Ideas for collaboration in Students’ Unions

Originally published on changesu

As I write I’m just back from an SU CEO networking event, and as ever with these things I’m buzzing and invigorated with fresh stories, insights and ideas from colleagues.

Over the past few of these things as well as the general notes and scribbles, I’ve been keeping a note of something specific- ideas for collaborative projects with other unions.

We all know the old cliché about our Universities being in competition whilst we’re not, but then we all fall into the trap of dreaming up these ideas but then not making them happen. So props to the odd success that disproves the rule- not least those that have made the CEO networking event itself happen over the past two years.

Of course when it comes to collaboration, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of moaning about NUS either not doing something that it used to or not doing something new- but in truth in 2016 NUS may not be the right vehicle for some of these projects- most of them won’t involve all of us, many of them could be delivered by one of us on behalf of others, and few of them are the type of thing that would get prioritised by the outputs of political processes.

A good few years ago when I worked at NUS and we were thinking through the future of the national organisations, me and Matt Hyde worked up a fag-packet five-prong model for collaborative work that we published in AMSU Agenda. It went something like this:

Networking: At its most basic level most of us, in various roles, want to network, share best practice, discuss and deliberate. This could be officer to officer, staff to staff or officer and staff to officer and staff. Whilst social networking tools make this easier these days there is still a role for organised networking and the sharing of ideas as well as a need for someone to stimulate conversation and debate (not shut it down). Often there are advantages in this being face to face (through conferences, seminars or specialist groups). And where this is done effectively a community emerges and officers and staff can become better at what they do – not simply avoiding reinventing the wheel but also potentially innovating by bringing together different perspectives and diverse thinking, catalysing new activity.

Insourcing: There will be times one of us in need could be supported by another and that often needs to be brokered. There are good examples of where this has happened successfully in the student movement – the staff member who goes on secondment to another union or the senior manager that undertakes another senior managers’ appraisal supporting their officer team. I can’t help but think that insourcing from within the student movement should become more common in the future – for both personal development for the secondee and providing much needed expertise and support for the seconder. Do we need a structured solution to what is currently ad hoc provision?

Pooling Resources for Specific Expertise or Economic Advantage: A classic example might be where a joint piece of research or policy development is needed and by individually chucking some money in to the pot one can afford to do this rather than pay for it individually. Another example might be pooling resources for legal advice.

Referral or Access to External Expertise: There will then be times when the advice, support, service or activity is not able to sourced from within the student movement, or from the national organisation, but a group of us might get together to broker access to external expertise or organisations – sometimes at a preferential rate. This could includes both advice and B2B services.

Standard bearer: Lastly organisations might ensure that a national body could be the upholder and raiser of standards. For some sectors that might mean establishing a regulator and/ or intervening where standards fall below a certain level (as happens in the Arts Council). SUEI was a really good example of where the student movement came together to endorse a quality mark for students’ unions but for whatever reason the successor SU Quality Mark hasn’t caught alight.

If we look across the model identified above, a number of things become clear. Firstly, that not all students’ unions are getting consistent access to the functions identified in a coherent way. Secondly, that if we were to “start again” in trying to devise structures or organisations to deliver the above things, we probably wouldn’t start from where we are now. And thirdly, that getting all of the functions above right needs ongoing commitment and involvement from students’ union officers and staff- it requires us to actively act like members of a collective movement, rather than just passive organisations moaning at or about NUS like customers.

The increasing diversification diversification of students’ unions comes with increased challenges as a one-size-fit-all approach from a national perspective is rarely if ever appropriate. Over the past decade we have not only seen the emergence of mission groups, but a diversification within those mission groups. Some us do lots of trading- some us little. Some have over 50% PG students, some hardly any. The diversification of the student movement, largely a result of the marketisation of higher education, will lead many to conclude that now is the time for unions to go their own way and act in isolation. But I think this would be a tragic mistake. But for us to resist this challenge we need to think more creatively about how we reinvent some of the assumptions above – especially as we help NUS to contemplate the future of its role in the wider student movement.

What is clear from the conversations at recent event is that lots of the ideas are project based- single issues or bespoke pieces of work that have clear aims. The other thing that’s interesting is just how cheap some of these would be and how willing people would be to pay their share if they could see direct value- if 150 unions chip in £200 each for a project, that’s a well paid FTE right there that one of us could employ, and variations on that theme.

Either way it seems to me that the ideas matter- we can work out who should deliver them and how next. So below I’ve reproduced a summary of the last 30 or so ideas that I’ve had a conversation with someone about to get the conversation going. You may have a new one or have a view on one of these- either way get the conversation going by leaving a comment and I’ll update the piece in a few weeks.

