ChangeSU Writing and Resources for Managers of Students' Unions Tue, 09 Oct 2018 23:15:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ChangeSU 32 32 Its lonely at the top Tue, 09 Oct 2018 23:15:04 +0000 World Mental Health Day seems like a good time to reflect on an adage I hear many CEO’s, presidents and senior leaders repeat – that it’s ‘lonely at the top’.

I have normally brushed it off, frequently believing it to be an example of senior leaders trying to make their role and responsibility even more mysterious. Sometimes I’ve dismissed it as a way of building the CEO or President’s sense of self-importance, by painting a picture of a unique level of responsibility at the highest echelon of a hierarchical structure. But recently in a passing conversation with a loved one outside the workplace, something caught my attention and the saying came back to me.

The psychology of leadership is fragile. We constantly find ourselves in positions where we need to talk ourselves into holding our nerve. In the world of students’ unions specifically, we are constantly caught in a storm of criticism and we have to focus really, really hard on what we believe is ‘right’. We then try to balance this against the various voices of our membership and stakeholders that scream to us to move in a different direction. To add to the sense of confusion, there is no clarity or consistency in the voices and noise that shout at us. The one constant in all of this is the leader’s determination to do what they believe to be right – for the organisation, for its members, for its employees and for the wider context and public good.

When we think about the competing voices and the sheer noise of decision making, we can use language that echoes some of the symptoms of mental health problems. It was this close synergy that struck me recently.

As I listened to a very close friend tell me about their fragile health, they described in detail the voices they hear and how the voices confuse their decision making. When the voices are loudest, it clouds their personal judgement and detracts from the quality of decision making. I was deeply struck by the alignment of this description to one that I have used to describe leadership.

And here in lies the conflict. We can’t resolve friends’ health concerns by adding another opinionated voice to those they can hear in their head. We won’t provide clarity for that vulnerable friend by shouting louder and by asserting ourselves more. The best way we can help friends seek personal clarity is by trying to create calm for them – by creating a space for them where they feel relaxed, safe and able to consider their own voice.

Perhaps the same solution is necessary for leadership. Maybe the goal should be to create a space where leaders can best navigate the various constituents views, opinions, ideas and needs and consider these carefully rather than try to respond to the voice that shouts loudest. The solution to senior loneliness at the top is not creating more voices – it’s to create better quality reflection space to take in the environment and make great judgements about how to navigate it.

It’s this that makes me realise what people mean when they say its lonely at the top. There are too many voices at times, and they can make it difficult to hear our own voices – perhaps that is the risk of loneliness which we should try to better understand.

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David versus Goliath: The past, present and future of students’ unions in the UK Fri, 07 Sep 2018 21:01:52 +0000 As students around the UK prepare to return to campus, it is worth reflecting on how they are perceived by the broader community. While often the targets of derision, this generation is facing unprecedented economic, personal and social challenges.

Throughout the history of higher education, students have formed unions to navigate the challenges faced when idealistic youth clashes with the establishment. They have used unions to advocate for each other, individually and collectively. They have developed them to enable social activity and develop skills and attributes outside of the classroom. And they have often used them to trade with each other, facilitating access to goods and services cheaply and with an ethical dimension.

Yet in truth, we know little about students’ unions in the UK. Almost every university has one, but there is a dearth of research or reliable data on their form, their role, or their successes. They are often seen and judged externally through a “student politics” lens as journalists crudely count the number of Labour MPs that have been presidents of the National Union of Students (NUS). But their contribution to civil society, business and, crucially, our higher education sector is poorly understood. Pioneering work at UCL, Portsmouth and Northumbria is only beginning to make use of students’ union archives to shine a light on their broad influence and contribution. Many of the major players in higher education today cut their teeth in students’ unions, but we would never know it.

Damned either way

They also attract criticism. Some argue that they are not radical any more, and those that are radical are unrepresentative and wasteful of (student-funded) resources. Others brand them as atypically left-wing and socially (il)liberal, helping generate a dangerous political monoculture on campus. Some argue that they have been fatally incorporated, acting as ‘dealers’ in the marketisation of higher education.

In our experience, student unions are damned if they and damned if they don’t.

But there is another side to the students’ union story. Debate over “in loco parentis” and student rights raged in the fifties. Tensions flared over the role of students in university governance in the seventies. In the eighties students and their unions were barely out of the news over debates about freedom of speech. And tensions between those who see individual advocacy through a rights-based approach as opposed to collective campaigning on the student condition continue today.

There is nothing new

To understand students’ unions – their role, contribution, critique, and opportunity – requires an understanding of their history. In our paper for HEPI, we trace the origins of student unions back to the dawn of higher education itself, illustrating that their enduring principles and core functions have always been contested yet have always been valuable to the endeavour of higher education. We cover key issues – student rights, massification, marketisation, freedom of speech and the co-production of educational outcomes- none of which are nearly as new as we might think they are.

Throughout recent history, students in the UK have built some of the most effective and innovative student organisations in the world. If we nurture them and enable them to thrive, the benefits could be huge. At their best, student unions can provide genuinely radical thinking. They can be quick and responsive to students’ needs – faster than any university governance system ever will. They can signal coming movements, issues and social concerns; act to ensure the student body feels connected and valued; be rich sources of intelligence, diversity and feedback; and be inexpensive ways of achieving positive outcomes.

Today and tomorrow

As well as looking at history, in our paper we also produce a short ‘state of play’, reviewing the status of student unions in 2018. And building on emerging practice from around the sector, we suggest future directions for student unions and others that might have an influence over them to ensure that the ambitions and opportunities they represent are more fully realised in the years ahead.

We also include suggestions for sector bodies and higher education providers. Crucially, the practice we observe most commonly in institutional cultures – the induction of student leaders into the culture, practice and workings of universities – could usefully be turned on its head. Student leaders occupy a unique position in emerging adulthood, where youthfulness mixes with rapidly developing concepts of responsibility. The best aspects of this, and the thing that makes working in students’ unions so rewarding, are remarkable.

Growing up or down?

Students are comfortable with difference and diversity. They are permanently curious, highly creative and unfailingly honest and direct with their feedback. They are full of praise, emotionally intelligent and prepared to be brave. They are focused on service to the student and always ask, ‘Why?’ In our view, these are qualities a good few university officials could do with developing. Perhaps we should do more to induct higher education leaders into that culture rather than attempting to do the opposite.

This post originally appeared on The full report is available on the HEPI website.

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Our sector: Aligning aspirations of the annually elected with the long term Mon, 20 Aug 2018 05:00:36 +0000 Do an MBA they said, it will be fun they said. Turns out it actually was. I started my MBA January 2016, shortly after taking up the role of Guild Manager at Glyndwr Guild. During the next two and a half years we transformed into Wrexham Glyndwr Students’ Union. As intense as the MBA was, it definitely directly contributed towards the success of the new Union as I was able to learn and progress along with the growth of the Union, applying things from my modules (such as law, finance, CSR, strategy) directly to the Union.

After completing the modular part of the MBA, it was time to choose a dissertation topic, and what had become clear to me over the two years was that no matter how good a students’ union is, something still eludes us. How on earth do we align the aspirations of our annually elected sabbatical officers with our long term strategies?

Months of research, literature reviews, interviews, compiling information, analysis and interpretation followed before I was able to come up with a method which I believe could help students’ unions align their sabbatical officer (and student!) needs with strategy.

The results of the study highlighted some extremely interesting data which could potentially lead to more in-depth studies around this, so, what did I find:

The Significance of People This played a huge part in the findings; an acknowledgement on the significance of the human factor in students’ unions. The CEO, their experiences, the sabbatical officer, their emotions, how the economy is impacting students and how they in turn react to it. We are creative any dynamic organisations, full of emotions, yet we find ourselves trying to be logical and systematic all the time in the way we write our strategies; we need to find a way to make these two things integral to one another and not opposing forces.

The Speed and Reason for Change We typically have 3-5 year static strategic plans whilst the world around us is moving at an incredible rate. A strategic plan written 3 years ago would not be taking into account today’s technology, social media or student needs. Sabbatical officers want to make change, they have less than a year to do it (let’s be honest, October to March is their key interaction time) and we are doing them and the students they represent a disservice by pigeonholing them into a plan which was written before they were elected.

Synthesising Culture and Strategy In the research, whilst all CEOs interviewed said their organisations had KPIs, not one of them likened their perception of organisational success back to the KPIs they’d just discussed. That’s not to say KPIs are defunct, indeed, they give direction and objectives, however, if an SU didn’t meet their KPIs, is it to be assumed they’re an unsuccessful organisation? Absolutely not! I would doubt that our universities judge our success on the meeting of internal KPIs, but rather judge us on being a professional, supportive and inclusive organisation with a positive culture. Could an organisation that achieves this really be considered unsuccessful because they didn’t meet their KPI of moving up 15 places in the BUCS rankings? And flipping that on its head, could an SU that has met all its KPIs but has a negative culture, isn’t trusted by students or its university really be considered a success?

Effective Communication; to whom? A picture paints 1000 words…the table below shows a typical strategic plan research cycle, in ‘year 0’ we do research with our membership…by year 3 the vast majority of these have gone. Who on earth is our plan representing at this point? Whilst some part time/PhD students might be around at that point, are we confident they participated in the first place and if they did, are their views the same as they were 3 years ago?

Students’ Union Specific Activities Our constitutions and the Education Act override any strategy. Our charitable objects usually state that we will represent students, provide social, cultural and sporting activities and the Education Act covers our elections. This isn’t to suggest that these activities should not be part of a strategy, but it allows for the consideration that strategy can be simplified as these activities can be delivered and appraised through other mechanisms.

Synthesising Business and Behaviours I’m going to ask you to watch a 70 second video No matter your thoughts on Apple, that video is the greatest example of what I’m about to say. That advert was made in 1997. It is still relevant today. They did not show a single product, price, speed, unicorn or buzz word, but somehow, I, the laymen viewer trust that organisation. I trust it because it demonstrated behaviours I believe in; bravery, respect, courage, intelligence, creativity. It’s absolutely timeless and could be show on TV today and still be relevant. Apple just became the first company to be valued at $1trillion so they can’t be doing too badly! Why can’t we do that (not the $1tn bit), but why can’t we base our selves on our behaviours instead of throwing glitter and buzz words at everything every 3 years? Create a brand of values that means today what it did 20 years ago and what it will mean in 20 years’ time.

So, what is the answer to all this? The model I came up with can be seen below:

It suggests researching with students and sabbaticals every year (a scary thought maybe, but using the technology available to us) to ensure that student views are current and representative. This allows sabbatical officer aspirations to be included in project plans and KPIs each year, strongly connected to what our students have said; you could have a document underpin this year if you wanted?

The key here is that an overarching vision, value, behaviours and core activity would underpin all of this and probably would not change for years! You might notice when doing your research that in year one and year two, student opinion doesn’t really change, the same for year three and year four…but if you stepped back and compared year five to year one, you’d probably see a huge difference. Only you wouldn’t have noticed it happening. This is because you will have evolved over time to keep up with what your students, and sabbaticals want! Surely, that is far less scary for everyone and gives a much better service to our students?

I do hope you’ve found this interesting and it’s created some ideas for you. I’m not suggesting this would work for everyone, but it’s aimed to create discussion and challenge. I would be very happy to discuss this in more depth or send you the full research (this has boiled 18,000 words down to 1000) so please contact me on or @SarahDCEllis on Twitter and I’d be happy to help.



