The powerful question every university meeting needs to answer

Take a moment to imagine the common full time officer scenario: 21 and fresh-faced, straight out of university into their first “real job”.

They’re sitting in a meeting with highly experienced, knowledgeable and well-connected senior university staff, knowing they are there as the sole ‘“token” student voice. It’s pretty intimidating, no training can prepare you for it, and it’s particularly disheartening when one quick read of the room says the decision has already been made without you.

I have the power

The biggest lesson I’ve learned in my 6 months as a student officer so far comes in the form of managing relationships and the art of persuasion. This comes from a particularly enlightening conversation with one of the pro-vice chancellors at my university. This is where I was helped to realise, beyond my surface issue, what the root of the problem I was facing was – I was feeling powerless for not being treated as an equal.

I really related to a previous Wonkhe article on speaking truth to power – I myself was ticked off for supposedly stepping out of line when it came to frustratedly speaking out against what the university wanted. SUs, and particularly officers, are there to make a difference to student life and hitting this metaphorical wall of university compliance, or being afraid of it, can defeat the very purpose of the organisation.

But following that conversation with that pro-VC, I now understand the power of posing one simple question: “What do you think students would feel if they knew what we are talking about right now?”

This is all about refocusing and giving the power back to students. Yes, life as an SU is about partnership with your university, but assertive partnership is about standing up for yourself and your rights when you need to – which I feel sometimes we forget. Officers are here so fleetingly that the time it takes to learn that you can stand your ground (and when you should) often comes too late.

See/saw

The power imbalance can be significant in major meetings, but using questions like that brings the focus back onto students. University business can be shrouded in the words “confidential” or “restricted”, and I respect the need for this – but when it’s not (and wrapped up all too conveniently in minutes and bureaucracy), it’s up to officers to see the wood from the trees and shout it from the rooftop. The problem lies where many are too afraid to do so.

It can be a very hard internal battle for an officer weighing up what’s worth pushing the nuclear “go public” campaign button for. After all, you don’t want to damage your relationship with the university, and harm its reputation beyond that which is in the student interest. I’m not sure what the factors are that necessitate crossing the line, but I am always hearing new perspectives as to what might work. Being able to “out” a university and hold it to account on its failings like this is incredibly powerful, and takes SUs back to the heart of what they were made for. Universities care about their reputation. That hinges on student experience, and putting the fight back into unions and their officers might just be the nudge a complacent uni needs to change.

On the other side of the line, I’ve learned over time the full range of options there are for influencing decisions beyond just speaking out. You have to network and influence well beyond that actual room so decisions are made with you, balancing the use of straight statistics, personal stories and picking your battles (I’ve learnt this the hard way).

Rabbit in a hat

But that question I mentioned is also a great tool to have up your sleeve in meetings. This pressure can stop a conversation in its tracks and I have used it to great effect in the past. After staying silent for almost a full 30 minutes while people talked at me about the student experience (if you went to a different university 30 years ago and do actually know better than I do, please be my guest), I finally halted the entire discussion by bringing it back to what we were all here for.

I was blunt, but by pointing out how far the project had drifted from the supposed key stakeholder of students, the stunned silence and quiet “she’s right you know” allowed everyone to come back together and work positively in student interest. This confirmed to me the importance of not disrespecting the role of a sabbatical officer, whether this is through feeling you can’t change anything or feeling your presence isn’t respected as equal. The bottom line is: if you don’t respect the privileged position you stand in representing, you can guarantee the people around you won’t either.

I’m no closer to understanding what exactly an officer does, and only now am I realising just how hard it can be when there is no rule book in the first place. My time is already running out. What I have realised though is that it’s about creating a legacy beyond my term, which I have set out to do. If there’s one thing I want all officers to learn is that too often they are the only student in the room, and as a result, we all have a responsibility to remember this shouldn’t be a barrier to making sure the student voice is always heard.

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