What do we even mean by “officer support”?

Gareth Hughes is Chief Executive at Durham SU


Steve Coole is a consultant working in SUs

Student leaders have high expectations of themselves – and feel the weight of responsibility as a role model and representative of thousands of students, as a member of university decision-making bodies, and as an SU colleague and trustee.

They bring so much talent and experience from their first day – but often rely on the professional support of SU staff to make the most of what they bring, and to find meaning in their unique situation.

In our view, however, we’re doing a real disservice to ourselves as professionals – and most importantly to student leaders – by describing what we offer and what they need as “support” without further context.

One of the more baffling things about students’ unions, for example, is the sheer volume of regulations we put in front of someone spending a tenner, booking a room, or writing a “controversial” social media post compared with the absolute nonchalance we have to people experimenting with a student leader’s self-esteem when they call it “support”. Staff can do almost anything with – or to – a new officer, as long as call it “support”.

The premise of our session at the Membership Services Conference was that we can do better.

It’s definitional

In classic HE speak, we need to define our terms. Sometimes “support” is mentoring, management, coaching, counselling, chaplaincy, teaching or training. We’d all recognise that each of these things is subtly different from the others, even though they’re all unregulated “helping’ professions”.

But we suspect that none of us would dare to call ourselves a “Chaplain” or a “Counsellor” without extensive development and a professional framework – so why are we so free and easy with the term “coach” or “mentor”’?

We shouldn’t be. Ethical and effective “support” centres the “supported” not the “supporter” – the student leader is the most important part of the partnership. If we don’t name what we’re doing professionally, we can’t develop in that profession and we can’t be accountable for our practice.

That feels unethical, and unsustainable, in a sector built on the foundational principle that learners have rights. It means that we probably need to think about “supporting” student leaders more critically, and start being honest about what it takes to be good at managing, coaching, and mentoring. For us, the starting point is that it takes more than honest intent.

Going external

Durham SU has worked with Coole Insight for the past few years. For us, this wasn’t because we aren’t good at coaching – we’ve really invested in our capabilities here, and we’re passionate about making it professional – but we had two of our of senior team on maternity leave at the same time and we needed help. There’s lots of different good reasons to work with a partner when you need it.

The data collected and presented by Coole Insight provides understanding into a purposeful personal coaching programme that centres the interests of the coachee, over the needs of the organisation. The approach is quite intentionally on the best outcomes for the person, not only their effectiveness in role. The approach focusses on:

  • Developing emotional intelligence and personal effectiveness – the ability to own, use, and understand the impact of their skills, actions and behaviours in a students’ union setting.
  • Providing a safe confidential space without judgment, for officers to reflect and share their experiences with students’ union experts who can in return provide advice, coaching, and scenario planning for future decisions and actions.
  • Translating their experience, learning and skills into tangible examples for future job interviews, and different workplaces.

Feedback shows that officers value regular, deep, reflective time, where the most important thing on the agenda is them, not the firm. It leads to good reflections on wellbeing and effectiveness overall, and a strong propensity to participate in students’ unions and in the voluntary sector in the future.

Sour times ahead

SUs, in the near-certain lean times coming up, won’t want to reduce investment in the many – our students – and the services they use, and what it takes to make sure their priorities are represented to our institutions.

But there is, always, a challenge in identifying and investing in the few – our officers – so they can lead our organisations. We think this is probably an area of our work where we’ve been relying on officer goodwill and an appreciation of honest intent for a long time, and our profession must now rise to meet legitimate expectations of high quality.

For those students’ unions who can resource this work, it would be unethical, and ineffective, to do otherwise.

The procurement of shared services, even in areas which we would have considered impossible to outsource a few years ago, might be the best option to ensure that our student leaders get the “support” they need, if we’re honestly unable to do it as well as they deserve.

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