What happens when the SU is… just you?

Duncan Abrahart is President at Leeds Conservatoire SU

When the sector talks about students’ unions, most will imagine big buildings, teams of officers, staffed departments and campaigns on both local and national issues.

But for student leaders in small SUs there is a very different experience. I’m the SU President at a small/specialist institution – and I am the sole sabbatical officer.

When I started there was no meaningful induction, no manual, no guide on what to do or how to do it. Yet the responsibilities – and expectations – of larger students’ unions still all seem to fall on us.

Occasional chats with others in my position in the sector have made me realise quite how different and difficult these situations can be.

So I set out to find how other small SUs Sabbs experiences mirror, or are different to, my own – and share any wisdom gained with my own institution.

I reached out to as many small SU as I could – those with less than 6,000 HE students – to find out about working hours, governance and structures, training, volunteer management and other experiences.

Well oiled machines

Most of those I spoke to only had one lead sabbatical officer, and occasionally a staff member – sometimes part-time, sometimes full-time.

The vast majority of my colleagues were contracted for 35 hours a week – but in all instances there were more hours expected beyond this.

We’re expected to sit on most, if not all university committees – as the only student representative present, alongside planning and organising any student facing events.

The fewer staff and officers, the worse the overtime got. One told me that they had to work 90 hours a week for 3 consecutive weeks – and the 7am-9pm work day was not uncommon.

Both students and the institution seemed to offload tasks onto the sabbatical officer.

There were countless examples of asking for last minute student opinions at boards, and submitting pages of documents with a 1-2 day turnaround – often without explanation of what those documents were about.

One President said:

…I was given 200 pages of reports to comment on, at 6pm for a meeting the next day at 9am. I had no idea what these papers were on, and had to research and learn the topic as well.

Another had worked…

…a 19 hour work day, and I was told to come in for 9am the next morning. Because that’s the hours the staff keep.

Most had some form of toil system, but how this was used varied wildly – from institution staff insisting they strictly claim all toil back, to “the SU can’t access HR so we can’t log or claim toil.”

One SU officer said:

I have over 200 hours of toil i couldn’t claim back yet, without dropping one of my responsibilities.

This also ate into their allotted times for breaks during work hours:

I only had 7 lunch breaks between September and December, because I had so much to do.

Many of the responsibilities will be familiar – meetings (booth institution and SU), events and projects. But some of the expectations I’ve been told about were bizarre.

Some were expected to also manage a bar, its staff, and its work rotas – even when it wasn’t an SU-owned owned bar:

I am expected to mop up the bar floor every evening so it could be used as study space the next day.

Some seemed to be mistaken for cleaning staff:

I had to hoover all the floors in the SU space once a week.

I’ve heard stories of officers expected to be counsellors, nurses, accountants, cleaners, caseworkers, investigators and even dog walkers. And in one especially weird situation:

I’m expected to re-oil the furniture over the summer.

What’s a union?

Gouvernance was a concern for all the SUs – some of which is summarised neatly in this joint GuildHE and NUS report. But in my conversations 3 key issues kept arising – issues that became more common the fewer students the institution had.

Are we a charity? Some SUs didn’t know if they were charities, or to what degree charity law applied to them, often being told they were “a department of the institution” rather than a separate entity. This generally reduced power for the SU, and in some cases prevented them from developing further. “All our gouvernance has to go via the providers boards before changes can be approved, often they have more say on it than I do.”

No memorandum of understanding In many cases nobody was sure where the SU and provider shared policies and resources. That often led to major HR issues, and a denial of responsibilities – “it felt like they had control – but if we had a problem they’d also wash their hands of it”. There is a danger of serious legal action when nobody can confirm who is responsible for what. A few sabbs were paying their own salary into the bank.

No trustees Whilst the union may have a lead officer or staff, there was barely anything else. This prevents the SU from seeking outside guidance and direction, but also leaves them without knowledge or accountability when an issue arises. The SUs that did have trustees sang nothing but praises for the benefits they brought – one saying “I think our trustee boards are quite magnificent”.

