Working in a students’ union is a real job

Who motivates the motivator? This is a question often asked in management journals, books and articles – and it is something that I have pondered from time to time in my years in SUs.

I decided to leave my job in April this year. Since then I have been spending some much needed time out, focusing on my children during the pandemic and doing some temporary work homeworking, supporting the various responses that communities and government have had towards this recent pandemic.

During this time, I have been reading and have been reflecting about the contribution I could usefully make to the world, and to the movement that has given me so much during my career to date.

Elevator pitch

When looking at the SUs in recent times there is a common theme. I have spent much time asking SU managers what they would describe as their “profession” and how they explain it to others. There are themes that emerge, like supporting the future leaders of society and enabling societal change – and much evidence to support the great work that goes on.

But when I ask how they were supported to get there and take this forward within their career, many of the conversations pause. Many, like me, have grown up in the sector and a good number who went away and came back again. Some recall being prominent activists before they went into “the real world”, and others have landed here after a substantial career in other sectors and did not touch the world of higher or, for some, further education.

It’s hard to find a manager in a students’ union that isn’t, in principle, committed to equality and diversity. But across our sector I sense real anxiety about ensuring inclusivity and growing diverse organisations – a nervousness about having difficult conversations and worries about which actions to take. We should respond to this, collectively.

The thing that unites everyone is the clear connections they have made with colleagues within their own or partner organisations, and those they have found as a good source of knowledge in another students’ union. Not every sector has this, and we should capitalise on it.

A real career

Despite all this the pathways to development appear to be sporadic. When I look around at other professions I see good organisations and bodies who are empowered by their members to champion their profession, to promote the benefits of their career and ensure that there are ethical codes of conduct, professional pathways and defined professional standards.

Some even have recognised professional accreditations that would stand well across sectors and translate into other professions, and I’m pretty envious of that position.

It’s no wonder we have gotten here – as professionals who are intent on supporting our student leaders to secure educational, institutional and social change our focus is rightly on their development and the development of our organisations’ members. NUS has also led the charge in this area at times, and still does some excellent work where it can – but the resources will not be there for it to continue this on its own for some time in the future, if at all.

There are some great pieces of work already being done within the sector to develop our profession, if not professions. But wouldn’t it be great to be able to replicate this work beyond the localities and networks of those unions and give it some kind of national pathway?

Build something together

So as of Monday 15th June, I’m going to start a consultation on the development of a new professional association for people who work inside students’ unions. Following some very initial consultation with colleagues within the movement I’ve established a name, some ideas for a vision, mission and values, as well as some overarching goals for the first 18 months.

If you are passionate about the development of the students’ union profession and want to contribute to the beginnings of a professional association, then please jump in. I think together we can build something that saves us all some time and money, drives improvement on equality and diversity, and improves standards in our line of work. Whatever that is.

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