Looking back to look ahead

Originally published on changesu

Look. Compared to the “real world”, working in Students’ Unions seems rewarding and fun. It always has, but more so as we enter 2017. There are after all real reasons to be cheerful. Block grants are up. Finances have stablilised. Just twelve months ago the Government had aligned SUs with Trade Unions and challenged us on our transparency and accountability- but that threat looks gone too, for now.

Yet I also feel strangely flat. The alternative to the frog plunged into the pan of hot water is the frog in the cold pan with the heat turned up slowly, and my own view is that we are in a strange pan of managed decline- a sub sector of a wider HE sector in a similar state.

English Higher Education is in trouble. Financially it’s stood on the edge of a collective cliff, recklessly kidding itself that expansion is the answer when all the indicators suggest that a contraction is inevitable. The reasons are different, but HE finances are in a similar parlous state round the nations. Worse still the sector’s values, financial support and very existence sit within a liberal consensus across the West being repeatedly shattered by results of elections and plebiscites that have little to do with left versus right and everything to do with a nasty nationalism that harnesses the experience of almost permanent inequality and hurls it towards those of us that might worry about it, but don’t really feel it.

For years now I’ve been doing the same presentation on change. I argue that in the face of it, the easiest thing to do is to just retreat. It’s the classic experience of reading a sociology text book or of sitting in a University committee meeting- detailed analysis and theory with almost no action. To be radical in thought but conservative in deed is perhaps the most dispiriting thing about working at a University, and it’s why for all my career I’ve always spent at least part of my week challenging conventional wisdom and going against the established grain in order to tackle the issues of the day.

There are real challenges.

  • Students’ Unions remain at the centre of “culture wars” with large parts of the press branding us as illiberal, ban happy fools. The Spiked! rankings are out again in January, yet again we don’t seem to have a plan.
  • Bullying of our officers and of students generally on social media is rife. We don’t really understand the true scale and nature of the problem, and we don’t really know what to do about it.
  • 66 of our HEIs run undergraduate nursing courses. Without fail drop out rates are above the average and NSS scores below. We’re not fixing it- at least not visibly.
  • In almost every HE membership research report we discover that PGR students think SUs are useless and that they are desperately, dangerously lonely. Again, we neither seem to know why nor know what to do about it.
  • Most of us have gone through a full cycle of initial external trustee recruitment and now are struggling to attract good people. We have a similar problem with “core” career roles in SUs. Yet we don’t have a proper collective plan on recruitment and retention and support for our people.
  • The HE reform agenda lays out a much more sophisticated set of measures around Graduate Employability and graduate income research. Yet we still don’t know the educational impact of our own activities, let along their impact on employability- and we have no plan to both prove it and improve it.
  • Whilst most HE SUs have “Zero Tolerance” and anti sexual harassment policies, most of us have poor implementation of real action.
  • And HE reforms embody a change to the HE quality system that is fundamentally shifting away from hard fought for quality systems to a metrics regime where students’ contributions won’t be valued and student representation will be unimportant. This is a massive challenge to the SU funding model of the past few years as almost all SUs have been funded for voice. We barely seem to have collectively recognised this, let alone have a plan to address this.

Like so many others in contemporary society, these are issues with overlapping and deep-seated causes; not just problems, but what clever people call wicked problems— a series of messes. We can’t “solve” these messes- we have to approach them with humility and respect for their beastliness and complexity. Trying things we know won’t “fix” them can teach us more about the problem’s wickedness. That’s progress. Realising that no one is an expert in the problem helps, because it means that good ideas can come from anywhere.

Strategy in this wicked context requires a different approach than the one we’re used to, where we pay to have someone at the front tell us that it’s all going to be OK. It means small, experimental projects. It means taking research data, analysing it with insight and seeking to involve each other in creating, planning and experimenting with responses. Those responses can be short or long; involve collaboration or direct national intervention; and can see national organisations adopting one of a range of roles (advisor, facilitator, etc etc) depending on the problem.

Yet our structures for collaboration and leadership- needed more than ever for these problems- are trapped in previous paradigms, strutting around offering expertise and action where neither will suffice.

Perhaps the biggest wicked elephant in the room is “Question 26”. A late save when we’d all but disappeared in the mileu of HE reform, the national satisfaction metric that maintains our relevance (and arguably our funding) is likely to simultaneously embarrass us deeply this year. Some will continue the argument they’ve started already- that it measures the wrong thing. Others will argue that all measurement is pointless anyway. Some of us will work out how to market ourselves better to improve the perception if not the reality. Most of us should reflect.