Just think about things…

  • That you’d like to see happen but don’t have the time to do
  • That are good but you might not normally prioritise through your structures
  • Something you can’t afford on your own

Finance Manager, HR Manager: “I’m not sure I need a whole one of ether but I’d be very happy to share someone with another union. The problem is I have a need for Director level work but not full time. Why don’t we joint employ some of these sorts of roles?”

Lettings: “The fact that there are several towns and cities around the UK without shared SU lettings agencies is basically ridiculous”

Resource Library: “Lots I don’t miss about AMSU but do miss the resource library so I can grab other unions’ Job Descriptions and Policies and Strategic Plans easily. That isn’t about a website but it does need us to club together and fund someone to gather and catalogue the resources”

Live Music: I know only about 10 of us do live music these days but why aren’t we all booking together?”

National Catalogue of C&S: “I was talking to our Drama Soc the other day and they really want an easy way to contact others. All the networking is for us and our officers but surely if we all chipped in we could get a single national database off Clubs and Socs contacts. The possibilities that could open up are extraordinary”

New CEO Mentoring Scheme: “We’ve all said for years we would all volunteer to mentor a new CEO so we should ask one of us to administer and develop the scheme now”

Skills Bank: “I’d love to see us put together a directory of every SU senior manager with the skills they could offer other unions, along with a commitment that we’d all give say 5 days each to other unions. The RSA do this really well. The range of skills and backgrounds is a massive resource we should tap”

Diversity Benchmarks: “HEIs only really started making progress on WP when HESA and HEFCE started setting down PIs and benchmarks. I’d happily joint fund an E&D unit for us based in a union that collected E&D monitoring stats and developed region and profession based profiles of unions that led to sophisticated benchmarks and targets for diversity in my workforce”

Officer 360s: “Almost all of us do this every year but with different, private providers. Is it beyond us all to develop a single set of competencies and a bank of volunteers to help coach the feedback in?”

SUs SORP: “I’d like to find a few unions to help me pay to adapt and refine the Charities SORP for our sector. It would make it much easier to benchmark between us and I’d find that very valuable”

Lobbyist on SU Value: “I’d be happy to go in with a group of unions and fund someone out there selling Students’ Unions to the press, politicians and general public proactively. Good quality Strategic PR would help us get the message out on things like “Freedom of Speech” and give us real insights into managing reputation and perception locally”

Careers: “I’d love to see a joint funded project on our employer brand. Proper work on promoting the SU as a career with deeper talent strategies that see placements across a group of us, maybe as part of a grad scheme for the movement, would make a real difference”

Research extra curricular: “How many times have I wished that there was solid credible research on the impact of extra curricular activities. Why don’t we just club together and fund it?”

Almanac: “An almanac of stats every year that I could use and that would tell our story as a group of organisations”

In house training: “With the last of NUS’ old regional staff now gone, there’s a real need for quality training assistance and there’s loads of us in the movement that would do this for each other if we got something back. A joint funded gather of training materials would also make sense.”

Clerking: “The quality of Board paperwork is critical, as is having in house expertise on governance and legal triage. Lots of FE colleges share Clerks to Corporations who are also then able to bring a cleatrer sense of sector best practice and helpful comparison. We should do the same”

Listening: “I’d like a podcast please. An interview with one of us every week. It would be really useful to hear what’s going on across the country”

RO Swappping: “I’ve not used the NUS service for a while now, instead we swap CEOs to be the Returning Officer, I’d like to see this go nationwide”

Brand: “It is really stupid that we all have different brands. I don’t mean the typeface or the logo- I get that- but real work on brand like tone of voice and personality, surely that’s about as common as it gets. Why are we talking our students’ money and ding this union by union when we could get shit hot work done together?”

Crises: “There’s about 10 people in this room I’d trusty to help with a crisis. We should put them all on retainer so that it’s OK for them to come out and help us handle the unexpected”

Shared big survey: “We all do surveys of our members but I’d like to see a single set of questions agreed. HEIs do it for NSS and we should do it for SUs. The insights would be richer and the challenges back to us more useful”

And finally… Trustee Advertising: “We all struggle getting decent candidates and a whole load of unions need to recruit them every year, so we should do joint advertising for external trustees, so we can afford to get the opportunity into national media”

One final thought. In putting together this page on Students’ Union Strategic Plans, I ended up reading a lot of remarkably similar material, lots of which was supposedly inspired by bespoke research. Perhaps if instead of all individually spending money working out that jobs matter, academic achievement is important and postgraduates feel under represented, we instead all clubbed together and invested in putting some brains on solving some of those problems with innovative ideas, we’d be further along achieving things…

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