With the implementation of freedom of speech legislation on the way, it becomes more and more apparent how dangerous this can all be. A new SU officer may find themselves navigating a legal minefield without any help, or understanding this was ever part of the job. As a minimum, these three aspects should help with mitigations on this front.

Undercover boss

Where staffing was low, or non-existent, the lone full-time officers became the de facto head of the SU, gradually absorbing all the responsibilities that came with it.

It is expected that most SUs will have some involvement with student rep systems. Some I spoke to had the SU handling all student representation, including programme level rep appointment, management, training and support – and in some cases even managing and arranging meetings for 150 student representatives.

The most burdensome part was quite how many meetings and committees these officers sit on:

I’m considered to be the only student rep, so I spent most of my time in committees and reading papers.

There were a lot of “fly on the wall” experiences, where the sabb felt they had nothing that the SU could actively comment on, or generally lacked the training to comment effectively – and this was doubly so when an officer was called in at the last minute:

I only knew what the papers meant because I’d read a Wonkhe article the day before.

The reliance on one person to “tick the box” and provide student voice can then result in real negativity if an officer’s life gets in the way:

One time I got really rude remarks after saying I couldn’t attend a meeting as I had booked a social event several months in advance.

I myself was actively reading committee papers whilst also being on jury service. There is a great pressure when no other students are present – that being absent may lead to something being approved that was against the students’ interest. There is a great risk if the Sabb ever developed a prolonged health issue, or a family emergency. When that happens there is no student voice.

Have they ever bothered asking a single student what they think, instead of just me?

There were a lot of fears about being able to confront institutional staff when there was a disagreement – a fear that “It may damage my reputation in my dream profession”, or “I’m worried I might break the relationship between the SU and departments”.

Some of this stemmed from not knowing if it was appropriate to comment at boards, or an unfamiliarity of how the board process works.

Some institutions wanted to help their officers with breakdowns of the work, and make the meetings less intense – but many officers were unsure if it was wise to accept their advice as it may prevent them from being impartial.


But probably the most harrowing aspect was hearing about misconduct.

Many of the officers I spoke to are pretty much the only person that students disclose to – on the basis that they know the SU to be independent. Yet in the sorts of institutions I spoke to, these are also students who are the least likely to then take a complaint forward.

These officers frequently “carry the weight” of disclosures of harassment and assault from multiple staff and students – but obviously feel unable to breach confidentiality. And in some cases, they therefore act as bystanders to repeat offenders.

That would be bad enough – but in most cases they then also have to “be the student” that sits on student misconduct panels too – usually without training or support. That’s an obvious conflict of interest.

Sometimes it goes even further – some of the officers I spoke to were even asked to assist in gathering and then presenting evidence, being told in no uncertain terms that the quality of that affects the outcome.

Some didn’t know of the OIA’s existence, few had heard of OfS’ “statement of expectations”, and many who questioned these processes were simply told that “this is how it is here”.

Wonkhe has written about this on the site before, but in my view this is especially bad practice for small institutions.

Give us the tools, and we will finish the job

When asked about training, the majority said “we had a short handover/ 2 page document.” These typically covered a list of committees, key contacts and major events – but very rarely explained approaches to problems, lists of resources, or formally explaining how you may act.

There was pretty much no training on governance, charity law, or how to handle formal/academic complaints/appeals in these training sessions.

Today I have to put on my disability hat, tomorrow events!.

There was often a sense that the officer needed to become an expert on all of the fields. This led to full time research on some subject areas to assure they were best covered – most self-led learning, from scraps of blogs and or sector guidance documents.

There were training sessions provided by both NUS and GuildHE – but these often didn’t cover the sort of issues the SUs was facing.

There was a lot of “ask your board of trustees” about this, but we don’t have one.

There were team building exercises which made no sense to me – I’m in a team of two.

The main issue to getting quality training was cost – a lot of the training sessions are either expensive to enrol on, or cost a fortune in transport and accommodation.

But many didn’t know these opportunities were available to them:

I can’t find out what to look for when I don’t know what it is I’m looking for.

