead? How should SUs relate to regulators? Why are we writing a strategy? Is it time to rethink how SUs are funded? How should SUs campaign in the future? And your ideas – do pitch us a piece now.

And 10 links from the archives:

  1. HEPI: David versus Goliath: The past, present and future of students’ unions in the UK from Jim dickinson and SU historian Mike Day
  2. As well as objects, students should be users of data too says Liz Austen
  3. Are we setting sabbs up to fail? asks Middlesex SU Trustee Phil Pilkington
  4. I’m so disappointed in you: handling SU officers speaking their truth to power says Bath SU’s Eve Alcock
  5. Election turnout as a KPI- relevant or misguided? asks former Nottingham SU staffer Ollie Kasper
  6. The Values Crossroads from former NUS and Leeds University Union staffer James Robertson
  7. Who’s really pulling the strings? asks Beds SU CEO Mark McCormack
  8. NUS: A wave of change – the strategic landscape for SUs in 2010
  9. Let’s play fantasy students’ union says Alan Roberts
  10. Wonkhe’s Wicked Problems season

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