Our Sector: Making student led scrutiny work

Michael Gale, Head of Engagement at Birmingham City University Students’ Union (BCUSU) recently presented a session at Membership Services Conference on their new Scrutiny Group and this article summaries that session.

Background

A couple of years ago we realised that our traditional student council format wasn’t working, we had to drag students into the meetings to hit quoracy, ideas to direct the work of the SU were mainly coming from the Executive Officers and most importantly, linked to scrutiny, the Officers weren’t being held to account. They would present their reports and then the majority of the time wouldn’t be questioned by council so could pretty much say whatever they wanted!

This led us to completely rewriting our byelaws and removing Student Council and AGM and replacing it with a Student Advisory Panel (jury service,) a Student Members Meeting (AGM but less formal as all formal stuff dealt with by trustee board) and a Scrutiny Group.

How it works

BCUSU’s Scrutiny Group is 5 students who are interviewed, recruited, trained and paid per hour to hold the Officers to account. They do this via 4-6 two hour meetings per academic year and are supported by a member of core staff from the Student Voice team who deal with elections, governance, campaigns etc. The meeting is facilitated by the Student Voice Facilitator who is a student staff member, this person must remain unbiased at all times and instead leads the meeting to ensure everyone is heard and the agenda is followed.

Before each meeting all Executive Officers (including PTO’s) have to submit a report outlining what they have been working on linked to manifesto’s and the campaign plan the Officers created during their training in July and August.

An overview of the agenda for the meeting is:

  • Each Officer has 2 minutes to present their report before being questioned by Scrutiny Group
  • After the first round of questions Officers leave the room and the Scrutiny Group have a very open, frank and unminuted conversation about the reports. In this conversation they decide whether they want to praise any of the Officers or if they want to ask any more questions as they are unhappy about the detail given during the first round of questions
  • The Officers then return to the meeting and are questioned again or praised before leaving the meeting for the day
  • Scrutiny Group then have a discussion around potential further action against Officers who they believe haven’t performed to the required standard, if they decide further action is required they will then have an anonymous vote on whether the Officer in question should be sanctioned (warning) or if they should request the trustee board suspend the Officer or whether the trustee board should call a referendum to remove the Officer

The system isn’t perfect but as a staff team we feel it is better than Student Council ever was as Officers are being scrutinised on the work they are doing and truly being held to account. There is lots of work to do and from our end of year evaluation we are focussing on:

Transparency

  • Officer reports online in advance of Scrutiny Group allowing all students to comment and question
  • Opening up the meeting so that students can observe
  • Decisions made by Scrutiny Group published on the SU website and social media
  • Ensuring the panel seek the views of students rather than just their own opinion
  • Making it clearer to Scrutiny Group the process that is followed when they vote to suspend or call for referendum via the trustee board and timescales for decisions
  • Providing more training to Executive Officers to prepare them for Scrutiny Group

To finish the article here are a pretty interesting selection of quotes from staff, Officers and Scrutiny Group members:

What the officers say

Negatives –

  • “The panel don’t know what they’re talking about as they are not Sabbs. How can they judge us when they don’t get it?”
  • “Can we please have Student Council back?”
  • “The panel don’t talk to enough students to have an objective opinion. They just use their own opinions and that could be flawed.”
  • “If we’re democratic we should be electing in the members of the panel rather than interviewing them.”
  • “2 minutes isn’t long enough for me to give a fair reflection on all the work I have been doing.”
  • “It feels like certain members of the team get away with not doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
  • “It needs to be more transparent; reports online, live stream of the meeting.”

Positives –

  • “Glad to gain more student feedback and opinion on the work I am doing.”
  • “So much more effective than Student Council. The quality of discussion and the fact we actually get held to account is fantastic.”
  • “Can we get more students involved in the meeting so we can get more voices in the room?”
  • Group Panel Members
  • Negative –
  • “Staff are not prepared to take forward our recommendations and will look for a ‘way out’”
  • “The Exec don’t take this meeting seriously. One of them fell asleep in it!”
  • “Could have done with more of an explanation on what happens after our decisions are made.”
  • “Students on my course don’t know that this system exists.”

Group Panel Members

  • “Feel like I’m actually having chance to shape how my SU works and the sort of projects I want them to be working on.”
  • “Great work experience to supplement my course.”
  • “Given me a fantastic insight into how the SU and Exec work. But not sure I’m brave enough to be an officer and face this!”
  • “Can I do this job even when I’m not a student anymore?”
  • “I didn’t realise how much work the Exec actually get through. I was glad I was able to sit down and thank them in person rather than just presuming they sat on Facebook or messed around with their mates all day.”

BCUSU Staff

  • “The facilitator can’t help but say something at times”
  • “The sabbs hate this meeting, must be working”
  • “I don’t understand why they don’t take the comments of the group on board and just stick within their job descriptions”
  • “Can we come and watch with popcorn!?”
  • “Everyone is accountable to someone, probably one of the most important things they will learn this year.”

If you would like any more information on the Scrutiny Group at BCUSU please email michael.gale@bcu.ac.uk

Posted in Our sector.

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