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Scandilove- tales from the frozen north Mon, 20 Aug 2018 05:00:33 +0000 When we are at conferences comparing Boards, many of us and our officers tend to compare structures- who chairs, how many students, etc. But there are other ways to look at Boards and strategy. For example- what is the balance of discussion that involves recording, reviewing and evaluating past activity to improve (looking back), versus gathering of current student ideas, feedback and opinion (looking present) and identifying new ways of doing existing things, and new things that can be done in the interests of students (looking forward)?

With this in mind at SUs 2017 a group of Officers and Managers met on the fringe to discuss an idea- a tour SUs around Scandinavia to learn about student representation, democracy, services and culture. Six months later thirty of us met in a meeting room in Copengahen to begin an extraordinary and magical five day journey- taking in fifteen student organisations, three countries, twelve nations and a bizarre motorway service area. We learned about a 1500 capacity venue staffed entirely by volunteers, a freshers focussed on kicking students in, and an approach to student representation and rights that puts the UK to shame- all on the tiniest of budgets.

We had big questions on our minds. Models in the UK for SU student leadership have remained quite ingrained but models for democracy are generally in retreat. Were there things we could learn from different systems and traditions for how this could evolve? The scandinavians appeared to offer some interesting examples for new types of student social enterprise. Were there projects or services that could provide inspiration? The UK has been moving towards a US market based model of HE but that consensus looks at best shaky given the headlines. Were there things we can learn from different HE systems in terms of education and student rights, and the way the “student interest” is represented within those systems? And more broadly, the political/economic consensus is breaking down around us as we move from minority government to minority government. Were there things that we could learn about Cooperation, Politics, Social Democracy, Austerity etc from the wider politics of a region that appears to have taken social democracy to its heart?

The reality is that different SUs on the trip had different things they wanted out of it- but a fair summary of what we were all trying to do would be something like this:

  • To record multiple alternative models for representative and leadership student democracy for evaluation in the UK context
  • To gather examples of practice in supporting, funding and coordinating student led activities, societies and sporting activity
  • To build a network of Northern European SU contacts to work on collaborative projects
  • To gather examples of effective student campaign, and influence practice for use in the SU
  • To identify potential student social enterprise projects for funding and support from the SU

What follows is a set of notes (and lovely photos) from our trip. These are personal reflections, and others from the group of SUs that took part will have other angles and detailed thoughts on particular areas of practice and expertise. What is clear is that whilst much was rooted in national context, situation and tradition- we have much to learn from European counterparts and any trip of this sort is valuable for sparking discussion, debate and “out of the box” thinking.


We began the trip in Denmark in Copenhagen.


Denmark of note:

  • Danish higher education comprises a university sector, college sector and an academy sector. There are four types of institutions offering higher education programmes:
    • Academies of professional higher education (offering short-cycle programmes)
    • University Colleges (offering medium-cycle programmes)
    • Universities (offering long-cycle programmes)
    • University level institutions for educations in the arts
  • Structural changes have affected parts of the system of higher education. All short-cycle higher educations are now concentrated in nine Academies of professional higher education (Erhvervsakademier). The majority of medium-cycle education is concentrated in 7 University Colleges (Professionshøjskoler).
  • The new university structure also includes eight universities, five of which are multi-faculty universities: University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, Aalborg University, University of Southern Denmark and Rosikilde University.The other three universities specialise in fields such as engineering (the Technical University of Denmark), information technology (The IT-University) and business studies (Copenhagen Business School).
  • A number of university level institutions are regulated by the Danish Ministry of Culture and offer first, second and third cycle degree programmes in visual arts, music, cinematography, theatre and performing arts.

Danske Studerendes Fællesråd, DSF (Danish NUS)

Of note:

  • DSF represents about 165,000 students across 8 Unis and 8 other HEIs
  • Toke (their lead staff member) is an ex-sabb from Leeds!
  • Higher Education is free- and students get about £600 a month grant + loan (and for some time after their studies!)
  • Students come to HE later than in UK and doing a Masters is the norm- there’s not much of a Graduate Jobs market for UG
  • DSF has twice yearly conferences, five elected officers, and five staff members
  • Mental Health issues are prevalent, as are contact hours and assessment and feedback

Of interest:

  • DsF hosts a Trade Union for Student Staff. Could this be something that could be established in the UK which might also provide a funding stream to NUS UK?
  • It also supports a Think Tank with members from across civil society and education, working on interesting policy ideas and action research at arm’s length from DsF. Could this be something that could be established in the UK?

University of Copenhagen- Studenterrådet


Of note:

  • Founded 1479, 40,000 students
  • 2013 saw major changes to student life via the “study progress reform” which has given Universities power to speed up/cap completion (to avoid perennial students). This reduction in the ability to switch between FT and PT modes during a course has seen an increase in mental Health issues.
  • Focussed tightly on education and improving it. “We are fighting for feedback, and more lessons. It’s us who get into the table and go to battle when politicians are trying to implement reforms that weaken our education”
  • The Rector (ie VC) is seen as a key figure and key role of the SU to lobby the Rector.
  • Has constituent student councils from some of the depts/faculties at the University.
  • One of a number of SUs in the University- they compete for places in University structures and are allocated funding accordingly, with lions share to the SU that gets the most (ie this one)

Of interest:

  • They employ a campus ombudsperson- role focussed on enforcing student rights, and acts as an ambassador for students within the University, a mediator and someone who can support students with issues or complaints or those facing academic or anon academic misconduct charges. Could SUs learn from this approach to improve our profile amongst students in the education rights space?
  • Their officers regularly publish quite pointed blogs and opinion pieces focussed on education, improvements to it and its role in society- often with a focus on particular disciplines. Could we do more with our academic officers and reps in this space as representative bodies?

  • Generally, because this organisation doesn’t run clubs, societies, buildings (beyond offices) or major services, the impression is that their education focus delivers more democratic involvement in that function and clearer outcomes around education. Could UK SUs generate (sub) structures that deliver this kind of focus and clarity?

Studenterhuset (Student House)


Of note:

  • One of the things we saw across Scandinavia is Students’ Union buildings (Student Houses) often run legally separately from the representative/student activities operations.
  • In Copenhagen their “Studenterhuset” is one such operation. Located right in the centre of Copenhagen, they have a Coffee/Bar operation, meeting rooms and projects. It is owned and run by students from across the Universities with a focus on international students.
  • Their focus is not political and avowedly practical, albeit with a focus on co-operation, volunteerism and student run activity.
  • Students at Copenhagen Uni are automatically a member of Studenterhuset, and get extra discounts on beverages, snacks and entry fees to the “house”. Students at other institutions can sign up as a member and get the same benefits as the UCPH students.
  • It is much more “studenty” than the average SU operation and uses more volunteers than we would to operate- around 200.

  • A volunteer board consisting of students directs the “house”. Their job is to develop and organize activities “for the students by the students”
  • Runs a volunteer run bike repair shop at Frederiksberg and organizes the University of Copenhagen’s annual Spring Festival.
  • Alcohol sales are in decline
  • They take the view that the University itself is quite “Darwinistic” and their job is to improve student social engagement outside of the classroom/department.

Of interest:

  • Studenterhusets Problemknusere (Studenterhuset’s troubleshooters) is a sort of volunteer academy that creates educational courses about how to start up great volunteer projects at the university. An annual idea-day sees “the entire house” meet up and develop ideas for new activities for and by students. Outside of formal clubs and societies is there an opportunity to combine some UK concepts of volunteerism, enterprise and ideas generation to create a new category of student involvement?

  • Its strong international focus sees it running a whole programme of mentoring and events for international students with a focus on Danish students volunteering to improve social integration between international and home students. Could we develop a similar approach to integration between home and international students in UK SUs?
  • They run a fabulous and regular “flea market” (like a kind of car boot sale for students). Many SUs run markets and are used to organising events, but could this kind of second hand market for students take off?

  • They have taken it upon themselves to run a large outdoor student led matriculation ceremony, with guests from across the University- using it to promote messages about their culture and to encourage students to lead and change student culture. Could UK SUs learn from this approach to create memorable first year events that aren’t focussed on alcohol?
  • Student Sport at the University is run by “KSI” an association “preferably for students, employees and alumni at the University of Copenhagen”. It takes a large sports facility and the equivalent of an Athletic Union and operates democratically as a kind of co-operative, with financial support from the University. Could the UK learn from this approach of running Sports Clubs and Facilities outside of traditional University management structures?

Copenhagen Business School, CBS Students

Of note:

  • 20,000 students on a modern campus on edge of Denmark’s capital. Internationally renowned business school.
  • Appears to be made up three constituency unions (based on unions of the faculties/departments)- a fourth is not a part of the main CBS SU
  • Operates an on campus Café, Printing Service and Clothing
  • Central SU employs three staff (all admin focussed) and General Assembly (December) elects 11 Board Members and 2 Sabbs (President and Vice President)
  • Looks after around 60 student clubs/societies and handles representation for students at the University.
  • 40% of students are at CBS as a result of “contextual admissions” (ie not just grades) but this has not had the impact on widening participation they had hoped for.
  • Runs an annual student assembly which elects to its Board and then sabbs are elected from the assembly.
  • Has active involvement of a number of corporate sponsors (perhaps unsurprising given it’s a Business school) ie Carlsberg and Danske Bank.
  • Good set of values (Engagement, Commitment, Humbleness and Openness) and interesting strategy
  • They have concerns about expansion of student numbers:

Of interest:

  • There is a strong focus on volunteering- not out in the community but within the University/SU, with a strong focus on gaining skills. This appears to offer interesting opportunities to students without them having to “lead” or “run” a project or group. Could UK SUs offer similar opportunities to students wanting to be more generally involved in activity on campus?
  • What CBS calls “Student Democracy” is really a collection of their course reps. Interestingly they are viewed much more as a collective- they are the group that together represent students to the University and jointly develop University wide policy. In the UK support for reps tends to be much more individualistic. Are there opportunities to learn from this collective approach?
  • Interestingly the SU has secured a significant fund from the University that it distributes to students to deploy on student led activities- everything from “Impact Management Seminars- Improve Your Grades” to “Biking to Uganda”. The UK model is much more focussed on Clubs and Socs. Could UK SUs experiment with this project/initiative based approach and would it diversify outcomes and involvement?


Having finished up in Copenhagen, we then boarded our bus which travelled the short distance over the famous Oresund bridge to the southern Swedish city of Malmo.

Of note:

  • The teaching model applied at Swedish universities and university colleges is based on the motto ‘freedom with responsibility’. This means that students have somewhat less teacher-led time than is usual elsewhere, mainly pursuing their studies on their own or in groups.
  • It’s competitive- last year 403,000 people applied and 257,000 were admitted
  • Higher education in Sweden is financed largely by tax revenue. Since 2011 tuition fees were introduced for students from outside the EU/EEA area, with the exception of Switzerland.
  • The Riksdag (parliament) and Government have overall responsibility for higher education and research, which means that they make decisions about targets, guidelines and the allocation of resources. Education and research are the remit of the Ministry of Education and Research.
  • The Swedish Higher Education Authority (Universitetskanslersämbetet) and the Swedish Council for Higher Education (Universitets- och högskolerådet) are the central government agencies responsible for higher education. However, universities and university colleges remain separate state entities and make their own decisions about the content of courses, admissions, grades and other related issues.
  • The Swedish Council for Higher Education is responsible for admission issues, information concerning university-level studies, assessments of foreign qualifications, and international co-operation. The Swedish Higher Education Authority mainly has a scrutinising function, and is responsible both for reviewing the quality of higher education and granting degree-awarding powers. It is also responsible for the supervision of universities and university colleges, and for maintaining official statistics.
  • Comparisons noting that HE is free are not quite as simple as they look. There’s less small group teaching, and the focus is on proving teaching and learning for the fee with students funding the rest. There is a lower participation rate than in the UK and obviously less is spent on HE overall. Students graduate with about £25k of debt albeit on a much lower interest rate!

