Betrayed! When telling students it’s their union leads to the reverse

Student Officers make me laugh sometimes. Ask any officer what to do about apathy and student involvement and loyalty, and the same stuff gets churned out- better communication, promotional poster campaigns, using student media better, improving accountability by putting minutes on the web, having more leaflets explaining the possibilities for involvement or bar mats telling students where bar profits go. “If only students knew more”, they say, “they’d all get involved and be more loyal”.

It makes me laugh because most student officers appear to be in total denial about their own involvement routes. By and large most officers go from “passive consumer” to “active union citizen” overnight. A transformation occurs that once complete leaves them fiercely loyal to the union (and its failings) and able to magically leap all of the “barriers to involvement” like time and money. But one thing I’m sure of is that that transformation doesn’t occur because of better communication, promotional poster campaigns, using student media better, improving accountability by putting minutes on the web, having more leaflets explaining the possibilities for involvement or bar mats telling students where bar profits go.

The transformation occurs because of active involvement. Immersion, talking exchanging, understanding- the moment is akin to when Dorothy looks under the curtain only to find the wizard and some smoke machines rather than the complex and impersonal emerald city of organisational and corporate life. Be it as a volunteer or part time exec member or student staff member, we’ve all seen that transformation take place when students get involved. But whilst I can’t think of a students’ union that doesn’t promote “more students getting involved”, there are still real questions about what involvement means to an organisation owned and controlled by its members. And they are questions about values.

As I write it’s March, a few weeks before NUS Annual Conference, and speculation over elections is reaching fever pitch as it always does. My worry about the event, as others have worried, is the negative reaction it appears to generate in people. Mc Donald’s doesn’t claim to be democratic. Neither does “The Sun”. But people’s negative responses to the practices of these organisations is nothing- and I mean nothing- to the betrayal on the faces of some of those who go to NUS Conference. Why is this? Does it tell us something about Students’ Unions too? How can it be that on balance and overall a highly democratic organisation can be so roundly derided at its annual democratic event?

How does Mc Donald’s manage it when it is so obviously NOT run in the interests of customers but its shareholders?

This September, as last year, is a make or break Freshers’ period for many students’ unions, teetering over the brink of redundancies and contemplating taking the begging bowl to the bank or bursar in response to declining commercial income. Trouble is, I suspect that some students’ unions’ attempts to make it might actually break it.

The Pyschological Problem- Backfiring Values

I’ve long believed that in the quest to manage consumer services for “all”, students sign up to nothing in particular. They feel no sense of loyalty or belonging to an organisation that just “enhances” their student experience, in no particular way than a local gym, nightclub or kebab shop “enhances” that experience. Because students’ don’t join a students’ union like they would a trade union, there are few opportunities to engage in a dialogue about the values and benefits of student unionism. The consequence is that we treat them not as members but as consumers. We offer them services that they can get anywhere.

So why should they choose us? Some people have argued that in a more sophisticated world it is less about price and now far more about values. We are student led. Student run. We care, the others don’t. But does this work? My argument is that in fact it does precisely the opposite, and destroys students’ faith in their elected student leaders in the process.

One of the questions we need to ask is what do we tell students about themselves, particularly during induction? If the choice is between the apathetic consumer, surfing between competing providers and the active participant, fiercely loyal, we would choose the latter every time. But despite the best efforts of induction talks and Freshers’ guides, from the moment the student enters the University they are bombarded with information telling them what they should doing. Students’ unions engage in this by pushing an agenda which is dominated by ents, bars, and selling membership of clubs and societies. The upfront values are thus rampant consumerism. Behind this is an idea that their financial contribution serves to provide the wider functions of the Union, such as welfare and training, but this is rarely understood. On the surface we tell them they are active participants- but in reality they become instant passive consumers for well over a week- the week when they learn how to be a student.

So the subliminal messages that pour out of Freshers’ Weeks are by and large “you are a customer, behave like one” and “you are also a victim, we will help”. Neither of these create loyalty in the transformative way that I identify earlier; nor have they anything to do with collective ownership, co-operativeness or active citizenship implied by Students’ Unions running services.

But their effect on students’ union participation and member behaviour is not just neutral; they are deeply destructive. For telling students that “it’s your union” and having students in the title promotes a set of values that I argue dangerously backfire on most students.

Put simply, emphasising values can inadvertently harm student satisfaction. To do this, we need to understand how students make sense of the actions of their leaders and representatives in a values driven organisation.

1)         When meeting their representatives, ie at Freshers’ Talks, students automatically appraise their leaders’ actions as either positive or negative. Negative if they appear even slightly values inconsistent

2)        Second,students will attribute hypocrisy to the actions of student officers because of this. This attribution, in turn, generates strong negative emotions, akin to betrayal.

3)        Third, the threatening nature of this attribution makes students unlikely to question it proactively.

When students appraise their leaders’ actions as positive, they are likely to be content and even enthusiastic about the organisation, its leaders, and what both stand for. This is partly that moment where students transform into uber-loyal volunteers or student staff, unquestionably championing the way the union works or the things it does.

This positive cognitive pathway can promote student motivation and satisfaction in a relatively effortless or tacit manner. In contrast, if people appraise a leader’s action as inconsistent with the values, a more disruptive sensemaking process is likely to ensue.

Given both the potential ambiguity of others’ behavior and the frequent presence of conflicting objectives, in which serving one valued goal often inadvertently contradicts another valued goal (e.g., the idea of caring about students contrasted with selling bucketloads of alcohol contrasted further with competitively high pricing), such appraisals are likely to be inevitable and are likely to trigger negative cognitive and behavioral consequences.

Freshers’ week is an overwhelmingly negative experience for many. Everyone else seems to be having more fun both at an institutional and individual level.  Negative events trigger blame-oriented reactions because people prefer human-agency (blame) explanations.

The consequences of this for students’ unions are devastating. When students privately conclude that an officer does not, in truth, wish to act according to the student-oriented values he or she has espoused, this implicitly suggests to them that the officer is a person with bad intentions pretending to be otherwise. This is likely to produce negative affect, even anger and feelings of betrayal, as students conclude they have been deceived. In this way, ironically, the deliberate articulation of student led values can increase the possibility of frustration and dissatisfaction, particularly if great care is not taken to promote desired interpretations of potentially ambiguous officer actions. This is in contrast to, say, Mc Donalds- it never promises student led values in the same way and appears to offer more control and less threat to the student, so the betrayal never happens, people feel emotionally more positive and thus remain loyal.

This slow, depressing process affects students’ unions as it does NUS. I’m sure the same process is gone through by student officers when they go to NUS Conference as is gone through by students in Freshers’ week. But what can we do about it? Is it just impossible to avoid the betrayal feeling of an apparently “democratic” organisation promoting its values against a “professional” organisation treating people as consumers?


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