Our Sector: New here?

In this piece Alan Roberts, Policy Development Manager at NUS gathers advice from SU staff around the UK on joining what some call “the student movement”.

At the Annual Membership Services Conference for staff new to students’ unions we have a ‘welcome to the movement’ session before registration. To prep for this we asked colleagues what one piece of advice more seasoned staffers would give newbies- and here’s some highlights from the results.

Megan Evans (about to return to the student movement at Goldsmiths’ SU) It’s not necessarily ‘welcome to the movement’ advice but something on the transition from student officer to staff – I had a job between sabb and an SU staff role which I think helped me get to grips with normal office hierarchies and behaviours.

Kate Little (formerly from NUS, now a Project officer a Liverpool Uni) Take advantage of all the ways you can talk to people in similar jobs across the country and share practice – students’ unions are much better at this than they give themselves credit for, but there are always more opportunities to learn, share and collaborate.

David Morris (formerly staff at NUS now at wonkhe) Read wonkhe :-p

Nick Smith (former staff member at NUS now consultant) Try everything out that you can. More than most organisations, SUs rely on cross-area conversation and die when people get too Siloed. Also remember that while SUs can learn from the Trade Union and wider civil society organisations we aren’t either of those. I sometimes see SUs trying to take NCVO advice untempered which doesn’t quite fit or harken back to an organising culture which doesn’t quite fit either.

Martin Dodd (Support and Representation Manager at Aberystwyth Students’​ Union) Find a good non student drinking establishment of choice in the area… look outside the bubble whether its other charities, trade unions or educational organisations. Finally strike a balance between now and later… delaying a year for an idea just to deliver it to perfection can be a bit of a pit fall sometimes ‘just enough’ will do and may surprise you.

Lisa Michelle Pool (Communications Manager at University of West London Students’ Union) Don’t feel stupid if you don’t understand the jargon\lingo straight away. If you think something could do with being rethought, or if you don’t understand why something is being done a certain way, ask why and suggest alternatives. Don’t buy the argument ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’. Your opinions, knowledge and fresh perspectives are just as valuable as someone who has been in the movement for years – that’s why we hired you.

Andy Morwood (Interim CEO at St Marys University SU Twickenham) You’re allowed to tell officers they’re wrong if they’ve got a crap idea in their manifesto that they’re super keen on doing, just work out the right way to do it constructively.

Emelie Helsen (Student Development Manager, Imperial College Union) Ask questions and for help. Talk openly with your manager about your career progressions and professional development. Get to know the culture of your institution by observing, reflecting, and talking with different people

Wesley Wells (Formerly at Brighton SU) There’s a history to the organisation you’re joining, learn it but then leave it in the past.

Becci McEvoy (Academic Engagement and Support Manager at Liverpool Students’ Union) Question everything and ask why, don’t assume people who have always been in the movement/have been for a long time know best – there’s too much that we do because we can’t let go of old bad habits. Also when you hear about a good idea, ask about how it works in practice and how much budget it has – I go to too many sessions at these kinds of things to find out it doesn’t actually work in practice, or where it does, it has a huge budget/staff resource behind it.

Kate Wicklow (Senior Policy Advisor at GuildHE) Everyone is very friendly and willing to share ideas and practice, but much of the great work in the movement is done by shy people – so make sure you are speaking to as many people as you can about the thing you are interested in. Also befriend staff in SUs in your competitor HEIs

Colum McGuire (Senior Campaigner at Which? Formerly at NUS and Kent Union) Don’t use the reply all button unless you absolutely bloody have to.

Katie Badman (Head of Membership Engagament at University for the Creative Arts Students’ Union) Check the nus resource hub before you send a Jisc

Jim Dickinson (Chief of Staff at UEA Students’ Union) Check the JISC archive before you send a JISC

Tricia O’Neill (Chief Executive at Liverpool Guild of Students) There is always the kernel of a good idea – search hard for it when presented with unpromising looking stuff to work on. Enjoy your work – we are involved with people at an amazing stage of their lives and if our members have a good time generally we do.

Gary Hughes (Chief Executive at Durham Students’​ Union) It’s not your job to a) like b) agree with or c) apologise for the Officers.

Ryan Beasley (General Manager at Newman Students’ Union) Make the time to visit other students unions. Even call it benchmarking! We’re never perfect and there’s always someone or something out there who can give us inspiration to make what we do better

Mike Williamson (Development Consultant at NUS Scotland) Across the country there are thousands of people every year who are still on their course having life-changing experiences as a direct result of their SU’s support. People come to uni/college and don’t have any friends, and they get involved in a society or whatever and they get friends. People who don’t have any money can come to their SU and they will literally help them to survive! It’s really important!