Malmo University- StudentKaren Malmo


Of note:

  • This is a new University (designated as such in 1998)- 24,000 students and the ninth largest Uni in Sweden
  • It has exchange agreements with more than 240 partner universities around the world and roughly a third of the students have an international background.
  • Education at Malmö University focuses on, among other things, migration, international relations, political science, sustainability, urban studies, and new media and technology. It often includes elements of internship and project work in close cooperation with external organisations.
  • Located in the centre of the city, the university has played an important role in the transformation of Malmö from an industrial town to a centre of learning.
  • A large part of the campus was constructed on grounds which, up to the mid-1980s, belonged to the Kockums shipyard, which had been a key element of naval-industrial Malmö. The SU is based here.
  • Some 72% of Malmo’s students are from “non academic” (ie first in the family) backgrounds- this is seen as a key institutional purpose.
  • The Student Union Malmö is a “non-profit, non-political and non-religious organization”, working for a “better education and a fun and safe student life for the students at Malmö University”.
  • It represents students from four of Malmö University’s five faculties; Education and Society, Culture and Society, Technology and Society and Health and Society (note the focus on society everywhere)
  • Again there is a focus on education- the SU “is here to help you with whatever might happen during your studies, anything from study related issues to housing and spare time activities. If you have problems regarding your education you should turn to your student representative” and “At every decision taken at the university, the Union is there to bring a student perspective”
  • As with all Swedish SUs since 2010 they have to sell membership- 79 SEK a term (about £7)
  • As well as running the student representative operation, Malmo SU operates the University’s societies. It also runs a Student House with a bar (the “Student Pub”), events space and meetings rooms. As in Denmark it is notably less “commercial”.
  • Housing (or lack of it) is a huge issue for students at Malmo. Membership of the SU gives students “points” that move them up the student housing queue!
  • They are particularly proud of their provision of Student Breakfasts

  • There are two elected sabbatical political roles (President and Vice President) and then four Ombudspeople who are elected, bursaries students who focus on educational casework for four faculties and

Of interest:

  • One of the impacts of the Education/Representation focus was found in their slogans and their framing. “We are committed when you can’t be”, was one. “The Union is BIG when you feel small” was another. Both frame nicely around collectivism and are a world away from some of the UK’s blander “student experience” marketing. Could UK SUs learn from these concepts to create more powerful messaging about the purpose of collective representation and its purpose?
  • The need to sell membership causes the SU to actively promote itself on a range of key benefits- some of which are similar and some markedly different. Is there more UK SUs could do to promote and “sell” the benefits of membership of the SU even though membership for us is automatic?

Gothenburg University- University of Gothenburg Student Unions (GUS)


Of note:

  • The University of Gothenburg is a university in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg. Third-oldest of the current Swedish universities, 37,000 students
  • Eight faculties, 38 departments- training in the Creative Arts, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Humanities, Education, Information Technology, Business, Economics and Law, and Health Sciences.
  • Highest number of applicants per study place in many of its subjects and courses, making it one of the most popular universities in Sweden.
  • Somewhat confusingly for us, there are four student unions who “represent the social and academic interests of their members” and “play an active role in the shaping of the university at all levels.
  • We visited the student house of the biggest one (Göta studentkår) which has constituent unions from the Faculty of Arts, IT Science, Social Sciences, Education and Teacher training (and Graduate Research School in Educational Sciences)
  • Konstkåren separately looks after students in Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts; Sahlgrenska akademins Studentkår (SAKS) students at the Sahlgrenska academy; and Handelshögskolans i Göteborg studentkår (HHGS) students at School of Business, Economics and Law (They come in and out- they left GUS in October 2014 and seem to have a different outlook and different resources!)
  • Gothenburg has faced major student numbers expansion- doubling in the last fifteen years or so, which has placed major pressure on student social facilities. The general view is that it is not for the University to provide these as the city has coffee shops!
  • Although education is “free” it is clear that what is counted as education spend is very different to the UK- students do pay for SU membership and have to find their own student facilities.
  • Because public servants (ie Nurses, Teachers, Police) are held in such public high regard, they are taught in Universities like this where we may find professions not even being taught at degree level or often shunted into what are seen as “new universities” doing “vocational” work.
  • Reforms to Swedish HE mean that Universities are funded not by places but by “production” of graduates in different sectors (often with different funding streams)- this has led to some Swedish HE introducing policies to speed up Swedish students graduating.
  • The GUS Student House was owned by GUS but sold to the University in the early 90s when alcohol sales collapsed. The University had to sell it (Universities can’t own their own buildings!) but the deeds mean it can only be used for SU purposes… or be a “field of daffodils”!
  • Again membership of the SU gives students “housing points” to move them up the allocation ladder- student housing controlled largely co-operatively, with another significant shortage of places.
  • Students are framed legally as employees- and the student funding package tends to frame that funding as “wages” even though much has been converted to loan in recent years. This provides an interesting parallel to employment rights that some UK SUs use.
  • We got our first real glimpse of a different kind of SU policy here. GUS has a comprehensive “policy book” of beliefs on student issues and the role of democratic structures tends to revise and focus on these rather than the UK traditions of “motions” and “ideas”
  • The lack of competition over student facilities/marketisation obviously has benefits, but one oif the results is that the University does not feel any particular compulsion to invest in student facilities. The SU building looks dated and the clear impression is that such things are for students to fund/invest in.

Of interest:

  • Swedish law gives students the right to be consulted on all decisions that affect them, with a right to be represented across Boards and Committees. Could student representation entering the baseline conditions for OfS registration cement the Student Representation role of UK SUs?
  • The SU mainly consists of an assembly of around 56 reps (many of which are bursaried) from which officers in GUS are elected. This puts a real focus on the school/dept. Is there further scope to boost the profile/role of faculty/department reps in UK SUs and can we experiment with different forms of sabbatical election- moving away from our UK obsession with direct election of sabbs?
  • For international tuition fees, officially the University can’t charge more than the cost of the education. Whilst a phalanx of recharges get around the rules, could we learn from these debates as the live OfS debate on VFM and cross subsidies rumbles on?
  • The role of the Ombudspeople was very strong within GUS. Their role is to support students with educational casework (often seeking informal resolution if a students’ rights are not being met); support the SU Officers with policy issues; write (research and policy) reports on student issues. They are employed by GUS and have a role that mixes SU Advice roles with Education Policy roles. They have considerable respect in the SU and University and seen as a key membership benefit. They attract some University funding in a system largely based on membership fees. The focus on student rights is also vivid- this isn’t seen as “consumerist” or individualist, but a key component of the student experience. Could we learn from this approach as UK SUs develop staffing- particularly as OfS/OIA call for independent advocacy? And could SUs in the UK return to a vivid focus on student rights?

Jönköping University- Jönköpings Studentkår (Student Union)


Of note:

  • Jönköping University is one of three Swedish private, non-profit HEIs with the right to award doctorates. It operates on the basis of an agreement with the Swedish and conforms to national degree regulations and quality requirements.
  • The university is organized as a non-profit corporate group with Jönköping University Foundation as the parent organization and five wholly owned subsidiaries.
  • Four schools with about 12,000 students in total:
    • Jönköping International Business School (JIBS)
    • School of Education and Communication
    • Jönköping School of Engineering
    • School of Health Sciences
  • The legal status of the University means unlike the rest of Swedish HE, for whatever reason it retains compulsory membership. This is to ensure that the students have a “strong influence over their education” and the “overall environment on campus”
  • The cost varies depending on the mode of study and number of credits/hours but broadly it’s about 200 SEK a year (£18) and students can’t take their exams without the SU membership card!
  • The SU is effectively made up of four school associations which combined social aspects with projects and events

  • As with other Swedish SUs student discounts are viewed as important (and not separately monetised)- they deliver this via Mecenat which is a national not for profit
  • Again there is a very strong focus on education- “Is your education not good enough or do you just have questions and concerns? The Student Union will help you with everything that concerns your education”
  • The “main function” of the Student Union is to “ensure you receive high quality education. It’s important that you have access to information about your rights, obligations, and the rules and regulations of the University”
  • Democratically there is an Annual Meeting that decides on a budget and the “goals, visions and strategies” for the Student Union. The resolutions taken during the Annual Meeting form “the law of the organization”, and there is a focus on the elected officers working together to realize them over the coming year.
  • The AGM also elects an 11 member board and two sabbs (the President and the Vice President) who take a sabbatical that runs the calendar year. It’s not OMOV- the voting members are an assembly of students nominated by the constituent schools.
  • It largely operates in English as the University’s medium term goal is to get to 50:50 home:international students
  • Election of Operation Controllers: The Annual Meeting elects Operation Controllers who audit the Student Union, and investigate that the resolutions taken by the Annual Meeting are carried out.
  • Students that volunteer with the SU gain points, and points can help a students’ application to study abroad

Of interest:

  • There is a clear system of educational improvement. Course evaluations are described as “the fundamental building block of our monitoring system” as students provide “valuable information for improvement via the course evaluations you complete after each course”. Course reps here are framed as “Course evaluators”. Their task is to “gather the students’ opinions on the course various aspects and, based on these, discuss improvements with the course coordinator”. This frames the role of the rep very clearly- could UK SUs adopt something similar?
  • Jönköping is particularly proud of the way it does Freshers (Kick off). The event runs as a day long huge teambuilding event- students in schools are organised into groups who then take part in challenges/games with other students from other schools, acquiring patches to put on their jumpsuit. Students are “kicked in” to student life! The focus is on building social capital and learning to communicate/work with others. It’s like a classic teambuilding event but for all students. As part of this all of the groups are allocated “fathers” (this is less patriarchal than it sounds and is a shaky translation)- 500 “faddrar” volunteer for all new students to have someone they can turn to with questions about their studies and life as a student. A fadder is an older student who has completed the Student Union’ faddership training program, which includes leadership, alcohol impact, anti harassment/initiation, and first aid. Could UK SUs learn from this approach to strengthen bonds between students in the first week?

  • As well as again having a strong volunteer focus (the Jönköping SU run nightclub only has one paid employee- the rest volunteer to work there for Q jump privileges and free food) they regularly run “IQ” events- IQ appears to be similar to NUS Alcohol Impact but is very public and symbolic about being a brand you put on an event when “alcohol isn’t a focus”. This includes always giving away water and all soft drinks. IQ is a subsidiary of the state run off license! Could UK SUs learn from the IQ approach in making things like Alcohol Impact simpler and more student facing, especially with free soft drinks etc?
  • As mentioned above sabbs are elected on calendar terms of office and are elected in scrutiny settings rather than mass democracy- for example a committee makes a recommendation having interviewed candidates (although the assembly can go with someone else as had happened that year) Could UK SUs experiment with different ways to elect officers and/or inject more scrutiny into the process?