I’ve always been a fan of looking back to look forward, and so my discovery over Christmas that I have on an old hard drive the bulk of the archive of the spiritual predecessor to ChangeSU (old copies of AMSU’s Agenda Magazine) was a real treat. Like tidying my bedroom as a child only to be buried in old Argos catalogues, I quickly disappeared down a wormhole, devouring scribblings from giants upon whose shoulders we now stand on and revelling in both similarity and difference to today. I’ve uploaded what I have on the tab above.

The archive is well worth a trawl for an afternoon. So many of the articles reflect a different age- worries about barrelage or volunteering funding reflecting particular concerns of the time. But many are timeless- concerns about purpose, legitimacy, involvement and effectiveness pepper the pages. That there is not a coherent community of practice and exchange today (beyond regional meetings and a national annual event) should be both a cause of regret and a spur to action for us in 2017.

Arguably the all time classic Agenda article (at least insofar as it is still used in officer training today) was written by my old General Manager back when I was an officer at UWE in the 90s. Innocuously entitled “Looking Forward”, Peter Cadogan deployed three matrices to examine the relationships between types of actors Students’ Unions- arguing that the growth in service provision and student development of the previous decade had pushed students’ unions (and their officers) away from their representative function- and that they would do well to refocus on it.

“Refocusing on representation brings with it the potential of generating a virtuous circle whereby students’ unions become more relevant to their members, generating increased involvement, making for a stronger union able to better represent its members leading to it becoming even more relevant to the members and so on”

In the mid 70’s, then NUS President Digby Jacks (in one of the only books on the UK student movement) had written:

“Representation must never be seen, except in strategic and practical terms, as an end in itself. Too many student representatives see it as a question of communication and merely sitting on the appropriate committee. The purpose of representation is to secure educational and social change”.

This clarion call was in part a response to a period in the 70s of arguing for student representation for its own sake; and has arguably been repeated every so often ever since. The late 80s version involved securing “student development” funding for student representation. Cadogan’s 90s version inspired a period of incorporating the student voice into HE Quality processes- with another of my old GMs (now QAA CEO Douglas Blackstock) at the centre of developments.

The mid 00s then saw a coupling of a lack of progress in this area with a need for NUS reform, leading to a period of innovation in SU service delivery and the role of officers which ditched Treasurers, abandoned General Meetings and formalised a policy advisory role for SU staff.

Given these developments, you’d think there should be cause for significant optimism over Q26, but I can’t detect it. Internal pre-polling in Union after Union suggests we’re in for a tricky summer. Almost ten years ago at AMSU Conference, former SU CEO turned consultant Nick Berg offered his own view as to the state of affairs:

  • An over-emphasis on processes & inputs- mainly about system not results
  • Mainly about course reps not students
  • Important visible student issues aren’t resolved e.g. poorly taught modules, poor treatment if students on specific courses, high drop-out
  • Important student experiences not brought to the surface
  • There is an acceptance of how university defines HE, quality, problem solving etc
  • Focus on university processes not students actual experiences & journeys
  • Appreciated by students more for principle than results
  • No real measurement of results
  • Very low public visibility of representation function
  • We don’t look like student representative organisations!
  • Lack of public education policy or goals
  • Lack of resources & time for student representation
  • Limited use of existing research & data, under-development research functions
  • Lack of transparency re fees paid and teaching & facilities provided in return
  • Much of students learning benefits hidden from them and not defined & taught by departments
  • Wide variation between faculties & departments – lottery

So has anything changed? My assertion is that whilst the picture is better, it’s still not good enough. I argued a decade ago that there’s a theoretical basis for this. Crouch (1982) argues that “Some writers see two sorts of trade-union goals: substantive or money goals, which seek to improve the workers’ living and working conditions; and participation goals which aim to gain control over different aspects of the [organisation]. Members and leaders develop conflicting interests” which is one way to explain things. Others emphasize the inate pleasure of service delivery and administration over representation and campaigning- “at least you achieve something”.

Whatever the theory, most students can still doubtless cite timetabling, complaints and appeals, teaching quality, facilities and learning resources as issues on their course. I should know- me and every one of our career staff at UEASU spend at least an hour talking to real students every week. Yet students are often unlikely to identify the union as being a body that can, will or even should tackle these issues- either with them for them. So if we are to truly deserve a good Q26 score, I think there are some things we should try.

