In a JISC mail sent by Andy Morwood, CEO at St Mary’s SU, he raised the question around making membership of student groups free, for both accessibility and for building bigger and more engaged communities. As Andy says: “All the good stuff.” There are numerous arguments here against this around the financial sustainability, the token gesture to motivate commitment, ie. the idea of attendance to get their money’s worth. In this piece Lou Chiu, Director at UEA Students’ Union agrees with Andy that this inherently feels like a bad way to create a sense of value. Andy goes on to use the NHS and how people value a service that they don’t directly pay for; before accepting that it’s probably not quite the same extent for a Pokémon Society…
When I heard Pokemon, that fired up the geek in me! Andy had a great point so I wanted to explore this further. I get the arguments around contributions to specialist equipment, covering costs of venue hire, etc but not exploring opportunities to make things affordable/ accessible to me is a little lazy. So… let’s look at the NHS and at the Pokémon Society.
Shared ideals and values: The NHS has a really clear one – people get all kinds of sick; let’s make them better. The Pokémon Society, like many of our societies, will be along the lines of – people really like Pokémon; let’s provide a space where we can talk, trade, catch, train and battle together. People can’t help but get poorly and since it ticks the Maslow box, people kinda need it. BUT, there some who are utterly passionate about protecting the NHS; there are protests and petitions a plenty.
I don’t want to make an argument that people need Pokémon; but, for some, I am. For some people, those who are introverts, on the Autistic spectrum, who were bullied at school, who felt that they may have had to hide their Pokémon cards after everyone got off the hype train, even though they got real joy from them, this seemingly trivial, niche thing that they are into is the one thing that they look forward to, the thing that they feel most comfortable with, they only thing that feels familiar to them and, in some cases, it saved their life. Without getting too dark, quite genuinely, it’s the thing that gives them joy and excitement – regardless of how into it they are.
If our societies has the modest vision of bringing a whole range of people together, then excellent! That’s important work. If they have other goals, raising awareness/raising money/making change, they’re still attracting people who at least express interest, even if only initially. We should never under-sell or -estimate the potential a group of people who completely excited, passionate and driven by something. Look at the rise of e-sports for video gamers if you don’t believe me.
Delivery of Service: who here has boycotted brands/ companies/ products/ people because they were unhappy with their product, service and/or company values? I mean unless you can afford to go private, you don’t really have many options with the NHS. So what do you do, you avoid it for as long as possible or you become very vocal about your poor experiences. With The Pokémon Society, in addition to this, you can just walk away. You also have other demands on your time as student; other commitments, anxieties, interests. Do we know why students no longer engage? How do we change that? How do we make them happier and want to return? These are similar questions the NHS would address, hence all of stats and feedback in surgeries and hospitals.
Any marketing team will tell you know that brand identity and delivery of service are tied ever so closely now – for service users, they want empowerment and ownership because they have bought into it and it’s a part of their lifestyle. It’s theirs. They will give you feedback, whether you like it not; they demand answers; they want to be part of it. Have you seen Twitter? Those who are vocal are the ones who feels ownership – others who might feel like it no longer represents them or less confident to participate, simply walk away. What happens to them then? What are we learning/ not learning about what The Pokémon Society’s delivery of service or brand identity?
Expertise: we use the NHS because that’s where the experts are. Some of us currently support doctors, nurses and paramedics training for years to become certified experts. Something had motivated them into that choice to dedicate years to pursue this dream. A student who goes to The Pokémon Society might not have years of experience or expertise, but enthusiasm to find out more – mostly importantly – from other people. A safe space and a community for them to be with other people who are excited to talk about their Pokémon experiences, how to learn from one another or get the latest news. If any of you have a Magic the Gathering Society, some of the students might even have had training and certified as official Judges. Yes – this involves sitting in examinations.
I know that the NHS and The Pokémon Society is not the same. But what if we were to look at each club and society with more potential? What if we helped them embrace that geekiness about their subject/cause. Sure, it might mean more work for committee members but they’ve chosen and been elected to be the enablers and champion geeks for that group. My argument is that if we focus on this, this is what committee members get out of it:
Share and meet their values and aims: does this club/society have a clear set of values or aims? Is this clear for people? This manages expectations at recruitment and retention level, for example: “Hi – I’d like to join The Pokémon Society to trade cards and maybe play some casual games with?” “That sounds great – our focus is more around PokémonGo and our aim is to catch all of them, organising trips for the more rare ones. Does that sound like it’s something your into?”
Making these clear and having alternatives (“I can tell you about how we set up our Society and who to speak to get started if you’d like”) means that students are buying in being because they understand and share the vision. It might take a knock on quantity at sign-ups but will increase on the quality (which is the exact thing your students addressed Andrew).
Creates a space to be with other geeks: I use “geek” in terms of enthusiastic to the point of obsessive, rather than “someone into geeky stuff”. This is stuff that everyone already understands – support, more access to resources and influence and community building. The advantage of having set values, visions and aims, structured around a topic of interest can help remove some of those accessibility barriers and move towards inclusivity. Sure – the gaming industry is slowly trying to get better around diversity but that’s where the opportunity for us to help our student communities influence this into a wider network.
A chance to be an expert: being with in a space where you’re with people who have the same interests as you is exciting. For some students, that’s why going to university to study one subject who have chosen to study that same subject is exciting. There’s people who you can talk to whose eyes won’t glaze over as you start to get more animated talking about the latest update. It also means that you can learn, develop, practise and discuss – building your expertise. We also offer opportunities to develop other skills that can help them achieve their aims and fulfil their roles – how to manage their finances, risk assessment and communications plan to go on that trip to New York to catch the elusive Articuno!
What it does for SUs
- It focused on being geeky: which in turn encourages and embraces inclusivity, passion, motivation and inquisition.
- It creates more role models: which in turn generates more student-led activities and engagement
- It creates quality experiences: which in turn creates more champions; more positive memories; and more stories (your marketing team will love you for it!)
- It encourages participation in other areas: which in turn links into our student leadership programme; into other opportunities for geeks to collaborate; into more engagement in research and insight activities; and it helps us reach out to students outside of our SU bubble.
It also gives us more clout and evidence to access other funding opportunities, managing those concerns around sustainability. For us, this means with UEA’s Widening Participation, Outreach, Student Support Services and Alumni teams have provided the SU with extra support and even provide other opportunities and experience for those relevant clubs/ societies, particularly in outreach and community.
It also enables us to motivate and excite our staff. Firstly, if they can engage in their passions, they’ll do more – happily. Secondly, who doesn’t find that kind of energy and focus captivating and infectious?