Uppsala University- the Student Nations


Of note:

  • Old, research intensive university in Uppsala- oldest university in Sweden and all of the Nordic countries founded in 1477. Uppsala also has important historical place in Swedish national culture, identity and for the Swedish establishment: in historiography, literature, politics, and music.
  • Many aspects of Swedish academic culture in general (ie the white student cap which is their mortarboard) originated in Uppsala.
  • It shares the “student nation” system with Lund University and the University of Helsinki. Nine faculties, 44,000 registered students
  • As in other bits of Sweden, there’s a massive student housing shortage.
  • At Uppsala we didn’t visit the SU (although we saw the Student House with an English themed pub!) instead we visited all thirteen of their “Student Nations”. Each dates back to the 17th century. They are responsible for arranging activities and events specifically for students and provide a space for students to meet, socialise and enjoy life outside of the classroom.
  • Most have a café, pub and restaurant, and popular nation activities include club nights, formal dinners, balls and musical events as well as societies and clubs. The closest we have in the UK is probably colleges at Oxford, Cambridge, Durham etc.
  • Each is named after a specific region in Sweden, and traditionally students joined the nation representing the region they were from.
  • Each had some salaried elected officers doing admin and a committee organising activities and events. Nations’ buildings were dotted around the City.
  • The Stockholm nation was particularly impressive-
  • Student leaders here were framed as “curators”. And each nation has an “inspector” (originally appointed by the University to calm down raucous activity hundreds of years ago) whose role was to support the nation- a senior academic.
  • The student services function isn’t focussed around the notion of a service but framed around health- “a rock to hold on to when the gale blows”- and features a light room designed by the engineering students, as well as counselling and public speaking classes! Naturally it has its own student committee.

Of interest:

  • The Nations system was not based on academic discipline and as a result appeared to offer a unique chance for students to feel close to a group of students cross-discipline. Can UK SUs learn from this model to improve “bridging” social capital offering a different type of “joining” than course/dept or society membership?
  • Many nations offered communal dining and informal social events, as well as “places” that students could go. The UK model appears to offer pre-drinks or clubbing. Is there scope to think about the way we operate social activity in the UK to improve social mixing with less reliance on alcohol?
  • A deep culture of volunteerism permeated the nations. Students ran bars, events and even stood for election to be responsible for things like working to deliver student breakfasts or run student pubs! This appears to be about scale- the smaller the operations the more scope and need for volunteers. Committees were seen as senior relatives in a supportive student family. Can we learn from this model to give more students the chance to get involved and serve others?

Stockholm University- Stockholms universitets studentkår (Student Union)


Of note:

  • Stockholm University- public university in Stockholm founded as a college in 1878, with university status since 1960. A whopping 70,000 students at four different faculties: law, humanities, the mathematical, and natural sciences so one of the largest universities in Scandinavia and fourth oldest Swedish university.
  • We got fairly deep into the SU system here. Compulsory student unionism ended in 2010 (it was always funded via a fee but that used to be compulsory) although by law students have to be consulted and there has to be at least one SU.
  • SUs have “Non Governmental Organisation” status rather than charities.
  • SUS has a Student Representation focus- there is a three year focus plan, plus prioritised influence goals and annual operative plan. It also supports societies but the bulk of social activity is organised via faculty associations
  • Its promoted influence goals are Health and Wellbeing, Widening Participation, Social Activities- Social Learning Space, Course Literature, Student Housing and An inclusive University
  • The assembly operates on a party list system with both traditional political parties and others competing for votes to form the parliament.
  • There was a very strong quasi autonomous student council for PhD students, organising student representation, social activity etc
  • They are funded via membership fee (120 SEK a semester, about £10), some government funding and University funding- this supports their representation work and the Ombudsperson service as is common across Sweden.

Of interest:

  • SUS has three subsidiary companies- it carries out Sports Facility maintenance, a second hand bookstore and a chain of student restaurants around Sweden! Interestingly these don’t fund the main SU- profits go back into the social enterprises to keep prices down. Could we learn from this model of social enterprise with a focus on prices instead of funding the SU in the UK?
  • In their education and representation work they are strongly issue led. Training for reps is focussed around identifying issues and ways of solving the issues, making recommendations for the faculty or University. This is as much about briefing students in general on policies and issues as it is about involving reps. Could we learn from this approach in the UK when supporting reps?
  • Their liberation group work is pretty under developed- but their rights and advocacy services for individuals do have a strong focus and strand on discrimination partly because a specific line in law guarantees “equal access”. This is arguably an area where the UK system is weak- could we learn from this approach?

SFS- Sveriges Förenade Studentkårer (Swedish NUS)

Of note:

  • SFS is an umbrella (confederation) of students’ unions within HE in Sweden. Founded 1921, 47 affiliated students’ unions, 270,000 students. Represents the interests of its members on a national level- Government, the Swedish Parliament, the political parties and the government agencies concerned with higher education.
  • Also active on the international arena, particularly within the European Students’ Union, ESU.
  • Annual national conference- unions meet to decide on the policy framework of the organisation and to elect a national board. The board has 15 members, including the President and two or three Vice Presidents. The President and the Vice Presidents work full-time at the head office in Stockholm during their term.
  • Even with the funding model they have where large amounts come from membership fees, SFS is concerned that local SUs daren’t bite the hand that feeds for the grant element!
  • SFS regional organisations have a strong focus on housing

Of interest:

  • Their campaigns have a relentless education focus. For example- a recent campaign (accompanied by evidence reports and clever policy) was all about demanding that teachers are better trained. Could we learn from this strong education focus in the UK’s national policy work?

  • SFS’ student city of the year is a long running project that focusses on efforts made by the local authority and University to make the City student friendly. There is much competition and it’s an innovative way of delivering policy work and getting messages across. Could we learn from this approach when promoting pro student agendas?

Karlstad University (Swedish Karlstads universitet) and Karlstad Studentkår (Student Union)


Of note:

  • The sunshine University! State university in Karlstad, former university college (founded 1977) granted university status in 1999 (was a branch of the University of Gothenburg)
  • 16,000 students with a focus on training professionals- the CTF Service Research Centre (Swedish Centrum för tjänsteforskning) at Karlstad University is one of the world’s leading research centres focusing on public service management and value creation through service.
  • The motto of the University is Sapere aude (Dare to know).
  • They’re very proud of their student led teaching awards

  • Again they have to sell membership- and the focus is on student security and discounts

  • There’s a lovely (but small and poorly funded) student house; a student ombudsperson; a magazine and here course reps are framed as “programme council” reps (again they form into a council who develop education policy)
  • Funding from the local authority delivers a mental/physical/sexual health project

  • Their doctoral section is particularly impressive with its own volunteer ombudsperson

  • Small admin staff team (about 3)

Of interest:

  • The SU as others has an assembly elected on a list system with lists that consists of a number of political and non political party lists. The assembly then goes on to elect the officers/board of the SU, with a focus on experience in elected officers. Could UK SUs learn from this approach?
  • The SU has developed a strong “student city” agenda with five clear demands- Housing, Buses, Mental Health, Representation in the City’s decision making and Safety. Could UK SUs learn from this approach to strengthen the role of students within a local area/city/community?
  • In truth Karlstad is a pretty rudimentary example of SUs, but its policy portfolio is impressive. At its core is a permanent “opinions” document covering all the big student life issues (“what the SU thinks about issues of education quality, study social issues and legal certainty and influence”)- students can propose to revise these, launch special investigations on them or prioritise projects on them- and they don’t contain “resolves”. This gives the SU a solid long term policy base without harming democracy or depending on a stream of ideas or motions- new officers are inducted into these and it encourages medium term strategic influence planning where the UK focus is on organisational strategic planning. Could UK SUs learn from this approach, developing a solid beliefs platform across the key portfolios?


We were sad to leave Sweden but our final leg was a visit to Oslo to meet with three types of student organisation. A number of issues and ideas crystallised here in the final leg of our exhausting week!

Of note:

  • Eight universities, nine specialised universities, 24 university colleges as well as a range of private university colleges.
  • Bologna process- bachelor’s degrees (first cycle, three years), master’s degrees (second cycle, two years) and doctoral degrees (third cycle, three years).
  • Acceptance is offered after finishing upper secondary school with something called “general university admissions certification”
  • Public HE is “free” with an academic year with two semesters, from August to December and from January to June. “Free” here only means the education bit- even things like counselling are student funded through semester fees.
  • Student funding is a mixture of grant and loan with some incentives for completing on time
  • The ultimate responsibility for the education lies with the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.
  • About 230,000 students in all.

Noway- Norsk studentorganisasjon NSO- Norway’s NUS


Of note:

  • 181 delegates attend their General Assembly
  • There are six sabbs at NSO- President, VP, 2 Education Sabbs, International Students and Welfare and Equality
  • Plus some admin staff and four Political Advisors
  • It operates on 4 clustered working groups (like NUS zones)
  • There is a big focus on Lobbying, with deep links into Government, Ministers, NGOs etc etc
  • It has 2 Board Members on the equivalent of UUK, and given the law guarantees 20% student representation on basically everything it has to find about 3-500 people to sit on boards every year
  • It does engage in local capacity building work often using its own Alumni network of former Su officers/sabbs (“Oldies”)
  • A big campaign is student funding- for example they have campaigned for the student maintenance package to last 10.5 months rather than 10
  • The student loan gets converted into 40% in grants if you pass (You can work but if you earn 18k euros you lose your grant)
  • Another major campaign has focussed on getting the Government to define student health (student mental health issues on the rise) and to stop students falling between the two stools of childhood and general population. They are also campaigning for a third legal gender.

Of interest:

  • This was the most vivid example of a functioning democracy that focussed well on policy and issues. As in some Swedish SUs there is a solid platform of beliefs for the working groups that can be updated and amended by assembly (resolves and actions are planned by boards). They also publish results of enquiries (research areas led by their policy staff), still allow motions on contemporary issues and supplementary policy platforms on key issues like Health. All but the contemporary resolutions are long, carefully developed documents involving students and reps and are developed through research and discussion rather than constant voting. Could we learn from this approach when thinking about student policy issues?

  • There is a very strong involvement from their alumni network- ex sabbs deliver a large amount of consultancy and capacity building for free. This a major untapped resource in the UK- could we learn from this approach and give SUs access to wealth of experience?
  • The deep focus on lobbying work across Government and Civil society clearly pays off for them in terms of influence- they have respect across political parties, unions, NGOs etc and this helps with their campaigns and policy work and prevents students being seen separately in society. Could we learn from this focus on influence at a national level?

Studentsamskipnaden i Oslo og Akershus- Oslo and Akershus Student Welfare Organisation


The Welfare Council- Studentvelferd Oslo

Of note:

  • This is where things got very interesting! SiO is a student co-operative regional student welfare organisation- run like a company but with a student dominated board.
  • It handles housing (with 8500 units and up to 20,000 bedspaces), Sport (facilities, clubs and participation), Counselling, GP Services, Societies (600), 40 Cafes, Catering, Careers and Nurseries. Employs 600 people. Serves 67k students as members and turns over 1.1billion NOK.
  • It is funded through a semester fee (about £55 a term) and it even rents out skis poles and boots for the snow!
  • The Government subsidises student housing but SiO doesn’t get funding from Universities (only space)
  • One of the groups SiO funds is a Welfare Council- a student interest organisation, that provides students connected to SiO with a strong voice in matters concerning student welfare.
  • The Welfare Council chooses half of the members on the Board of SiO, including the chairman, who has a double vote. The Welfare Council also elects student representatives to all other boards and committees in SiO.
  • In the Welfare Council there are 37 representatives, each of them representing 1.500 students. Because of this, the Welfare Council has a large impact on the Student Welfare Organisation, and also manages part of the student fee revenues.
  • It has three sabbs all of its own!

Of interest:

  • As such “Free Education” in Norway isn’t directly comparable- here it “means” education strictly with welfare, careers and student activities services funded through regional co-operatives. Could this be an angle when looking at how tackle the student funding debate?
  • This model is efficient and looks very student responsive, yet also professional. About £7m in semester fees is serving almost 70,000 students and multiple Universities. Could these sorts of regional, collaborative student co-operative solutions be a new model for looking at responsive student services in the UK? What if Universities were only allowed to charge for education and other services were spun off in this way? Could we learn from these models?

