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From students’ unions to universities – reflections of a defector

Students' unions are higher education's "sector within a sector". Having spent most of her career working in the student movement, Kate Little reflects on her recent wonk-move to a university.
This article is more than 7 years old

Kate Little works in student support at the University of Liverpool and is a former policy lead for NSS at the National Union of Students. Her views are her own.

Universities and their students’ unions are two distinct tribes. Related, of course, but with their own traditions, values, culture and ethos which makes working for either tribe very different to working for the other.

Many Wonkhe readers based in universities might be surprised by the number and breadth of full-time staff roles within students’ unions: from supporting student volunteers, to developing high-level academic policy, to managing complex commercial portfolios; there are hundreds of dedicated staff forging long-term careers in students’ unions across the UK. I’ve seen many progress from the most junior positions all the way up to being chief executives, with a wide variety of experience in between. Students’ unions really are higher education’s “sector within a sector”, often dealing with the very same policy issues and challenges, but in very different ways.

Joining the ‘dark side’

I’ve recently crossed to what some in students’ unions call “the dark side”. After four years in students’ unions and three in NUS, I’ve worked for a university for nearly a year now. A majority of people in the sector haven’t had this experience of ‘changing tribes’. Most people in universities have never worked for a students’ union, and vice versa.

This is a shame for both parties. In my view there should be more movement between students’ unions and universities. Each has so much to gain from the experiences of working in the other, though sadly, most students’ unions will often struggle to offer competitive pay packages compared to universities.

Leaving the student movement is a difficult thing to do. I – like a growing number of wonks in universities – was formed in students’ unions: they shaped my perspective, changed my outlook, and developed my thinking on issues as diverse as gender politics, global affairs and civic engagement. My desire to change things for the better was galvanised by my time as a student officer, and guaranteed that I will never be happy with “just a job”. Perhaps that’s why I’m in a project and change management role now; a students’ union background doesn’t really make for an employee who is satisfied with the status quo!

Collaboration, mobility and hierarchy

The student movement is in many ways a close-knit community. Students’ unions are much more in touch with each other than universities are, and sharing practice is second nature to them. For example, one thing I really noticed when I started at Liverpool was the silence on the Jiscmails (remember them?). After seven years of relying on student movement email lists for advice, support, policy briefings, news, gossip, argy bargy and the occasional cat picture, it was a little unsettling! Students’ union staff may curse the number of emails at times, but they are lucky to have established, proactive and welcoming networks of colleagues across the country dedicated to a collaborative project. Such proactive collaboration appears to be a little less common for increasingly competitive universities.

One factor that lies behind many of the differences in culture is that of size. Students’ unions are small organisations in comparison to universities, and therefore often more agile, flexible and responsive to change. It’s also part of their nature: their elected leadership changes every year so changing priorities is the norm. Universities, as large bureaucracies, inevitably take longer to get things done.

They are also more impersonal: in a students’ union, it’s common for junior staff to speak to the chief executive every day. This certainly isn’t the case with most university staff and vice chancellors. The nature of large bureaucratic organisations inevitably emphasises hierarchy, but I was surprised at the extent to which it’s felt in everyday life. It’s quite routine to refer to a member of staff by their grade, and that grade governs what it is appropriate for you to work on. Students’ unions have much more of an “everybody muck in together” attitude – which is great for building that sense of community, but can also be somewhat disorganised. A little bit of structure can go a long way sometimes.

Interactions with colleagues are also very different. Students’ unions tend to employ younger staff, particularly at junior and middle management level, and many who develop a career in unions are willing to move across the country for the right job. My experience of working in a university is that most staff are very wedded to their city or town (in a literal sense – the vast majority of my colleagues are married with kids, which hasn’t been my experience in unions). University staff seem much more likely to seek internal promotion, whereas students’ union staff are more likely to move to new organisations.