And more than that, we live in an age which is characterised by dissociation – people don’t know their neighbours anymore, trade union membership is down, participation in civic life is down, and what SU’s do is the opposite of that. We bring people together and we build communities. I think reminding yourself of that every now and again is a good idea.

Jim Dickinson (Chief of Staff at UEA Students’ Union) Most SU staff are working on a thing alone so when they drop balls it’s awful for people around them and really exposes the officers. Generally if you warn people that things are getting too much in good time SUs are very forgiving- but if you just disappear we are rightly quite unforgiving.

Catherine Thwaites (International Activities Manager at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh) If they have a family like I do, it’s harder to do the evening networking that goes on. I tried to find other ways to do that such as putting myself forward to be equalities champion or joining green impact. That way I got a chance to meet people who were not in my team or even in my office.

Laura Godwyn-Outten (Club Sport Coordinator at University of Salford Students Union) Be yourself. Your personality and life experience can really inspire those around you. Student unions are a unique environment where all ideas are welcomed and probable. Keep a list of things and go back to them if you cannot get it up and going straight away. Make finance and reception your best friends. You will always need their help.

Trish McGrath (CEO at Aberystwyth University Students’ Union) Remember that we’re not operating on tiny baby hearts or deciding who gets a life saving kidney/liver etc. Keep it in perspective that largely we’re doing something to try and make something better and it’s rarely life or death so don’t fall into treating it like it is. Oh and bureaucracy is boring. Lol. X

David Malcolm (On secondment from NUS, Deputy Chief Executive/Head of Policy and External Relations at Equality Challenge Unit) Never claim to be the first to have done anything as it’s almost certainly not true, but do remember to find ways of talking about what you do to lots of different audiences (including but not only students).

Caroline Arnold (Halls’ Student Committee Coordinator at Liverpool Guild of Students) Find your equivalent at other unions, consume lots of vitamin c and prepare to do many wonderful and weird things

Gareth Pye (Director of Engagement & Support at University of Central Lancashire Students’ Union) When you see something great at another Union remember to ask what did it look like after the first month, term and year. Because nobody built Rome in a day and nobody should expect you to

Jim Dickinson Don’t post vacancies on JISC. It’s bottomlessly rude, everyone already gets the jobs mailer from NUS and not a single person working in SUs can attribute seeing a vacancy to getting a JISCMAIL. Ever.

Charles Barry (Regeneration Officer at Haringey Council) If possible, learn a bit about the (recent) history of your organisation, its institution and your remit. Student-run organisations have very rapid turnover (not just the Sabbatical officers too…!) and it’s easy for them to not develop any sense of institutional memory. It is also incredible how much stuff has already been tried before!

Phil Benton (Ex of Salford SU now Partner at Counterculture Partnership LLP) Even after 20 years, you’ll still meet people who a) assume you only work 30 weeks a year, b) say, “so you run the bar then”, c) say, “well I went to university but had no idea that the union existed/did things/was more than a bar/employed people, and d) wonder when you’ll get a proper job. Plus (e), it’s probably one of your parents.

Graham Atkinson (Ex NUS now Freelance Consultant and Director of Atkinson HR Consulting) Lots of great advice on here. Make sure you make plenty of time (in your first few months and beyond) to visit lots of different SUs. You will find them interesting, collaborative and endlessly generous with their time and good practice.

Nick Entwistle (Ex NUS now Assistant National Officer at Unison) There are lots of ways to conceive of the role: advocate, permanent secretary, EA, policy advisor, chief of staff, whatever. Some are helpful shortcuts but all are ultimately misleading. It’s better to focus on the type of behaviour you aspire to when supporting relationships between the people your organisation represents or the officers you support, and whoever you are trying to influence. The phrase that has stuck with me the most, the one I try and aspire to, is “honest broker.”

Hannah Pudner (Ex NUS now Assistant Director, The Open University) It might look and feel like an old boys club, that’s because it partially is, know your stuff and face it down.

Toni Pearce (Ex NUS President now Parliamentary and Advocacy Advisor at Oxfam) Don’t be passive. Don’t sit at your computer waiting for tasks to arrive. Decide what you want to achieve and work out how you make those things happen.

Dylan Williams (Union Director Bangor Students’ Union) There is no ‘best Union’ as long as your Union is working to better the experience at your institution then that’s ok. Each Union needs to only be relevant to their members. Don’t compare to others just try and learn from best practice. Dylan SU Director, Bangor.

Katie Shaw (Policy & Campaigns Manager at National Union of Students) Set an example for officers, they’re going to learn professional practices from you – what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace so role model decent behaviour which includes not making them feel like they have to work all hours of the day, how to treat and manage other staff etc.

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