And Finally


Some general reflections:

  • The trip was also rewarding because of the conversations with other SUs which were much richer than at the usual SU events and provide further opportunities for collaboration
  • The relative lack of a national BUCS framework ironically seems to mean much more social sport being played at every University
  • The separation of organisational functions everywhere appears to mean thousands more students involved in SU functions and University functions than in the UK
  • There is less money about and it shows. Fees and competition have ushered in facilities spend in England even if the system we have is a rotten way to fund it.
  • There’s a real focus on education and issues. Everywhere you look there’s hundreds of students actively involved in the development of their experience.
  • Their NUS’ impressive focus pays dividends. In fact organisational focus albeit in fragmented settings in comparison looks highly effective and excellent value for money.
  • The culture of volunteerism is rampant and deep and everywhere. Large parts of the student experience are created by thousands of volunteers or co-ops. It’s pretty uncool to not be running something. And it’s almost all School Plays instead of Broadway Musicals- the involvement matters.
  • We have so much to learn re student rights. All the SUs employ ombudspeople that solve problems and enforce student rights and promote rights. Student rights are everywhere without the consumer origin that makes some queasy here.
  • Policy making in SUs is fascinating. Instead of the UK model of motions or glorified suggestion boxes they all have powerful, optimistic visionary beliefs that encompass all areas of student life.
  • The role of student democracy- which is respectful and collaborative- is to revise or prioritise rather than chew through a million “motions”. They are literally teaching a different way to do democracy based around mediating one’s interests out in public rather than grandstanding which we should look at.
  • Social activity is organised in all sorts of interesting ways but tons of it appears to deliver bridging social capital in a way that ours doesn’t.
  • It isn’t perfect. There are much lower overall participation rates. And away from the bifurcated binary English debates the lack of use of student satisfaction data or competition does have down sides. There were bits that were brilliant but probably about historical accident, or culture, or the weather. But so much of what they do on a fraction of some of our budgets is creative, powerful and exciting.
  • HE is about outcomes and qualifications and careers. Replication. Delivery. Expectations. Skills. Finding your place in the world. But it should also be transformative. Creation. Innovation. Informality. Discovery. Changing the world. Our group sensed that the Scandis are better at the combo than us.
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Opinion: Innovation in Universities Mon, 06 Aug 2018 05:01:00 +0000 August is very much the ‘Golden Hour’ for those of us who are lucky enough to work in Student Unions. This is the time (depending on what sort of University you are in) that there is a dearth of undergraduates, and the new sabbatical team are now comfortable in their new environment and churning out a host of new iniatives. A lot of these ideas will inevitably fall by the wayside, but it is the culture and enthusiasm of innovation here that is important.

The real crucible of student ideas is of course the annual elections which is all about who can innovate, persuade, and cajole their vision of what needs to be done differently. When the winning candidates assume their roles, they are then supported to deliver on what was promised when they were candidates. Some Unions don’t actually make a huge effort to follow through on election promises, but I am proud to say Surrey Union does. Each officer is supported by a dedicated member of staff, who will help them and their part time officer team deliver as far as possible what was promised.

Some of the things many students now take for granted were at one time simply a bullet point on a manifesto:

  • 24hr library opening
  • University lettings agency
  • Nightbus
  • Student Voice Forum
  • Annual Varsity
  • Enhanced support for wellbeing

All these, and more incremental improvements came about either directly as an election idea or as an evolution of a manifesto point. Anyone who works in a University will also know that change does not come about overnight – indeed some of these things appeared long after the officer who proposed it had shuffled off to a glittering career elsewhere, and that is the interesting point. When an officer team want to introduce an internal innovation, one which is defined exclusively to the Union, it can invariably be introduced in that academic year, but when that innovation touches the University it may take many more months to introduce

Why is it hard to innovate at speed in a University?

The answer here is two fold, money, and risk.

Why can a Union decide on an idea then do it? Quite simply, the University has already stumped up the money to make it happen. There is practically no financial risk to trying out new ideas as the annual block grant will sustain any calamities if it goes wrong. As we know, where there is innovation, there is often failure and who provides the backstop if a University needs to fund an idea like putting a new campus on the moon?

At one time, that would have been HEFCE, the practical remit of which was as their name suggests – fund higher education insititutions. Sometimes, HEFCE would just make money available to ‘see what would happen’ as in the case of the CETL funding which made over £300m available over five years. Alternatively if you had a madcap idea you could apply to the HEFCE Catalyst fund, which in the last year of its existence sat at £30m (still a far cry from the £60m annual funding for CETL).

The now diminshed £20m catalyst fund should now be used (according to Sam Gyimah) to

“…to have regard to how the higher education sector supports the Government’s broader economic policy as defined by the Industrial Strategy, in particular relating to the skills and employability of graduates from all backgrounds”

This is an important shift, where the fund is now an extension of current government policy and is falling in line with their current thinking that University only leads to a graduate salary. The irony of course is the funding council for higher education which was a council that funded higher education, has been replaced by the Office for Students whose job is it to impose and promote government policy on HE institutions through controlled access to money. This has created a very bizare inverse nationalisation where Universities are now effectively private, having to exist on their market attractiveness, but have a regulator who is increasing a market based vice like grip on their activities and outputs. This is what is now creating the risk averse nature in Universities.

0 (1)

With the decrease in teaching funding over the years Universities have to rely on the tuition loan income to survive, and as that has been frozen, this leads to the challenge of recruiting more students from a diminishing pool to survive.

0 (2)

This perfect storm of reduced central funding, diminishing student base, and market effects of league tables has a paralysing effect on University innovation. This risk is simply too great to try something new, or even slightly different in case it causes an alarmist headline.

I get work on the campus that 5G is being developed, a truly incredible research project that will change the world, and one which was funded heavily by HEFCE.

So while a 24 hour library, or a lettings agency may seem like small changes to you – however, imagine if the safety net of financial protection was spread out beneath the nations Universities and what they would be able to bring to bear for the public good with the right encouragement?

That would be something to be excited about.

This piece was originally published on linkedin

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Our Sector: Being a Students’ Union CEO (for 11 months) Mon, 30 Jul 2018 07:04:15 +0000 Andy Morwood, Head of Student Voice and Engagement Westminster SU: “Last year while I was at Westminster, the Chief Exec did me a pretty massive favour and let me go on a secondment to St Mary’s Students’ Union to be Chief Exec for a maternity cover role. I finished it off in the spring and because I’m a reflective sort I figured it might be worth writing about and MAYBE one or two things might be interesting for people. This is what I wrote back in May”Small and Specialist SU’s are amazing

At Westminster the Engagement and Activities team I was managing was made up of myself plus five staff (and a few student staff). For the running of the entire SU at St Mary’s there was myself plus six staff (and a few student staff). The union doesn’t do less than others, we cover societies, sports, campaigns, democracy, academic representation, commercial events, run an astonishingly large varsity, etc. But we definitely had to do it on much less resource than a significant number of HE Students’ Unions. The phrase spinning plates became a very regular part of my conversations very quickly.

How isn’t everyone else tired?

This may be related to the above point, but I couldn’t get my head wrapped round other senior leaders who do these roles and then seem to have energy to do other things? What’s the secret gang? Do you all eat broccoli and swear off alcohol?

An SU needs to be fully independent of the University to be most effective

This was the first union I’d worked at where all the staff were employees of the university, including myself. This meant that my line manager was one of the university senior management team, but I also answered to the trustee board of the SU. Everyone was incredibly lovely but I never quite worked out what would happen if one person told me to do one thing and the board told me to do another.

We also had to follow the university recruitment procedures for staff, which involved getting approval for a role (full business case), then submitting it through the HERA process, then putting it out and going through the university procedures for… etc. Not only was this SLOW but it also makes things hard to budget for because you don’t actually know what a role will cost until it’s been approved and gone through HERA.

If you’re going to work for a small organisation you hope that at least one of the things it’ll have going for it is flexibility, when a university imposes the full administrative procedures on the union you definitely don’t get that.

(Also for long winded tax reasons we had to pay VAT on staff salaries!)

NUS Affiliation is really expensive if you don’t have commercial outlets

1_eivk4t01IYETTelFDqyevgTo memory, I think the affiliation fee for NUS for St Mary’s was around £15k (4% of our block grant). The way it’s always been sold as worth it at the other places I’ve worked was the access to the commercial trading arm of NUS meaning staff don’t have to spend time cutting deals for the shops and bars. But if you don’t have anything commercial then… well it becomes a tougher sell. Even more so when the training for officers is extra money on top of things. Even more so when free events aren’t really things that you have time to go on because you’ve got 6 different plates to spin (told you I used it a lot) doing things that absolutely have to be done as opposed to going to the thing that sounds really good but is a nice to have rather than an essential thing.

Wouldn’t it make sense to have a lower affiliation fee for unions that don’t need access to the trading wing of NUS? Or maybe not charging for things like officer training which everyone sends their officers to.

Where do you go when you need to get legal advice?

I’ve been lucky enough never to need to have to get legal advice. I nicked a sweet from Tesco once but my mum caught me and that was the end of my criminal career. However, when the trustee board asked me to get legal advice on a Memorandum of Understanding with the University I was completely flummoxed. In the end (with the board’s permission) I just asked other chief execs if it made sense, but if I genuinely did need to get independent legal advice, where do you go? How do I know I’m not getting ripped off?

Chief Executive doesn’t feel like quite the right job title

For starters I was completely unable during my entire time as chief exec to not say something along the lines of “but it’s not as grand as it sounds” when someone asked what I did due to my terminal inability to feel comfortable with job titles that I don’t perceive as being for me, but Chief Exec doesn’t seem quite right.

A few months ago the Freakonomics podcast had a special series about CEO’s. What they do, where they come from, what toothpaste they use, all the good stuff. The Chief Executive is empowered by the board to pretty much make any decision (though they have to answer for it eventually). The example that sticks in my mind was the new Chief Exec of Microsoft writing off the company’s entire 7.6 billion dollar investment in Nokia in the first few months that they were put in place. In a Students’ Union, a Chief Executive can’t just make a decision, they have to work with the officer team, get their buy in and in some cases get them to make the official decision. Sometimes the officers will say no, which is fine because that’s how SU’s work. But the weird mix of civil servant implementing decisions and political special advisor trying to give officers the best advice they can is a really weird one.

What’s the right title? Goodness knows.

How are you meant to understand commercial elements of your role when you’ve come through a non-commercial side of the student movement

I didn’t get into the Students’ Union sector because I’m particularly driven by profit. The roles I’d done up to now have largely revolved around volunteer management, strategic planning, delivering training with outcomes being (generally) measured on numbers of students involved with things, successful campaigns, election turnouts, etc. In this role I was suddenly the lead staff member with commercial responsibility. I’ve never had training on that and it’s not something I’m aware of courses for. I raised it at the first London CEO get together as the thing I was most worried by but was challenged by another CEO who said something along the lines of how as long as you set the values which you want to see implemented then it’s not something to be concerned about, which I suppose works in bigger unions but in the small ones where you really have to be involved in everything then it doesn’t really work out like that.

Fundamentally, how do you manage staff in an area where you don’t specialise/have a great deal of knowledge?

I’m incredibly pleased I got the chance to do the role. I’ve learnt an astonishing amount and from what I understand wasn’t too awful at the gig (as close to a self compliment as you get from me). I’m glad it was a temporary thing though, I didn’t realise quite how mentally exhausted I was till I’d had my first week off after finishing and noticed how I was literally walking in a more relaxed and slower way because I wasn’t worrying about work things. Self care is no joke gang.

