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I’m so disappointed in you: handling SU officers speaking their truth to power

A lot of time goes into advising SU officers on handling the relationship with their university. Bath SU's Eve Alcock has some advice for uni managers.
This article is more than 3 years old

Eve Alcock is Head of Public Affairs at QAA

A key concern for SU officers is the relationship the union has with its university. To represent students you have to both “speak truth to power” and nurture the relationship carefully to ensure that grant funding for SU activity keeps rolling in.

That worry – that you might be “biting the hand that feeds” – is ever present as an SU officer. Having considered this tension within my role, I spoke to SU officers from across the country about their experiences.

From their feedback, it’s clear that some of the issues they share are far more widespread and concerning than I imagined. Sometimes officers received an outright threat to funding or ability to get things done, but more often it manifested as a subtle, silencing pressure that chilled their ability to advocate effectively for their members.

Officers told me stories of an ever-constant diplomatic shuffle with their institution, and I’ve noticed some themes emerging from their feedback about how universities seem to be approaching this particular challenge.

I’m so disappointed

In response to points raised in university meetings, or campaigns that highlight specific issues or failings, officers have often seen university senior managers exhibiting behaviour that could be seen as akin to that of a disappointed parent.

Whilst there may be a justified point to make, their response to complain, query or question what the officer raised is often more roundabout than you might expect. In some cases the response manifested as a surreptitious phone call to a member of SU staff in a way that’s not dissimilar to the way a school teacher might speak to parents when you’ve been too quiet, or too loud, in class that day.

Unless it’s a genuine welfare concern, it’s not at all clear what university managers expect to happen when they do this, or what they might expect the SU member of staff to do with the information. Is the point to discreetly persuade and encourage the officers to do the university’s bidding, rather than highlighting the concern that students are asking to be made?

Similarly, sabbatical officers across the country testified to a twitchiness amongst universities when it comes to formalising any form of lobbying. Whether it be nervousness around FOIs or carefully crafted university minutes, it seems that institutions would rather have unrecorded discussions about things or corridor conversations. In the same way your parent makes a flippant promise as a passing comment, not giving you the opportunity to have it on record, limiting your ability to take them up on it.

Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for quick solutions that are hashed out over coffee in the campus cafe, but at its best, the resistance to have anything solid in writing merely suggests to us that you don’t want to be held accountable for something. And at its worst it can be a tactic to delay creating change for students until the new officers to take up office in the hope they’ll forget what’s gone before.

Senior managers, if you’re reading: you’re our colleagues not our parents. We’re adults, and “partnership” working means treating and communicating with us as such.

I speak the language

Officers shared some fascinating examples of where their institutions took on the actual language of the disappointed parent. Many of us have heard the “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed” spiel from our parents when we were younger. Some of us recall a “I thought you were better than that” dig from our dad. We weren’t expecting it from our university partners, given the job we’re paid to do.

At best, this reaction is based on an underlying and misguided view that officers are there to regurgitate the institution’s messages and support whatever emerges from the senior management team as a great thing well done. At worst, it’s an intentional ploy to control the expression of student opinion, and deter similar action in the future, by creating a fear of not wanting to “disappoint” management again.

Senior managers if you’re reading: every “it’s a shame they felt they had to do that” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the officer. We exist to lobby you for change and represent the student voice, often holding you to account in the process. We will work in partnership with you to help improve the student experience, but please don’t act as if we’ve let you down when we say something uncomfortable. Try instead to work out what got us there, and fix it with us.

It’s a bargain

A number of SUs have been presented with a choice between two “wins” for students where officers have to prioritise the issue (and, by association, the group of students) they would like their university to invest money in.

We fully understand that budgets are tight, that not everything can happen overnight, and that many things are outside of your control. But we expect you to acknowledge the issues faced by all students – trusting us to scrutinise the budgets, setting out long term plans and working with us on issues in the hands of government and regulators.

The “Giveth and Taketh Away” theme from officers’ stories can be more ominous. Some have had the “if you keep pushing on X issue, we’ll cancel the action taken on Y” issue. To hark back to the “Disappointed Parent” this is a sort of “if you keep asking to have your friend round for tea, I’ll take away your pocket money”.

Often the pressure being applied on issue X has the potential to damage a university’s reputation or make a decision-makers’ life difficult, so a threat is made to stop something that they had previously committed to, to try and deter action on issue X. But when you think about it, if the SU informed students that their institution was employing this tactic, then I’m pretty sure the institution’s reputation would be tainted anyway.

Senior managers if you’re reading: all issues we campaign on, we do so because it’s what students care about. Please don’t give us this false binary choice. Students have the capacity to care about more than one issue, so please try and have the capacity to address more than one at the same time.

Be afraid

Finally, there’s “Explicit Future Endangerment”. At one institution, a newly inducted officer was told that if they wanted an easy year, they’d do well to keep quiet in one of the first meetings they attended with the university. Some SU officers alluded to a very personal veiled threat of “you don’t want this negativity hanging over you when you’re applying for that graduate job do you?” as if a parent was warning of being cut off from a future inheritance. At other institutions, universities have explicitly threatened to reduce the SU’s block grant in response to lobbying.

In my view, this behaviour speaks volumes about the motivations of an institution and how it chooses to manage its relations with its student representatives. It’s difficult to see how those that use these tactics can authentically say they have students at the heart of their institution, or even care about student experience, if this is what happens when we speak out on the issues that students care about.

Senior managers if you’re reading: the reason you have student representatives is that they have the lived experience that you do not. It might be difficult to hear forthright views expressed urgently by someone fresh out of university, but we’re in a hurry to get things done – and our job is to quicken your pace in line with students’ interests, not manage down the expectations of our members.

We’ll happily take your feedback and understand your perspective, but please take what student representatives say seriously and act swiftly and creatively. We don’t raise issues just to cause trouble – and being open and honest with us might just be the best way to work with people that share a common interest.

One response to “I’m so disappointed in you: handling SU officers speaking their truth to power

  1. This is a really compelling piece – thank you! We need connections that speak to hearts as well as minds and that are built on care and respect for one another’s viewpoints (arguably between anyone working in universities and not just students and university leadership).

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