If you are, or have ever been, an SU officer, I would bet a good chunk of money that at some point during your time in office you felt you were “not doing enough”.
You may worry students will complain that a policy change you’ve spent weeks persuading the uni to go for is “not enough”.
You may be scared that a stream of angry tweets will claim you hate students.
You might fear people will think because they don’t see those million meetings you go to that you don’t do any work which, given the dark circles that have probably firmly settled under your eyes, we all know isn’t true.
Something has shifted over the past few years when it comes to student expectations. Students, rightly or wrongly, now expect more from the institutions they are part of. This ranges from the way they are taught, the facilities they use and perhaps most prominently in recent years, the demand for universities to have clear social justice strategies. Students want to see their social values reflected in the universities they attend.
On its own, this concept is pretty unproblematic – higher education providers have responsibility to “do good” where possible and reflect the diverse student bodies they represent. But the flipside is the growing pressure on student leaders from some quarters to be louder, angrier and more radical in the way they improve the student experience.
Ironically, a partial explanation comes from the higher fees students are paying for university and the concept of students having “consumer rights”, as the relationship between students and universities is deemed a transactional one.
Similarly, the growth in popularity of social justice movements amongst student populations in the past couple of years is huge. As a result, students are bound to expect a certain standard of activism or at least interest in these things in the people representing them.
Students’ increased interest in social change has contributed towards creating a culture in which elected officers are expected to be paragons of social justice, a kind of all-knowing changemaker.
For example, if we look at election manifestos from the past few years, more and more are promising to make campuses fairer, more inclusive and “finally hold people in power to account”.
It’s true that traditionally students’ unions have been the focal points of student activism. For example, last month NUS celebrated its 100th birthday and declared that “daring to think radically” was always “the heart of the student movement”.
Yet this is about more than just wanting to keep SUs progressive. Something has shifted recently in the way that students seem to measure their SU officers’ success. Things have gotten nastier, more personal. Maybe it’s because 100 years ago people didn’t have twitter – so students couldn’t angry-tweet the people who represented them.
Whatever the reason, we have ended up creating unrealistic expectations of what a student leader “should” be. We expect someone who gives their undivided attention to all causes, fights against any injustices, who is radical in their actions and can really “hold the university to account”.
Going to the dark side
But there are downsides to these perceptions. It is true that getting things done for students does sometimes involve these things. But more often than not it involves a decent working relationship with the people that some expect you to be publicly fighting with.
That’s the worst part – the fear of being accused by the students you represent that a good working relationship with university senior management is somehow a betrayal of students’ interests.
This type of discourse is becoming all too common. Surely it makes sense that, where possible, student officers maintain a constructive and assertive relationship with those in university management teams?
Often, I’ve found it easier to push certain agendas with staff because they know and respect me, rather than using protest tactics like mass emails and petitions – which sometimes serve to anger staff. In turn, this has allowed me to get things done efficiently with the least disruption to students themselves.
Obviously this issue, like everything, is nuanced, and there will be cases where this isn’t always possible. Sometimes we need to scream, shout, protest and petition – but not all the time. And that’s totally fine too.
There are students – and some other SU officers – that would argue that I’ve therefore been a bad officer, that I’ve betrayed student interests or that I haven’t have the progressively woke values I proudly claimed to have during the elections – because I haven’t managed to be loudest voice for every issue a student may have.
But isn’t that a little messed up? Isn’t it just a bit silly that we have created a culture in which student leaders feel like they are never doing enough, simply because they cannot champion every cause, campaign or issue as aggressively as possible?
Maybe it’s true that if we’re going to be assertive student reps, we should more often than not be clear to students about the expectations we have of universities and their managers. Maybe it’s also true that if we choose influencing over campaigning, we have to find a way to do that in public rather than “behind closed doors” if we want to retain the trust of students. And maybe we can and should find more ways to involve more students in institution-level representation, putting less pressure on the single-point-of-success (or failure) sabbatical.
But whatever the nuances, let’s be clear – just because officers aren’t running a campaign on every issue that arises over the course of their term, it doesn’t mean they aren’t doing a good job. And that almost certainly means that we need to change the way that expectations among students are created about the wins officers can have and the way that they will secure them.
One response to “What do we expect of SU officers?”
Great article and thought piece Liv, the expectations and pressure on officers has begun to reach a crisis point. Yet, I have seen year in, year out, officers work so hard and achieve huge wins for students using ‘influencing’ tactics you speak of. Though I know some SUs don’t have the effective relationship with their institutions that Newcastle has developed – so much can be achieved when they do. It can be a fine balancing act of not getting, or appearing, ‘too close’. Looking forward to reading more of your insights for WonkHE