What happens when sabbs become university staff?

Nick Smith is a consultant specializing in governance

Staff retention everywhere is an issue. Often the solutions include things like adding in flexibility to work patterns and giving responsibility alongside a framework of support.

In university governing bodies and senior committees we want folks who have settled and understood the processes we have, ones who can see through our strategies and projects.

But legally hardwired into our structures is a requirement to change some of the most senior leaders on our campus at least every two years.

We train and support them, put them into leadership positions and then say goodbye as they leave their SU officer roles.

The good news, and something which often surprises SU representatives at the start of their journey, is that these officers find a natural place in the university side of the partnership.

Significant proportions of university teams were once involved in their SUs, far more than the exaggerated parliamentary pipeline.

This year we’re following four individuals as they make the transition from SU Officer to university staff member to get their views on how it feels to have such a big change – all while still working in the sector they’ve got to know.

New beginnings

Debayen Dey (Deb) was academic officer at York University Students’ Union last year and is now an E-learning support officer for the university.

Although enthusiastic, he is aware of the learning curve he faces, especially for technical aspects:

In my previous role I was a generalist but now I need to keep up with the latest software changes and adapting to the rapidly changing environment may be a challenge for my patience.

Deb also had to leave his previous role early (he had been re-elected):

The CEO, other officers and student engagement Team were very supportive because they knew why the role was so good and why I was leaving and helped me work through the issues. One of the pushes for me was that I’m an international student and I was conscious of the need for VISA sponsorship but it was difficult to leave the SU early. If the VISA wasn’t an issue I am more likely to have stayed as an officer.

At University of the Arts London, Ellie Shorts’ concerns were more about perceptions:

Going into this role I struggled with imposter syndrome slightly, I was quite worried that I wasn’t going to be prepared or the right experience to be the disability advisor. That’s turned out not to be the case but was still a concern.

Many sabbatical officers will take place early in someone’s learning journey, typically after an undergraduate or masters role, and so the next immediate step is not usually into academia.

For Stella Ibifunmilola however she is moving from being education officer of Manchester Metropolitan Students’ Union into role as a lecturer:

Moving on to work at the university is motivating, as I will continue to work within the University to promote positive student experiences.

We’ll hear more from Stella later in the series as she hasn’t taken up her role yet and is currently finishing her thesis.

Not everyone has stayed in their home institution however. Oscar Minto is about to undertake a masters in law but has spent the summer working as student experience officer for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He also worries about applying his knowledge:

There’s a level of imposter syndrome – especially as a lot of my experiences are from being education at the University of Reading and my new employer is based in London. Do I know enough about students to understand challenges that postgraduate London-based medicine-focused students face? Another worry is that because I look quite young will people assume I don’t know what I’m talking about when I do have experience and expertise?

Turn to face the strange

The students’ union officer role is a very odd one with a huge amount of autonomy. The more formal requirements of the new positions have been a challenge for some as Deb notes.

I experienced a significant transition when I joined the University as an employee. Coming from a role as a sabbatical officer where I actively engaged in numerous meetings, interacted with teaching and learning staff, and had a dynamic schedule addressing student concerns and needs, my new 9-to-5 job initially felt more constrained. As a sabbatical officer, I had the flexibility to impact various aspects of the university for student benefit, while in my current role, I have a fixed location, set hours, and a structured routine, which initially felt more limiting.

As Oscar has changed institutions, his experiences are more straightforward:

My old SU was happy that I had got the opportunity and supportive of the fact that I would continue working to better the student experience elsewhere. LSHTM does not have an SU, but does have an active SRC. They were very happy to have somebody who they could directly talk to and who understood their experiences. I have spent a bit of my time making sure their voices are heard and finding them free hoodies which has helped!

Many officers move into student engagement positions their experience can be directly applied:

Perhaps its just because of my role, however, I get a lot of face-time with a lot of different deans, heads of departments and directors.

It helps that my boss is new to his role and a former sabbatical officer. He was very happy to introduce me to lots of people when I first began working which meant that I was able to make progress very quickly. I think owing to his knowledge of how tough sabbatical officer roles can be, he was happy to fast-track me in a sense. We did what was mandatory with regard to training, but a lot of the focus has been straight to the task – learning as I go.

We don’t need no education

3 out of 4 of them were education or academic sabbaticals. As an Education Officer there’s a closeness to university staff so it’s obvious that those sabbs might move over to a role that they’ve seen close up:

One colleague in the university used to ask me how the Stockholm Syndrome was going… It also applies to SU staff members who have worked closely with specific teams so not just an officer phenomenon. But EDI is a space that it also happens I think.

While Ellie held the position of Union Affairs at the SU, she had been part time disabled students’ officer before that.

My experience as a disabled student and sabbatical officer really prepared me for this role. When I started as a sabbatical officer, I had very little relevant experience and had a lot to learn very quickly. I think that has really benefited me going into this role.

Even if you aren’t higher up in the university hierarchy as a staff member, the connections made can surprise people as Deb found out at York:

Every knows me! My team lead was surprised at the connections I had. Charlie the VC came up to me while I was having coffee and some of my peers were quite shocked that he was chatting to me!

We’ll be back in touch with our interviewees throughout the year.

Leave a Reply