When asked about networking the response usually covered two camps, either “we don’t have time or the know how” or “speaking with other SU’s felt alienating”.

One said:

Nothing’s worse than listening to larger SU’s explain their problems. give me your problems, I’d love to have those problems instead.

In another example the officer felt like the outcast of a conference when:

…I mentioned a problem I had. the bigger SUs Sabbs jaws dropped with a – that really something you have to deal with?

This had led to many small SU’s opting to drop networking all together, as they could be focusing that time on the problems they have, rather than feel out of place. In many ways it echoed sentiments we might find in class divide culture.

Those who had attended conferences often felt so outcast or that the content didn’t scale to them, that they declined to go to any additional ones, equally missing out on the information those conferences offered.

I recently got to speak at Secret Life Of Students. This was an event I could only justify attending as I was invited as a guest speaker, with my expenses covered.

The conservatoires (small specialist music providers) have had a shared student network for many years, this proved invaluable – “I only really get to talk about my experiences with these SU’s as they understand the pressure and problems i’m experiencing” and “when i have any problems i don’t know how to solve, I ask my other small SUs”

Some of the SUs expressed relief when speaking with me, finally knowing they weren’t alone in their struggles, and by sharing some success stories, that it’s also possible for things to improve.

The SUs that had more staff available also generally had a more positive experience, with high praise and a close working team culture, but for most…

You’re on your own

When asked about their experiences, one theme kept coming up:

It’s lonely and isolating.

The nature of the job often meant there was little allowed to be shared outside of it – and despite expectations from each, they often felt very disconnected from both institution staff and students.

I don’t have time to work on any of my manifesto goals because i’m so busy reading paper work.

I had to explain in a board meeting I don’t have time to find out student opinion because I’m in all these board meetings.

These pressures were taking massive tolls on mental health, to the point of some family or medical intervention. Part of the expected overtime came from this need to perform to students and staff.

After one meeting i had to slam my laptop shut, so no one could see me cry, because i was so stressed.

I felt guilty booking time off for a funeral.

It wasn’t uncommon for an officer to have spent their own wages on the student experience, or work themselves until they were ill:

I had to cancel going to the only thing outside of the SU that brought me joy due to work.

Learning the lessons

Whilst some of the information I’ve heard makes it very difficult to remain positive, overall there was clearly significant development going on in these small SU’s – some had secured large increases to budgets, some had argued for more staff, and many were in the process of writing job postings for trustees.

There really should be a minimum level of support on offer to an SU in a higher education provider. I’d like to see an end to “stick the sabb on it” culture, proper staff support, effective (and externally supported) governance and some proper protocols around autonomy and financial processes.

There’s nothing wrong with small institutions – but if they want to meet their responsibilities over engagement in OfS’ B Conditions, the sort of belonging benefits that students can get from events and activities, and the provision of effective processes for misconduct, they will at least need to do more than expect their lone officer deliver it all. Perhaps some shared support is in order.

If you’re reading this as a bigger SU, I’d urge you to lend a hand and work with your small cousins – often they need help with the basics of setting up. There is a huge opportunity for learning here, or establishing a proper small SU network.

I’d advise those in smaller SU to talk to previous officers – often their experiences were similar. I organised a meeting with four previous presidents, and that directly led to improving our election process. Candidates now have the chance to speak and interact with senior leadership, and to learn about their roles on boards.

NUS, the NUS Charity and GuildHE provided a lot of resources alongside their study, and I highly recommend using those. And small SUs can get access to Wonkhe’s subscription at either a heavily discounted or free rate.

While small SUs may be different from their bigger counterparts, we have at least one shared enemy with all unions. Please let students have a microwave.

2 responses to “What happens when the SU is… just you?

  1. As the one member of staff working with volunteers who are still on their degree or MA courses, I have had a lot of similar experiences to those raised in the article. You almost become all things to all men with the promise of extra staff/support rarely becoming a reality and yet you are still paid at the same rate as those at a larger institution who are backed by a team and large budgets.

Leave a Reply