  • More of us should do more real research into students. I exempt from this assertion market research, testing students’ opinions on us- I mean understanding their lives, understanding their programmes and knowing about the barriers to their success- so we can act on them with authority.
  • More of us should have an agenda for the student experience beyond that which we provide. It is still the case that so many of us strategically plan our own service provision yet leave the complexity of changing the institution itself to a couple of officers and a handful of junior staff.
  • We should try to nail ‘policy’. Facilitating the process by which students determine that which is in their interests seems an urgent task in the face of the failure of wider political structures, yet all we have to offer is painful meetings or novelty, bargain basement, Dragons Den style ideas polling.
  • More of us should know what our course reps have secured for students- so we tell others. We should know what our officers are winning- so we can tell their successors. We should know what eachother is securing (or fending off) and our national collaborative structures should know too- so they can tell us.
  • The jewel in our crown- individual advocacy– should be celebrated, funded and regarded as a crown jewel. It should be discussed nationally, it should be noticed as being something missing from FE (and emergent private HE) and, and we should work together to turn its findings and experiences and statistics into preventative action.
  • At the institutional level, our support for student officers sat in endless hours of committees remains woeful. They don’t know what the University is talking about, and nor do we, so they don’t know what they themselves are talking about either. And to the limited extent to which they are effective at representing and securing interests- the student body would never know. If a sabbatical officer persuades a Vice Chancellor not to do something in a forest and no one is around to hear it, did they make a sound?
  • Our students are desperate for us to act as a consumer champion, yet we blindly resist from an ideological glass box that looks lonelier by the day when we talk to students. We should embrace the role wholeheartedly and unapologetically. Students are literally being saddled with a lifetime of personal debt yet we have nothing to say about deriving promised value or even output from that debt.
  • When we do talk about education, we talk about how it’s funded- but barely about how it’s taught, or what is taught, or for how many hours it’s taught. We should have more to say on the tightening geographical distribution of subject access, lots to say on the denigration of nursing education away from degree level, and a proper strategy to serve degree level apprentices.

In that AMSU session, Nick went on to identify ways in which unions could take representation- the “Cinderella of students’ unions”- and turn her into the belle of the ball. The notes were fascinating- his advice ranges from “move from single staff model to multiple staff model” to “invest in both original research and interpretation of research”; from “emphasise public campaigning goals  & policy in a meaningful & tangible way for students” to “more sabbs who have served a representative apprenticeship rather than come through student staff, student activities or student politics”; from “less obsessing about course reps handbooks to my all time favourite- “more debate about the nature of education & its aspects with reps and students”.

So as we enter 2017 of course we should respond- not merely react- to students’ repeated calls for us to address their employment prospects. It’s crucial that we look hard at mental health, fend off attacks from those that wish to tarnish a generation with the snowflake tag, think carefully about the coming student cost of living crisis and provide space for students to rebuild for their generation a renewed liberal consensus in the face of rampant nastiness, nationalism and nihilism.

But as well as all of this, it seems to me that as well as embracing our coming failure on Q26, we should respond by focussing not on representation, or the student experience, or marketing- but on our members’ education. We ought to have both local and national strategies that secure students’ academic interests not just because of Question 26, but because… we just should. I’m not fully clear on what that might mean or look like just yet. But an era of Students’ Unionism defined by a relentless, unapologetic focus on the very thing that institutions are for and the reason our charitable status exists would, it seems to me, serve both us and our members well.

A selection of possible campaigning goals that unions could adopt

  • We will increase contact time for all students by at least 1 hour per week
  • We will ensure that the personal tutor system works for every student & that students have clear entitlement
  • We will ensure all teaching staff have recognised teaching qualifications, requisite language & others skills and that poor teaching is addressed rapidly
  • We will ensure that support services are accessible to all students including part-time students
  • All students to receive face-to-face feedback for at least their first assignment
  • All Hidden course costs to be calculated & published before the start of the year
  • We will ensure all courses use some variety of assessment methods and that students have choice in assessment method
  • We will ensure that students are treated with respect by all university staff and reduce lecturer lateness & cancellations
  • We will set up a website aimed directly at supporting & advising students considering dropping out
  • We will ensure that students are fully aware of options for early course transfer
  • We will improve the service received by students who are unhappy with their initial halls provision including social factors
  • We will increase the support and contact with students in the period between application acceptance & arrival at university
  • We will produce summary information for each faculty showing what students fees, & other university income is spent
  • We will campaign to see that excellent teachers are supported, recognised & rewarded

Adapted from Nick Berg’s AMSU Conference Session on Student Representation, July 2009


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