I’m definitely not put off wanting to do it again somewhere else at some point because having done it once you’re able to say legitimately the next time you know exactly the things that you want to have in place or do rather than having a rough understanding of the theory of what you’d like to do.

For now though I’m looking forward to getting back to Westminster SU. I’m definitely not leaving Students’ Unions, after all…

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Our Sector: Hear the drummer get wicked Thu, 26 Jul 2018 14:18:51 +0000 At this time of the year lots of staff in the student movement are thinking about how they might support their officers in delivering their manifestos. Jim Dickinson has taken a keen interest in the content of student officer manifestos over the years, and as well as trying to get a handle on issues like trends, tone etc he’s also been thinking about the nature of the problems or proposed solutions that the myriad of bullet points represent.

Policy theory would suggest three types of problem:

  • Critical problems (usually labelled as crises) demand an immediate reaction from leaders. There is usually high opportunity or threat. They tend to require rapid (although thoughtful and analytical) responses; a level of discipline in handling; and tight coordination. Critical problems require commanders.
  • Tame problems are those which may be complicated but which are contained and easily solved using discreet interventions; entail only a limited degree of uncertainty and can be addressed by rolling similar solutions (albeit with sensitivity to context) that were used to address a problem of this type previously. Tame problems are managed.
  • Wicked problems are those which are complex, not just complicated. There is a lack of agreement about precisely what the problem is. They come about as a result of a number of interrelated drivers, each of which cannot be tackled without having a knock-on impact on the other drivers. Wicked problems are coordinated.

The most obvious example of a national critical problem would be the 2010 fees issue, but the Education Act 1994 is another good example. At a local level there might be a proposed closure of a campus or major cut to a service- or a good old fashioned local media scandal (take any variety of culture wars/freedom of speech). Critical problems are often complicated but can be simplified by simple, single goals where there is a chance to win/lose and where most a) agree on the goal and or b) view it as their “historic” role to pursue it.

The bulk of SU work is tame insofar as it consists of managed programmes of work with outcomes. For example- the need to annually train course reps falls easily into this category, or to run a facility or service or activity programme. In the tame space elected officers act as ministers for work programmes and may want elements or emphasis to change. The other type of tame goal is the simple problem/solution- more microwaves on campus, a better vegan food range etc.

Wicked problems are much more amorphous- as indicated there tends to be disagreement about the nature, scope and scale of a problem; it is much more likely to be different in each SU/institution; there are a range of responses that an SU might deploy. The role of an SU in these cases is to do detailed policy/research work; convene taskforces; develop hypotheses; run experiments; and report on efforts/experimentation. They are also much more likely to affect different groups of students in different ways and provoke debate- often existential. The aim here is to get lots of different, convergent activity and thinking going and share it.

In any given year issues can shift. The issue of student finance is traditionally a wicked one (and there is a great description of it as a “wicked problem” in NUS’ 2012 “Pound in your pocket” report). At the other end of the spectrum critical problems come and go; and in some years tame or wicked problems can be manufactured into critical problems through false urgency (an incoming CEO that can see that the SU is eighteen months away from bankruptcy will likely do their best to work a problem up into a critical state).

Delivering Manifestos

If I look at the state of manifesto “delivery” across the student movement and particularly within SUs, I think it’s fair to say that we are comfortable in the tame space; variously able to cope in the critical space and generally quite poor in the wicked space. Given the dominant developmental “currency” in the student movement is the management qualification, it’s no surprise that we like tame problems with certainty of outcomes and solid planning. Boards like tame problems, and they fit our structures and academic years. And unions look to NUS and other SUs for tame solutions- best practice, model planning documents, sample policies- tried and tested solutions to well understood problems.

There are different levels of capacity over critical problems. Any SU with a lively and well funded student newspaper is likely to have formal or informal capacity that is able to weather a media storm. This capacity, which is about rapid response and tactical campaigning when windows of influence are short then comes in handy over unexpected opportunities and threats that can arise. Unions without that capacity might look to NUS and other unions for help when a critical problem comes along- media storms, campus closures, student occupations, and internal scandals all fit the bill.

When it comes to wicked problems, arguably we have a weakness as a student movement. Remember wicked problems are old. People often think the solution is easier than it is. There’s no criteria for when the problem is fixed, success or failure judgments are subjective, there is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem, and every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

If I look through manifestos I see lots of wicked problems. Sexual harassment and assault on campus was for many years a good example. “SU Engagement” is another. Mental Health on campus is a classic. Value for Money/Student Costs is there too. In some cases- just like in the “real” political world, manifestos and officer support will shift a wicked problem into the tame space- pretending that a single intervention, poster, project or week will somehow fix an issue. Politicians (including student ones) and their staff are comfortable here because you can be seen to be delivering and making progress.

In other cases- just like in the “real” political world- manifestos, officer support and the events of an academic year will shift a wicked problem into the critical space. In this case decisive, swift action to tackle an issue is expected of political leaders and the critical nature of the issue can mean a doing away of having to secure consensus or run pilots. Responses to failure are often here- a student suicide, or a building fire, or a clutch of student representative resignations are ripe for the conversion.

Pretending they’re not wicked

So policymakers, politicians and support staff often treat Wicked problems as though they were Tame or Critical. But we know from both the “real world” (see obesity, mental health, anti-social behaviour as good examples) that wicked problems are not caused by a single factor but rather a complex web of drivers; social, economic and environmental. And attempting to solve them with a single, discreet intervention is misguided and likely to be counterproductive.

Global warming and the rise of biofuels is a classic case of mistakenly treating a Wicked problem with a Tame solution that compounds the original challenge. When Global Warming first emerged as a problem some of the responses concentrated on solving the problem through science (a Tame response), manifest in the development of biofuels. But we now know that the first generation of biofuels appear to have denuded the world of significant food resources- so that what looked like a solution actually became another problem. This is typical of what happens when we try to solve Wicked Problems: other problems emerge to compound the original problem.

Knife crime is another good example. Politicians are more likely to be praised for introducing new stop-and-search powers than for mobilising the community to engage with the issue in their neighbourhoods. Because we demand a decisive response from our leaders, many learn to “seek out” (or reframe situations as) crises.

A cursory glance at any set of elected student officer manifestos reveals a list of wicked problems. Sometimes they are framed as tame or critical but we know they’re wicked. This is not surprising- the world, Universities and the student experience is much more complex than it was even a decade ago. But it does mean that our support for officers in achieving their goals needs to match the diversity and complexity of the problems.

Cultural Understandings

Here’s a good example. An “elegant” solution to a tame problem usually involves a solution that focuses on the use of one particular cultural understanding. They are often simple, practical and with a clear timeframe, and are therefore useful for tackling Tame problems where the response needed is fairly obvious to all concerned. In terms of these cultural understandings:

  • Hierachists tackle problems by implementing stringent rules and punishments;
  • Egalitarians cultivate norms and community values; and
  • Individualists design incentives and support structures.

In the case of sexual harassment on campus:

  • Hierachists think about SU and University behavioural codes
  • Egalitarians want to make sure we influence social norms (“It’s Never OK/Consent education”)
  • Individualists design incentives and support structures (Leaflet on what to do if a “victim”)

The problem is that using one frame rarely works:

  • Individualists can solve the problem of decreasing carbon emissions from cars (a Tame problem open to a scientific solution), but they cannot solve Global Warming (a Wicked problem)
  • Egalitarians can help ex-offenders back into the community (a Tame problem) but they cannot solve crime (a Wicked problem)
  • Hierachists can improve rule enforcement for the fraudulent abuse of social services (a Tame problem) but they cannot solve poverty (a Wicked problem)

In other words, not everyone responds well to punitive hierarchical measures, not everyone is influenced by social norming and nor is everyone affected equally by the incentives and support offered by individualists. It is a mixture of approaches- characterised by asking the right questions, developing deeper understanding, developing multiple hypotheses and testing them in different ways that can make progress.

This then leads us to consider different types of leadership behaviour that might be needed by student officers. Critical problems need very traditional (and often very “male”) leadership skills- Commanding, Directing, Insisting, Urgency, Threat etc. Tame problems need other types of skills- Managing, Planning, Evaluating, Task Allocation that have often been considered the domain of managers/staff.

But wicked problems need other types of behaviour- Questioning, convening & experimenting, involving and storytelling:

  • Leadership over wicked problems means asking multiple questions, commissioning discovery, developing lines of enquiry about a problem and discovering things (“nursing students have a different view on this to others”).
  • It involves suggesting hypotheses about things that might work, and then running & evaluating experiments to see if the hypotheses was true (“did the peer support training work?”).
  • It involves identifying stakeholders (both within the student body and externally) and helping student leaders to engage people in the process.
  • It involves student leaders being able to secure emotional commitment keep people motivated when the process is clumsy, long, experimental and complex- through story telling and political narrative.
  • And it involves sharp thinking, chunking problems up and down (Bricks? Walls? Cathedrals? Religion?) and knowing when to shift a problem into the tame or critical space (for example- nationally, student finance was last year a wicked problem- ie NUS Poverty Commission- but is now critical- ie Augar Review)


There is also a democratic consideration to these issues. Since the introduction of Trustee Boards there have been all sorts of changes, innovations and reforms to policy making. Some SUs have abandoned policy making altogether; some have clung to their councils (or split them into multiple councils) retaining “notes believes resolves” and some (on prompting from UnionCloud and MSL) have gone for glorified suggestion and ideas boxes with added upvoting. And then alongside many unions have employed policy and research staff whose outputs, proposals and recommendations often don’t manifest inside the aforementioned structures.

When a student is given an essay assignment it involves lots of work- research, drafting, reading, going to talk to academics, thinking etc. And when it’s marked that involves work too- reading, looking at rubric, moderating etc. One of the curious features of students’ union democratic reform is that it has tended to focus on deepening or broadening participation in the marking “bit” of policy making but in almost all systems the development of ideas, proposals, motions or policies remains a solitary effort. Why aren’t we collectivising the formative bit of complex policy making rather than obsessing over the summative/marking bit?

And we also know that the systems we have often don’t fit. A good simple idea about an SU service on an ideas platform probably ought to just be implemented without hassle or upvoting. A practical concern probably doesn’t need a notes, believes resolves approach. And a complex problem sometimes doesn’t fit the referendum model. See Brexit.


But one of the most curious aspects of the state of SU democratic culture is our failure to properly experiment with deliberative democracy. In the graph above we can see representative (councils), direct (referenda) and participatory (clubs and societies) in use in SUs but across the world interesting and meaningful experiments in deliberative democracy are starting to take hold. And given the size and diversity of most of our student populations and the complexity (wickedness) of the problems our officers are trying to solve, we probably need to try some of the approaches out.

Deliberative approaches are usually characterised as follows:

  • Representative- in the sense that they involve a representative cross-section (or mini-public) of the community, usually selected at random;
  • Deliberative- allowing for extended consideration of a key question;
  • Influential- the presumption that decision-makers will take direction from the outcomes of the deliberation;
  • Broad- A focus is put on the fundamental idea of democracy with an emphasis on listening, participation and cooperation and the opportunity to consider, respectfully, a range of views and ideas rather than merely voting;
  • Diverse- The random selection of participants gives access to quiet voices and to people who may not otherwise have had any engagement;
  • Sustainable- It can lead to better, more sustainable decisions by providing people the time and opportunity to take a ‘deep dive’ into difficult issues;
  • Trust- People are more likely to trust the outcomes of a process which is seen to be representative and informed by ordinary people, ‘just like me’ rather than representatives (who tend to be mistrusted because they are no longer ‘just like me’).
  • It is the use of specific and robust methods to inform representative groups of ordinary citizens so that these citizens, having heard every side of an argument and having had a chance to deliberate, can reach a view which – like a jury in a criminal trial – can stand for the conclusions which would have been reached by any representative group going through the same process.

