Time for some quality conversations?

Originally published on changesu

There tends to be an underpinning assumption in SUs that officers talk to students and staff do the work. This has always felt odd to me- it did at NUS when I initiated a programme of NUS Staff getting out to SUs, and it did when I arrived at UEA to find a whole floor of staff which students weren’t even allowed to visit. This struck me as a fun sacred cow to try to slay.

A key tool in the box for great student representative is robust data, and back in 2015 like many Unions we were keen to augment the large annual survey work that HEFCE, the University and the union itself carried out with more detailed research on particular areas.

That year we had instituted a series of ‘Sixty Second Surveys’ which aimed to capture the viewpoint of students weekly- but despite initial positive response rates, it became apparent that this passive form of collection led to a dwindling take-up and a narrow field of student groups regularly giving their opinions, whilst other groups became increasingly silent.

Change one thing

That spring we held a large scale “Change One Thing” consultation where almost 1000 students provided their suggestions across an intense 2 day period. We had asked all SU staff (and I mean all career staff) to staff the stalls across the days, having actual conversations with students. When we reviewed the day, as well as looking at the data we looked at the experience of staff that had helped out:

  • Many were in non student facing roles and had almost no contact with students at all
  • Many were in customer facing roles but only spoke to students as a customer rather than someone with a real life
  • Many were in student facing roles and felt they carried an unreasonably large burden around as being the ‘people who talk to students’

We also reviewed the way we were talking to students:

  • Most of our intel came from impersonal surveys carried out online
  • When we spoke to students we asked them what they thought about us or the University, but not about them or their lives

Information from the 2015 SU Survey and the National Student Survey 2015 also clearly identified two areas of concern for the SU that we thought we ought to address directly:

  1. Students didn’t know enough about the SUs work in advocacy and bringing about change, and
  2. A perception that the SU spoke for students without listening to their opinions enough

At that stage in our new strategy we resolved to create a scheme called “Quality Conversations”. The idea was that all SU staff- and certainly not just “the officers”- should spend some time every week our talking to students.

By deploying staff, officers and volunteers into a proactive conversation and data collection role, information on the SUs work will be brought to students rather than them needing to seek it out and their views and concerns will be collected, listened to and acted upon much more regularly. Crucially, we thought that human interactions (which campus universities build a justifiable reputation on) would help us develop a genuine relationship with our members. And this method allowed us to gather data rapidly where an issue was bounced on us in a University Committee agenda.

Developing Capacity

Our target was 250 positive “quality” conversations a week. Whilst the number of conversations can appear high, in reality this meant up to eight conversations for staff. For staff, training was offered on how to approach conversations lead by our Campaigns and Policy team. Whilst for some members of staff this was “common sense” for others there was a need to upskill.

Alongside the involvement of permanent staff we deployed a 15 hour per week student staff member to act to plug gaps in our collection data if there were missing demographics, alongside aiding the inputting and low level analysis of information.

Collection and “front-end” processes

  • Questions are structured simply with 1–2 quantitative and 1 qualitative question each week on a theme. The conversation feel natural and be able to flow into tangents.
  • Alongside the set questions that change each week collection also includes demographic and contact information to ensure that samples are representative of the UEA population.
  • Students are prompted to raise anything else they feel strongly about. If they want they can indicate they’d like someone to follow up personally and that issue is them taken up by the right member of staff or officer internally.
  • There are two collection methods to allow for the variation in collection environments. Most commonly staff use tablets to enter information into a supplied Surveymonkey questionnaire. Alternatively paper copies are available with a requirement for the collector to input information into the central survey on return to an office. Heads of departments are responsible for ensuring teams hit targets.
  • Following on from conversations we follow up with an email to the student thanking them and letting them know what the next steps are in terms of their viewpoint being actioned.
  • A simple flash report is produced at the end of each week with lessons to present internally or to the University.

Lessons from year one

In year one we ran the scheme in all “term time” weeks other than welcome week and elections week. It wasn’t an overnight success- some staff attempted to opt out, many not having the confidence or skills to cold approach students. We also set strange targets for different categories of staff causing some resentment. So in year two we’ve made changes so that all staff go out in pairs (where they’re paired up from different departments) and all allocate an hour- so that by the end of the year everyone will have spent at least 24 hours talking to students as students.

Impact

The most exciting thing about the scheme is the impact it’s had both on our representation work and on the relationship between SU staff and members. This academic year we’ve run QC on a whole range of stuff- teaching rooms, non academic space, housing, welcome week, module evaluation and student costs- and in every case we’ve secured wins, reviews or changes off the back of the data in the hands and heads of our amazing sabbs.

Perhaps more importantly, there’s much more of a commitment to and culture of understanding our members across our staff. Previously this was seen as something that the data geeks or the officers did- now it’s a whole union commitment and I often overhear fascinating conversations from staff I’d never have expected to be engaged outraged at a bit of casework or poor treatment they’ve picked up on their QC hour.

Final Thoughts

I can’t promise that this scheme alone will deliver an amazing Q26 score and nor can I promise that every staff member employed in an SU will be thrilled at the prospect- however much training is on offer. I can promise that getting ourselves out of the lazy idea that researchers or elected officers are the ones that should be talking to students and gathering data can improve culture and tool our officers up with rapid insights that can set the agenda on the student experience.

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