What did SUs learn from the Pandemic: Part 2

Brendan McCarthy is Student Focus and Advice Manager at University of Portsmouth Students' Union


Becky Thomson is Union President of Christ Church Students Union


Christina Kennedy is Deputy Chief Executive at Arts SU


Annie Willingham is SU President and last year’s Education Officer at the SU, University of Bath


Paul Newton is Chief Executive at University of Sussex Students' Union

It’s not over yet – but as we gear up for the new academic year, what did we learn from the pandemic?

We asked staff and officers from SUs across the UK to share reflections and learning from sixteen months of tea-time press conferences, chaotic lockdowns, remote engagement and unhelpful guidance to see what we might learn for the future. Part 1 and Part 3 are online too.

7. When we talk about the issues they care about, they come

Brendan McCarthy, University of Portsmouth Students’ Union

We learned some important things about advice delivery. We adapted by offering face to face video calls, and whilst most students prefer to chat on the phone this has been useful. It is something we will continue to do post pandemic. As a result there was little disruption to the service despite us working remotely for most of the past 14 months.

When it comes to solving and preventing problems students face through student representation, the pandemic has meant we have had greater access to senior staff – and in some parts of the university, our officers have been able to link up with key staff on messaging services which means responses have been quicker.

We’re pleased that we were able to train just over 300 reps across 2 online course rep conferences. Despite concerns around digital fatigue, the engagement was far stronger compared to when we used to do it in-person. Drop off during the event was down to a handful of students, whereas in previous years the last sessions and the closing plenary had less than 50% of those who were at the event at the beginning of the day. We will definitely look to offer an online version this year as well as a physical event.

Oh – and the best communication channel and our highest engagement took place with our weekly instagram live events. These were hosted by a different officer each week and senior UoP staff were invited to some events to talk about particular issues. This included things that students care about and want to talk about – discussions around mental health, online learning, graduation and return to campus. Pre-submitted questions and direct Q&A during the event took place. Our highest turnout was 1,530 with about 200-300 watching live. A further 5 events engaged over a 1k students.

8. Collaboration was key to delivering for students

Becky Thomson, Canterbury Christ Church University SU

The pandemic has affected students more than most – and sabbatical officers bore the brunt of the challenges and uncertainty in a time when their own lives were also up in the air.

Universities were fighting fires constantly, some of which were a direct impact of COVID and outside of their control (rent challenges and no-detriment policies), and others were very within their control (for us, that included pre-existing issues being exacerbated by the pandemic like issues with student registration caused by IT system delays, and pandemic decisions like moving to virtual-only graduation ceremonies).

As the SU it was our job to hold our university to account for the issues which arose, however, the positioning of the SU as partners and critical friends made us best placed to give constructive criticism and secure better outcomes for students by working in close partnership. Although there were incidents of poor communication with the students and questionable judgement, one thing I witnessed consistently over the pandemic was their success when they committed to collaborative working.

Some teams really pulled together to achieve incredible things for students – like distributing OfS hardship grant funding to students in desperate need and rent relief for university accommodation. The kind of collaboration and reaching across silos that was often seen in pockets in universities during the pandemic should continue and spread.

9. Working ourselves to Zoom exhaustion does no one any favours

Christina Kennedy, Arts SU

For us, academic representation and democratic processes gained much more traction from a more diverse range of students online and appear to have been a lot more accessible than traipsing between 13 different sites spread out across the whole of London. Staff cannot be expected to work at 100% with all the distractions of life going on in their work/living spaces and we just need to give ourselves a break sometimes as working yourself to Zoom exhaustion does no one any favours!

It turns out that “Zoom fatigue” isn’t just for staff, students get it too – so trying to replicate everything we do in-person in an online space quickly becomes old for both students and the staff who are trying to remain motivated, whilst fewer people turn up to each online event.

Sometimes it is okay to say “we’re not the expert” and direct students to other organisations’ materials and events too.

Our students have always been more politically active than other students’ unions, but this has significantly increased during the pandemic as students who wouldn’t ordinarily have the time, space or resource to take part in campaigning activities could now do so from home. The nature of campaigning has also changed with a shift from focusing on community issues to a focus on academic content and delivery.

As an institution that runs primarily practical courses, we can’t just move a ceramics course online and install a £20,000 kiln in students’ bedrooms. Things also grew increasingly frustrating for student officers who couldn’t just rock up to an office and knock on someone’s door to get an answer – meaning that some responses took even longer than pre-pandemic!

We know that students are crying out for personal connections, the opportunity to form friendships and bonds that have been stolen from them over the past 16 months – and universities often agree the students’ union is best placed to deliver this activity so the fight continues to ensure institutions are appropriately funding unions to deliver life-changing opportunities for students.

10. Listen to the feedback, act on it, and things will go well

Annie Willingham, University of Bath

At Bath, we worked hard to ensure the student voice was heard during the pandemic. At a time of crisis, senior management within the university appreciated our ability to seek timely student insight in all areas of their experience. The university listened to student feedback, made quick decisions and ensured appropriate communications so that students were kept updated on how their feedback had been acted upon. The university also supported us to deliver a series of activities on campus and later online. By collaborating and listening to each other we ensured students were supported in all areas of the student experience during this very difficult time.

The pandemic highlighted the vital role we play in rapidly gathering feedback, representing students, and amplifying students’ concerns in a manageable way for universities to digest and be able to act upon accordingly. During the initial time of crisis there was not time to be setting up new university initiatives to gather students’ feedback. University SMTs needed to work collaboratively and trust with students’ unions to mitigate the effects of the pandemic as much as possible, and heavily relied on these pre-existing links that SUs had. Student officers’ voices were crucial in the virtual room where decisions were being made and universities need to trust the elected representatives.

Without this collaborative approach, we would fundamentally not have seen such large decisions successfully being made whilst considering the differing impact decisions had on students.

11. Rebuilding assertive relationships will be important as we come out of the crisis

Paul Newton, University of Sussex Students’ Union

An important reflection for me is that within the SU, the managers, sabbatical trustees and external trustees often have had very different attitudes to risk – and one thing that I will want to look into in the future is agreeing an organisational “appetite for risk” in different areas.

It’s also been the case that when we are all working from home every single encounter has to be scheduled – this is a) highly demanding on time and energy, and b) often means crucial interactions that happen by chance don’t happen. It can lead to issues being blown out of proportion very quickly, and we will need to make sure that we find ways to balance the restrictions to this kind of informal communication with the flexibility that online delivery has started to offer staff, officers and student leaders.

And in times of crisis perhaps we all tend to make decisions in isolation and do not react well to criticism – something that’s been true both in universities and SUs. Rebuilding assertive relationships will be important as we come out of the crisis.

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