A quick google search provides lots of examples and case studies and Matthew Taylor’s annual RSA lecture is a good primer on the principles, background and case for the approach. They’ve also launched a call for organisations and individuals prepared to trial deliberative democracy approaches that SU’s ought to consider applying to. And charities like involve have help, support and ideas we can use.

Ultimately three things strike me:

  • Many student officer manifesto points are old, wicked and require sophisticated staff support from us;
  • We want SU policy to work and have a lasting and proper impact on students;
  • If we really believe that we are the engine room for democratic and political participation (and being student led) we should be at the forefront of innovation in that space.
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Elsewhere: What’s new in college unions? Tue, 22 May 2018 06:52:20 +0000 Each year,ACUI’s “The Bulletin” showcases inventive programs and services recently introduced in US (and beyond) college unions and student activities. Among these may be new events, organizations, amenities, or campaigns implemented to better meet the needs of today’s campus communities. The ideas represent just a few of the many creative solutions professionals and students have undertaken in recent months and may serve as the inspiration for many more to be shared in the years to come.

Student Art Gallery

Student Art Gallery
Submitted by Elizabeth Rockstroh, Associate Director of Communications and Programs
A space that served as a student art gallery was typically closed during academic breaks. But this past year, the space was transformed into an interactive exhibit that promoted diversity and creativity. Gallery guests were welcomed by a wall that read “You bring color to UTSA” and encouraged visitors to color on the walls, sharing their thoughts about the university, their goals, and struggles they had to overcome. The space was a popular destination and was included in orientation sessions for first-year students.


Nut-Free Zone
As part of a broader campus campaign to enhance dining services, Miami University’s Armstrong Student Center will now feature a nut-free zone. To achieve this allergen-friendly environment, nuts have been removed from all recipes and areas where food is prepared.


Escape Room
Submitted by Heather Rapp, Event Coordinator 
An unused space in the Memorial Union was transformed into an escape room. More than 400 students and staff have taken advantage of it. While it is free for students, future plans include setting up external reservations to create revenue for the Activities Team.

Food Shed
Food Shed

Recently UW–Madison started the Food Shed program. Four refrigerators, including one in the Student Activities Center, give campus community members access to free produce, provided by “agriculture researchers and local farms with excess crops,” the university announced. A student started the project with a $5,000 grant to help with food security needs and to use vegetables and fruits that end up being composted because local food banks cannot make use of all of them. Produce will be available from May to November.


‘Ribbon’ Cutting
Instead of cutting a ribbon to open its newly renovated 80,000-square-foot space, University President Rita Cheng and Sodexo North America Vice President Barry Telford cut a length of pasta that had been draped across the entry, reminiscent of a foot-wide lasagna noodle. The LEED Gold-rated building now includes six dining options, including Italian.


Color Me Stress Free
Submitted by Brigitte Szivos, Associate Director for Union Operations
A new space in the Student Union encourages students to take a break and relieve stress by using creative tools, coloring, and snacking.


On-Campus Service Day 
In preparation for the start of a new school year, administrators, faculty, alumni, and staff participated in a service project to freshen up the campus. Tasks included cleaning desks, floors, audio-visual equipment, and classroom surfaces.


Wrestling Team Practice
Although the University of Missouri wrestling team has captured division championship titles for several years and included an Olympian bronze medalist, many campus community members had never seen them in action. To promote the team, the Tigers held a midday practice in middle of the Student Center last November. Passersby were able to see the team warm up and train during the two hours the team spent doing drills on black mats laid out in the atrium.


Aryeh’s Kitchen
Parked next to the Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Student Center is now Aryeh’s Kitchen, “the only campus food truck in the United States offering a fully kosher menu, including meat items, like brisket, pastrami, chicken and ox burger,” the student newspaper reported. The silver Airstream trailer provides quick kosher meals that were previously unavailable to the campus community.


Gallery 23
The student-run art gallery inside the UTSA University Center is hosting an Instagram photography challenge in November. The exhibit will include entries from 10 winning photographers.


Indigenous Fashion Show
As a fundraiser for the Native Student Union, last year the Indigenous and Visible fashion show highlighted students and community members wearing clothing and jewelry “representing their Alaska Native culture and heritage,” the university reported. Proceeds went to support emerging leaders and advocacy efforts related to Alaska Native policy.


Douglass Community Kitchen
Submitted by David Graupman, Assistant Director, Student Life Operations
The Community Kitchen is part of the recently renovated Douglass Commons. Often used by student organizations to host events and meetings, the space has an oven, stove, dishwasher, and various other appliances. In one semester, more than 50 events were hosted in the space, including Liquid Nitro Ice Cream Social, Israel Cooking Demo, Turkish Coffee & Conversation, and The Festival of Food, Film, & Cultures.

Solar Electric Sidewalk
Solar Electric Sidewalk

In addition to the solar-powered roof of the union building, Thompson Rivers University now boasts what it is calling “North America’s first solar sidewalk.” Sixteen solar modules were installed that provide energy to power the nearby sustainability office. Additionally, the public will benefit from learning about how pavement and everyday structures can be used to conserve and produce energy.


Holi: Festival of Colors
To celebrate Holi, the festival of colors in India, the Indian Student Association held an event at the intramural fields on campus. If they wanted, people were welcomed with a splash of color at the entrance of the event. Every 45 minutes, participants could gather in the center of the field for a “color wave.” They would countdown and then throw handfuls of colored powder in the air together. The festival also featured Bollywood music, Indian food, henna tattoos, dance offs, sing offs, and hula-hoop contests. A designated area had buckets of water and pichikaris (water guns) and a T-shirt sale raised funds for the Aashray Care Home, an orphanage in India for children affected by HIV.


Compost Display
Submitted by Heather Rappaport, Assistant Director
A three-dimensional display was created by Facilities Manager Ronald Buncombe to educate the campus community on compostable materials. Since being installed, the display has garnered much attention, with individuals often stopping to look and learn.


Student Staff Onboarding
In addition to a short employee manual for onboarding new student workers, the Department of Student Life recently developed a First Day Checklist. The goal is the ensure all new staff receive the same introductory experience across the 14 facility management and programmatic units.


Welcome Party
For several months last year, a tent city was allowed to exist on the University of Washington campus. To serve the homeless individuals dwelling there, university nursing students held a welcome party in the South Campus Center. They hosted a potluck and provided pedicures and other foot care to the tent city’s residents.


Bearcat Recognition 
Last year, Binghamton expanded its staff recognition program in the Division of Student Affairs. Its first tier allows individuals to write Bearcat-themed “Gratitude Notes” to affix to a staff member’s chair or door. Monthly, the division also awards Certificates of Recognition and other awards to individuals nominated for recognition; they also have their photo taken with the school mascot. Occasionally Bearcat Baskets also are exchanged that recognize entire offices within the division and include a traveling journal in which to express gratitude.


Holiday Baskets
The Cougar Cave, a food and clothing pantry operated by Associated Student Government, introduced holiday gift baskets in 2016 to help student families in need. On a budget of less than $500 per term, a team collects and distributes primarily donated items that recipients most need. The rest of the year, the Cougar Cave holds a weekly “free food” market and provides clothing donated from the campus community.

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Our Sector: Rewarding and Recognising Volunteers with Very Small Budgets Tue, 22 May 2018 06:45:36 +0000 The two things SU’s say they need more of is always space and money, no matter how big or small the Union is. The significance of funds can be seen even more with small & specialist Unions. This is due to students wanting the same quality and access to resources as their friends in larger institutions (and so they should). This has been seen at Newman SU in Birmingham having 4 much larger institutions rather close and students comparing their options.

So, we need to reward the engaged volunteers that make the Union great and provide opportunities to students for a very small budget. When we are talking about budget at Newman, that can range between £0 – £500 overall. The challenges that face me in my job and Newman SU concerning space and budgeting maybe more severe than larger Unions, but that does not mean our solutions wouldn’t help larger Unions.

What have we done? When it has come to funding, we have put a £500 budget pot for student groups to bid into at two periods throughout the year (October and February). That money is the student groups budget excluding insurance (which is covered by membership fees). To increase this funding, we contacted the Enterprise department on how societies are very similar to small social enterprises. They provide a service for a group of people, have to manage their activities, and manage their funds. This proposal showed that the entrepreneurial spirit is shown in student groups and should be supported by the University’s Enterprise Department. We were able to get match funding for all society grants we give out; support for societies by the Enterprise department; and the opportunity for students as a society to bid for Enterprise grants within Newman.

Money for societies to develop and put on events for their members and the student populous has grown to £1,000 and could be even more through the other Enterprise grants. For rewarding reps, we have developed the Student Accreditation System (SASy Socs) which gives societies objectives over a range of categories. The system can be viewed at . This system has four levels (bronze, silver, gold, platinum) but the problem is, we only have HEAR to reward students at each level.

Level rewards can be very costly. We were originally looking at making grants as part of the system but dividing the money up meant that the grants were very small and not worth the effort according to the members. So, providing rewards for £0 was the task, and we looked again to the University. For the Silver tier, we offer a specialist CV workshop with the University Careers department on how to portray the relevant skills learnt from being a Society Leader. We also offer a marketing design session for the society that is run by the University Marketing department and a few friends of mine in the industry. Valuable skills for students to learn and career development has seem to entice students at this early stage.

For Gold rewards, we looked at what we can offer for free as a Union, which are marketing, and apparel discounts. Committee members at gold will get Union marketing space for an upcoming event; and 6 months of 10% discount on all Union apparel (what we give for NUS Extra at the moment). Platinum rewards were harder to develop. We wanted to offer something that would mean the most for society committee members and could be done at minimum cost. Firstly, we looked at our awards ceremonies and now offer free committee tickets for Sports & Societies Awards (which we have budgeted for and could be covered by sponsorship). We also wanted to recognise these societies who have achieved our highest honour so we have offered support on writing a National Society Awards nomination and if shortlisted, tickets to go to the awards.

Looking at how Unions can provide great services for very small amounts of money is something that we are trying to innovate at Newman SU though Society Rewards, and offering Academic Advice for under £500 and we would not just spread this information to the sector but also showcase the great things other Unions are doing on strict budgets and sharing this best practice

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Our Sector: Election Turnout as a KPI- Relevant or Misguided? Tue, 22 May 2018 06:37:14 +0000 After leaving the student movement just over a year ago this year was the first time in 12 years that I was not been heavily immersed in the mania that is SU elections season. Running Candidate Academy events, delivering candidate briefings, checking live stats every 10 minutes and having creative debate with communications staff on what effective messaging looks like. It may be rose-tinted glasses but I have to be honest, I missed it. The distance from SU elections has given me time to reflect. Some of the happiest times in my professional career were working in a great team within a fantastic Students’ Union taking elections turnout from 17.5% to 40% of the student body in 4 years. A great learning journey and the creation of an incredibly strong engagement culture.

Watching from a distance I have seen some very strong turnouts across the country so far, a great number of Unions reporting record turnouts and continuing to build some strong engagement cultures. I have also seen a number of stagnating Unions and some that are unfortunately moving backwards in terms of turnout. For these Unions is a high elections turnout still desirable or a key objective? Maybe not.

