This article is more than 1 year old

University strategic reviews are an opportunity for SU to shape their own future

This article is more than 1 year old

Mary McHarg is the Activities & Engagement Officer at Students' Union UCL

In January 2021, UCL appointed a new Provost, by the end of that year a consultation had opened on UCL’s new strategic plan, and by January 2023, a new strategic plan had launched.

This strategic plan was different from the plans that had come before, contained within was a commitment to invest in the students’ union through an ambitious spin-off strategy for student life. The Student Life strategy – an institution-wide plan, delivered by us – is set to transform the student experience at UCL.

Works both ways

Let’s go back a couple of steps. Over the past few years, we’ve upped our efforts to proactively develop a strong partnership with our university. We know we’re more influential in the room than outside it, but being a good partner is much more than that. Partnerships need to work both ways.

Both parties need to trust each other and, considering the power imbalance that exists between universities and SUs, both parties should aim to find a shared vision to tackle the big problems.

That approach was particularly important during Covid where everything was changing every day. Policies that would usually take months or longer to pass through complicated committee structures sailed through emergency working groups in weeks, or even days. We needed to be inside the room, influencing.

Sabbs at the time made enormous efforts to work collaboratively with university senior leaders. They gave advice, put their necks on the line, helped frame university messages, and ultimately achieved some hugely positive outcomes for students including self-certified ECs and no detriment policies.

Almost a year into Covid, in January 2021, the leadership at UCL changed with the arrival of a new Provost, shortly followed by a new top team. The principles established during the first part of the pandemic continued, Sabbs had been on the recruitment panel for the new Provost and were now in the room and able to influence the changes about to happen.

We wanted to position ourselves as the voice of students (that positioning amongst university colleagues isn’t a given and shouldn’t be assumed). We went out and asked students what should be on the new Provost’s to do list, what things he should tackle to make the lives of students better.

This resulted in 10 priorities which framed our early conversations. It set the tone for a collaborative partnership which furthered students’ interests, it also provided transparency and accountability for our members. It showed we could put our finger on what students wanted, and then engage in getting things done in a positive way.

A new plan

A year later, in early 2022, we’d concluded our own strategic review. This had given us the chance to ask our members what our organisational priorities should be as well as go out and gather feedback from across our university community.

We published our new plan which contained a series of ‘UCL Asks’ under each theme, making clear where we needed further support to achieve our aims. There are 25 asks in total, and these felt reasonable and realistic from the conversations we’d been having during the consultation. These asks have framed our conversations and influencing work since. The asks outlined in our “Amazing Experience” theme set the framework for the Student Life strategy.

Having a clear set of aims meant we could contribute effectively to UCL’s strategic plan, the development of which ran throughout 2022. Through a series of consultation papers, UCL outlined its thinking on big topics like vision and values, size and shape, investment, and grand challenges.

Each time a paper was published we went out and collected student feedback, and crucially feedback from those directly impacted by the topic – our student leaders, reps, and community partners. We encouraged students to submit responses directly, and we collated wider student feedback to submit a series of Union responses.

Last summer, as UCL’s strategy was starting to take shape, we were asked by the Provost to work with the university’s SMT to further expand our aims for transforming student life. This led to the first iteration of a strategy for Student Life.

The strategy was referenced in subsequent drafts and consultations of UCL’s overall plan, enabling us to go out and garner more support and contributions from across the institution. Then in December 2022 it was adopted as a Supporting Strategy of UCL’s long-term vision.

This was a major win for students – after effectively communicating the issues students were facing, offering solutions to problems, and working constructively in partnership with dozens of senior staff across UCL, the Student Life strategy was launched and with it a multi-million pound investment into the Union.

Because of the huge amount of work that had come before, we didn’t need to run additional consultations to create the Student Life strategy. The research and knowledge already existed. We knew what we needed to do, and the university trusted us as the experts on student life to define it.

As a Sabbatical Officer during this time, I made sure our student groups and student officers steered overall the direction and sense checked the priorities.

Transforming students’ experiences

By the end of the Student Life strategy the additional funding will have nearly increased our block grant by 50% – for the first time we have a fully-funded framework for the kind of growth that will transform students’ experiences at our university. This is an investment in our arts and sports programmes, in embedding volunteerism into our institutional culture, in properly leveraging the enormous power of our diversity through effective inter-cultural engagement, and in making the most of our campus and our place in central London.

Like a true partnership, we’re jointly accountable with the university for the delivery of this strategy. But beyond the KPIs and targets is the tacit implication that co and extra-curricular engagement is endorsed from top to bottom, right across our institution. Learning to sing at UCL is endorsed.

Dedicating time to run a fashion show is endorsed. It no longer needs to feel rebellious to do the extra stuff on the side, to secretly spend your time, maybe lots of your time, running a society. The value add of extra and co-curricular engagement has been recognised. The value add on students’ wellbeing, sense of belonging, and sense of self will be immense.

These opportunities to shift the cultural dial come around every few years. Can the Student Life strategy help shape the new and emerging narrative for UCL? We believe so. Work is underway to make it happen.

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