Within students’ unions, work and life intertwine to such a degree that it can be hard to separate them: colleagues are friends; you discuss work-related issues in the pub; your work and life interests are often very closely aligned. From my limited experience, university staff seem to be much better at separating work from life, and “switching off” at the end of the day. This could be linked to the demographic differences, but does seem to be quite a profound difference in culture.

Who is the expert anyway?

In addition to changing tribes, I changed my wonk clothes. I’d spent years building up a wardrobe of policy expertise that I left behind, to work in an area I had little familiarity with. That felt like the most fundamental change in identity. If self-styled wonks aren’t defined in the workspace by a specific area of policy expertise, how are we to define ourselves?

I felt for several months, and still do often feel, that I couldn’t speak to my new areas of work with authority because I’d not spent years immersed in them. Perhaps this is a consequence of working in an academic environment where acquiring expertise and credibility takes years of work on a specialist topic, but this model doesn’t necessarily fit with wonk roles that are primarily non-academic, and require adaptability to changing priorities and conditions. As wonks we often hold our specific expertise as key to our credibility, and whilst this is important, it isn’t everything that makes us successful. When faced with something we know little about we research it, analyse it, seek to understand every facet of it – it’s the ability and desire to pursue expertise and subsequently apply it that is of value, not just the expertise itself.

Working in unions and working in universities is undeniably different. My dress code has changed, I arrive at work at 8.30 and leave at 4.30, I rarely travel outside Liverpool, I have to book a meeting to see my manager, and nobody talks about politics (or Israel-Palestine) in the office. In other words, I now work in a relatively normal environment…

But despite all these difference, and at least in my area of work, students unions and universities share many values. The more unions and universities work together, the more synergies they will discover between their work. Whatever your area of focus at a university, there is very likely to be someone at the students’ union either working on something similar, or able to offer a useful perspective. Understanding the little quirks of each other’s’ cultures goes a long way toward helping university and students’ union staff to work together collaboratively and effectively, as I’m pleased that I get to do so with our Guild of Students here at Liverpool. So why not go for a cup of tea with someone from the other tribe, and understand their context a little more?

6 responses to “From students’ unions to universities – reflections of a defector

  1. Really interesting Kate and a picture I definitely recognise. I’m a member of staff in a Student Association and have been thinking about whether the ‘dark side’ that you speak of is right for me because it seems to look, sound and feel so different to the vibrancy and autonomy of my current role. I’ve become part of the Change Community within the university so am beginning to understand and know more roles and more people and vice versa-I have invited others from the institution to come and find out more about the Association. Got to be a good thing for everyone! Thanks for your insight

  2. Interesting read, I definitely agree there should be more interchanging between university and union staff, it would go a long way towards helping understanding and reminding everyone we’re all basically here for the same thing.

  3. Fantastic article Kate and completely mirrors my experience. I’ve bounced between the two during my career and have just started a new role in the University this week, leaving SU life behind (for now!) I fully believe that people working in the sector should have experience of both sides, it has completely enriched my knowledge and understanding.

  4. Great Article Katie. I share a lot of similarities with your experience. I think that more SU staff need to infiltrate universities so that we can improve the student experience. I think SU’s provide invaluable personal and professional development. I learned lots but also feel like I have become a better person too.

  5. This is a really great read, and after making the move to the ‘dark side’ only a few months ago, reading this definitely brought a smile to my face relating to the similarities I have experienced. Working in a University is a very different experience to a Students’ Union (however what can compare to SU life eh!), however one that I believe has been enhanced by my SU experience. I agree with your comments Kate that there should be more fluidity of staff moving between the two!

  6. I really enjoyed reading this, Kate. It got me thinking about my own experience as an external/lay trustee of a students’ union and where there are opportunities for interaction btwn SU and universities, beyond the critical friend role and recognising the inherent tension in the relationship. I’m probably going to have a bit more of a think about that…( currently I’m on holiday and not supposed to be doing this kind of thing 🙂 )

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