Being an SU officer – especially President – involves a whole load of tightrope walking and balancing acts; being able to engage effectively and listen to students on the one hand, and schmooze senior management in a meeting in order to secure a win for students on the other.
Though at first glance they don’t appear to be mutually exclusive, it does raise issues.
Quite recently, an anonymous submission on one of Bath’s many ‘gossip groups’ expressed frustration that I – in my role as President – “spend more time meeting important people than focusing on students’ issues.” Clearly, for this student and no doubt many others, sitting in meetings with university people (aka 80 per cent of my time) is not viewed as focusing on students’ issues. And I can completely see why.
It’s how you approach it
The cliche says that there are two different approaches for sabbatical officers and students’ unions to effect change at their institutions, and one is usually more dominant than the other. There are those that believe in the “seat at the table” approach, and those that would prefer to “shout from outside the boardroom”. I think both have their own place in the role of student representation.
In SUs like Bath, who historically have had a good working relationship with the university across its departments, functions and levels, the seat at the table approach is the most common. Part of this derives from the university’s willingness to have student representatives on nearly every committee that exists, so you are automatically given that seat.
With a history of good relationship with senior management (perhaps acknowledging our old vice chancellor as an anomaly) comes a succession of sabbatical teams who will learn that the best way for them to affect change in their institutions is via engaging with management, writing papers to committees and discussing student issues at the highest levels of the university.
The dark side of the moon
But this approach has its dark side. The seat at the table approach also allows institutions to view the mere presence of student representatives as listening to, engaging with and consulting the student body. The representation becomes completely tokenistic, and if you get caught up in the meeting-mill, you can be fooled into thinking your presence there is meaningful too.
It is mostly a blessing when you’re able to be extremely candid in meetings and rant about student issues when required. But the good relationship is also a brilliant silencing technique from university management, even if unintentionally. Students frequently need to visibly see and hear that you are their representative and ally. If the close relationship you hold with management causes you to be cautious about calling management out publicly for fear of losing your credibility, rapport and therefore ability to secure wins for students, then you have a problem. Students don’t see meetings as fighting for their needs, they see it as getting into bed with management.
Pick the right door
So choosing which approach to take and when is an important skill to acquire, given that the decision to do so could discredit and delegitimise the student voice and endanger any further wins for students. I’ve observed the fallout from openly criticising the institution, particularly with reference to women SU presidents. They play the game, build the relationships, write the papers and lobby through the established means. But as soon as they take more direct action – no matter how justified – the (usually) men in management positions start to play the disappointed parent. “What a shame that is”. “It’s sad she’s resorted to that”. “She *was* such a good President” (a line laden with a heavy dose of misogyny for officers that are women).
It’s also true that the seat at the table approach works well for privileged student leaders. Often white, often from wealthy backgrounds, the characters they meet around the boardroom table are more like them than not. Though they’ll likely still dismiss officers for their age, they don’t experience the same racism or classism that others might when operating in those environments. Bluntly, perhaps this is why historically the seat at the table approach has worked at Bath.
A further issue is that with such heavy involvement in university goings-on, officers can be party to confidential information that allows them a completely different view of a situation to the students they represent, increasing the divide between students and their representatives. Officers also run the risk of doing the university’s job for them. With many issues SU officers end up solution finding and implementing the change that students say is needed, rather than holding the institution to account for finding and implementing the solution. If student officers become part of the clan trying to solve the issue it becomes more difficult to openly criticise their failure to do so.
S/he who shouts the loudest
In contrast, there’s the shout from outside the boardroom technique. This can be seen across SUs that typically have a rockier relationship with their universities, though perhaps we should be cautious to conclude direction of causality here. If SUs have experienced years of management ignoring the student voice, overlooking the SU and never altering their path then seats at the table become shackles and silencers. Instead of settling for working the system from the inside, students naturally distance themselves from the system and attempt to overturn it from the outside. After all, if you keep the institution at arm’s length you avoid them being able to put their arm around you and persuade you to do their bidding. In short: it’s easier to fight someone square-on than it is to fight them side by side.
The approach tends to be accompanied with a heavy dose of cynicism towards universities. At its best this cynicism can prevent officers from being fooled that a health and wellbeing action plan is the same as investing serious resource in improving mental health for students on campus – the sort of thing universities frequently kid themselves with. At its worst, this cynicism can veer into “everything’s-a-conspiracy” syndrome, making officers vulnerable to missing real opportunities for engagement and change – because they view everything as being actions intended to make students as miserable as possible.
The shout from outside the boardroom technique also runs the risk of becoming purely performative. A demonstration does exactly what it says on the tin: it demonstrates to students what the SU’s standpoint is and presents SUs as an ally to students. It also looks great on Twitter and even better if you want a profile picture of you shouting down a megaphone. But while it increases pressure on institutions to act, they often can ride it out if SUs don’t also have allies echoing their rally cries inside the boardroom.
Even worse, it can pit SUs against counterparts inside the boardroom with a seat at the table who suggest they’re the “real student voice”, so a pincer movement here is absolutely key.
What can university leaders do?
In order for “seat at the table” to work, university leaders have to not only fully understand the role of SUs and student representation, but genuinely value it as essential in strengthening decision-making. And remember those training courses on culture? It means actively making sure that that is practised throughout the institution.
From our perspective, university senior managers frequently view the mere presence of a student representative as equivalent to student consultation. This often derives from the fact that – particularly on university committees – so many decisions and discussions happen before they reach officers that by the time they’re raising legitimate concerns and issues, it’s too late to change anything.
It’s this that leads to the feeling of tokenism amongst officers and disillusionment that their seat at the table is anything other than a method to make poor decisions look credible. Senior managers: officers are not there to add credence and support to your already-decided direction of travel with a seal of approval. They’re there to inform that direction. You should not know your destination until they’ve sufficiently inputted into the discussions.
Turn left or right?
The idea that these two approaches are synonymous with “moderate” and “left” is a fallacy. To pigeonhole in this way takes away the ability for someone who’s politically left to decide the best way to achieve their goal is going via established means within their institutions, and takes away the moderate’s ability to execute effective direct action that pressures the institution to respond.
Sometimes the scarcity of direct action can increase its effectiveness and impact. But the reality is that in a role like being an SU officer, you need both. Officers need to be able to build relationships with change-makers to affect change for students but also need to be able to escalate action if they’re not getting what they’re asking for.
The holy grail is to keep students in the loop. Students should know what papers an SU is writing, and what conversations officers are having in the boardroom. SUs should let students know when a meeting goes brilliantly and a recommendation gets accepted, and also when we walk out of meetings banging our heads against a wall because nobody took us seriously. When officers keep student voices in the conversation they can together, when the time is right, let students know where to assemble when they need to shout from outside the boardroom.