For me, elections turnout has always been an overall indicator for how “engaged” students are with the Students’ Union; for how much the SU resonates with their experience so that they are moved to vote for the candidates that they believe will genuinely improve life for them and their peers. In short, I used to think it was a sign of how relevant the SU was in students’ lives. There is also the age-old argument that a high turnout underlines the ability of the SU to be the legitimate voice of students on campus and beyond, strengthening the position and clout of elected officers in their campaigning and advocacy work. Happening upon a draft of an old debrief from 2014 this week I was reminded of the key principles and processes that led to the creation of a such a healthy engagement culture. Much of this could be common sense and perhaps considered basic but often the best ideas are the simplest ones and very often we see the best teams are the ones that can do the simple things well. With this in mind I thought I would share some of the nuggets of advice from 2014 and beyond that I’ve found to be a winning formula, and as a rather cathartic solution to my SU elections withdrawal.

A Union-wide effort

An important aspect of a truly successful engagement culture is the ability of the department running the election to relinquish control and to try to encourage other Union departments and colleagues to take a sense of ownership of the project. For example, running staff brainstorming sessions on how the Union can encourage more elections candidates and then more voters. Taking their suggestions and asking them to pursue them and report back. This gives staff more of a sense of ownership and emotional investment in the project.

An amazing added value to this was when you open up the elections to your colleagues in the planning stages you then find that during the voting period staff are more intrinsically motivated to wear an elections promo t-shirt or proactively encourage students to vote rather than feeling like they have to. The staff are more invested and there is more of a buzz around the Union.

Issues based engagement: a virtuous circle for candidates and voters

I always believed that campaigning work and democratic work were two sides of the same coin, that if the Students’ Union had an effective method of scoping and tracking the issues that the Union campaigns on this would also be of massive benefit at elections time. So this would involve having a system in place that allows Union officers and staff to have a full picture of the issues that students are experiencing. So looking at Student Advice statistics, results of surveys/focus groups, minutes of course rep meetings, issues coming out of liberation/representation groups, GOATing/GOALing insight, issues coming through democratic decision making or online ideas polling. I could go on and on but the outlets listed here are what I would call “Student Voice Access Points”, and devising a process to know the issues that different segments of the student body are experiencing; in schools, campuses, liberation groups, halls, areas of the local community, courses and other relevant demographics.

The key thing here is being able to appreciate the issues that students are experiencing on a number of diverse levels, so that when it comes to running manifesto workshops with candidates you can then brief them on those issues and encourage them to debate solutions. All too often candidates can be left in the dark when it comes to building winning manifestos but it’s actually better for the student body and the elections if they are given a full insight to student issues in order to craft a meaningful manifesto for voters. As a staff member in an SU if you find yourself wanting to tear your hair out at unrealistic or ill-informed manifesto pledges maybe you should ask yourself what the Union could be doing to ensure strong manifestos that, whilst appreciating candidates’ creativity and individualism, are also accurate in terms of understanding the student experience and the context that the Union operates in. This way of working with candidates also gives a basis of reference for the winning candidates by role-modelling an approach that elected officers should take in listening to the student voice as a key first step before running a campaign or project. Moreover, this becomes a key part of the “support offer” to prospective candidates to encourage more people to run for election. It is also support a Union can ensure a large number of candidates receive, rather than just those that glean this insight by having the confidence to shadow outgoing officers or speak to relevant SU staff prior to running.

This creates the virtuous circle as the efforts made and the resultant relevant manifestos will unquestionably make the elections more relevant to an increased number of students. The next step is to engage students with voting, right?

Tailored messaging for voting – Start with “why” and not “what”

I mentioned above that I fondly look back at parts of my career recalling “creative debates” with various communications staff in SUs about what effective elections messaging looks like. Now, of course the fact that the elections are happening needs to be broadcast via the usual conventional means. But crucially for me; when does this stop? How often do we hear people complaining about voting fatigue or students being bombarded with “vote now” messages? Is it voting fatigue or are students just tired of hearing “vote in the elections” or similar for two weeks straight over many different channels?

The key question for me was one of awareness vs relevance. Are we just trying to ensure students are aware of the elections and then if they are aware the logic dictates that they will vote? Or are we aiming for something more than reach and more than awareness? I think we have to aim for more meaningful engagement. We have to tailor our messaging to ensure students are made aware of the elections and why it is relevant for them to vote; by this I mean the impact they could see in their experience by electing a candidate to create change on their behalf.

We usually lead with “what” and “how”, without sometimes explaining “why” students should vote. So for example you will see a social media post or website/email copy that reads:

“Voting in the SU Elections is now open, cast your vote and have your say on the elections voting app”

This style tells the reader that the SU Elections are happening (“the what”) and that you can vote (“the how”), but where is the why and where is the targeting? Going back to the issues tracking above if you know that students on a satellite campus are concerned about the safety of a local road and you know that the candidates for the officer role that would be responsible for that area have policy on the road, then tap into it. For example:

“Are you concerned for the safety of xyz road leading up to campus? We know a lot of students at xyz campus are.

The SU elections candidate for VP Community are currently vying for your vote and discuss in their manifestos how they plan to tackle this issue.

Who do you want representing you and xyz campus students on this issue?

Have your say now on the elections app”

The above example provides the link between the student experience and the act of voting, and upon sending out these targeted relevant messages on a relevant Facebook page, Twitter feed or most effectively in a plain text mail-merged email direct to the students. It almost takes students right up the apathy staircase and after sending out a few targeted messages like this you start to see votes roll in. No one opens newsletters anymore, sorry but for a few exceptions you know it’s true.

In another SU that I worked in we took it a step further; in that we gave candidates the opportunity to create a manifesto specifically for the School of Art and Design based on a satellite campus, having briefed them with the key issues. So when we messaged the students in this school we were able to pepper the messaging with the most prevalent issues as we understood them and were able to link them to the targeted manifestos. The reason that we did this was because the students in the school claimed that the elections were not relevant to them. There’s that word again, “relevant”. We saw a 65% rise in voting within that school that year.

Using this approach to engagement I’ve also found that I’ve never needed to pedal an incentive to get students to vote, like an SU voucher or printer credit. To me it just never really seemed right. That’s not to say don’t do it, but I’ve not seen any evidence that this kind of instant reward builds the kind of engagement culture that I’ve been taking about.

The idea to “Start with Why” is something that I took directly from Simon Sinek’s famous TED Talk and book; but it really works in practice.

Principles not prescription

Too many rules are an elections worst enemy. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to have a competition across the movement for the most ridiculous election rule, as I’ve seen some classics through the years. Rules that limit creativity, that encourage complaints and that ultimately eat up the precious time of the staff coordinating the elections.

Some rules such as when voting opens, how much the budget is, etc are essential but for me the general rule is that less is more. The more time staff are spending on election complaints the less time they have to engage voters, moreover the more time the candidates spend complaining the less time they have to speak to potential voters and the more toxic an election contest can be.

A lot of SU teams have eliminated strict elections rules and adopted an approach based on elections principles or values. The advice if you are looking to do this is to take a look at your long list of rules and ask what underlying principles such rules are trying to uphold; once done you have a smaller more general list of principles for candidates to role model rather than a number of sticks to beat one another with.

Empowered candidates and empowered student groups

Some of the most successful elections periods that I have been a part of have coincided with the Union putting a special effort into encouraging officers and campaign staff to organise with an emphasis on relationship building. A lot of elections candidates fed back that what made them really consider running was someone suggesting to them, face-to-face, that they would be good for the role and the most effective was a current officer approaching them. This gave these candidates the belief and made the election seem accessible. This also saw the Union tracking candidates based on their involvement in the Union, not just the leaders of large groups and networks but students that were active across multiple areas and students that showed a high level of commitment to a particular area of the Union or were campaigning passionately on a single issue. What we would then do is send the potential candidates a letter, signed by the President, stating that they have been recommended as a candidate and inviting them to a Candidate Academy event. This event would usually take place at the end of January, just before nominations opened. We did have some feedback that this could be seen as “cherry picking” candidates and may put people off that do not receive letters, so with this in mind we decided to include suggestions of students “outside of the Union bubble/echo chamber” and looked at where our students were involved in University initiatives, their course and their local community. The most successful of these saw around 160 letters being sent out in the post and around 55 students attending Candidate Academy.

Encourage the candidates then to think outside the box, think Seth Godin and “Purple Cow”. Essentially how can candidates stand out from the crowd, if candidates are all doing roughly the same thing although there will be a lot of reach and the unengaged will see something is happening they will be engaging by tactics that seek to stand out from the crowd and show creativity. This is another reason why rules should not be so prescriptive.

Once people know that they are running it’s important to encourage candidates to approach student groups and networks to enhance their listening and appreciation of the student experience. We shouldn’t be stopping this as you are literally halting people from talking about the election – and there is no way that you can successfully police this. If you can’t police it, try to own it. It’s also important for officers to play their part in building elections engagement. If sabbs or elected officers hold good relationships with student groups and network leaders then empower those groups and networks to hold their own Candidate Q and A sessions, encourage them to lobby and to offer their support to candidates that they feel would do the most good for their respective groups. I’ve often thought that it is ridiculous not to have clubs and societies being able to offer endorsement, this usually happens unofficially anyway and isn’t it best to treat the electorate as adults capable of making their own decision? Endorsements enhance representation and democracy if done right and a democratic decision is taken by that club/society or student group. This can open up the elections to more students and a peer led element which can lead to more diverse engagement.

Live stats, friendly rivalries and building sense of belonging

A lot of SUs are using live stats to show overall turnout and voting across a variety of demographics. Some SUs go all out and have an all singing, all dancing array of live statistics that can tell you how many voters may have skipped breakfast on that day! Nevertheless, it’s a great visual way of engaging more people (students and staff) in the elections as a whole. It’s important to use the live stats to encourage further participation, a mix of positive reinforcement and injustice injection can work in targeted messaging.

A former manager and mentor of mine used to describe student participation in elections on a continuum. He would say that 10-15% students are keen and the kind of voters that will vote anyway and will actively seek it out (Almost like an SU version of Gladwell’s “Tipping Point”). This struck a chord with me; there are a number of different motivations that are linked to values as to who will turn out to vote, which is why the type of “why” must be varied and appeal to differing values.

For example, people enjoy being part of collective success in their “tribes”, so if you see in the live stats that the School of History has pulled ahead of the School of Politics in the voting league tables you can bet that if you message History students congratulating them and then message Politics students warning them that they’ve been overtaken this will result in more votes coming in from both sets of students. Encouraging this friendly rivalry helps build communities but the real winner is student democracy.

Stay honest and avoid using excuses

“Students are apathetic”, “The voting system went down”, “Bad weather was to blame”, “We didn’t have enough candidates”, “The elections aren’t relevant to students”, “The candidates didn’t create the same buzz as last year…”

Sound familiar? Maybe, maybe not. I have always believed that the success of elections is 49% how well the elections themselves are run, 49% how effective the SU are at engaging students in the SU as a whole and the remaining 2% is magic.

Are students apathetic? Or is the SU just not that relevant or doing a good enough job of engaging students?

If the voting system goes down for 1 or even 2 hours what does that mean for the turnout in the hours that the system was working fine?

Don’t let bad weather define the whole of your elections, there are actions you can take to invest in a strong engagement culture before nominations even open, let alone before the weather turns.


Ultimately I would love to see Unions returning higher and higher elections turnouts. There may be questions to come in the future about our collective legitimacy which seek to limit SU influence and then have a knock-on effect for resources and student participation. Wouldn’t it be great if on every campus across the UK more students vote than not? Wouldn’t it be great if we could say that SUs are relevant and here’s why? Or is elections turnout not all it’s cracked up to, a misguided KPI?

If anyone has any questions about the content of this, feel free to contact me directly on

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