This week marks two years since I started at Middlesex Students Union, and it’s caused me to reflect on what has changed in that time- what we’ve done, what we’ve achieved, and what we’ve learned. To better understand this, i’ve broken the changes down into 4 categories.
Tangibles: It’s easiest to point to tangible, material changes- new offices, a new website, a new name (MDXSU), a new logo etc. These give a clear signal and sense of momentum.
Systems and Processes: Slightly more difficult to observe but equally tangible are some of the changes we have made to systems and processes- changing Sabbatical structures to elect our Vice Presidents to represent schools, having an external Returning Officer for elections, and the usual myriad of Finance and HR systems which we have changed.
Cultural: There are also those changes which you can feel but can’t really see or touch- improvements in relationships with the university, the general mood in the office and our approach as a staff team to supporting student officers.
Student Relationship: Finally, the most difficult change both in terms of the effort it has taken and also how difficult it has been to spot is the change in our relationship with students.
For two years, I’ve had a general sense of improvement on the student relationship front but couldn’t point to anything specific…. however in August just outside Chingford east of London it suddenly crystallized and became apparent! We have now got a whole album of holiday snaps which capture the exact moment that our relationship with students changed forever.
On my first day at MDXSU (MUSU in those days) the officers sat me down and gave me a presentation on their priorities for the year ahead. Shreya Paudel (now of NUS international students officer fame) summed up their priorities as being “quite a lot of things”, but the main one was “to create a real buzz amongst all 23,000 students”. The officers had cleverly broken down the student population so that they had roughly 6,000 students each and they described how they were going to create a buzz in their section.
They worked really hard all year and the union supported them as well as we could, but in reality even the best union can’t create a buzz amongst 100% of its students and our ‘buzz’ was limited to a fairly narrow section of the student population who got energised by debates on governance structures and no platform policies. Watching Shreya work so hard made me think that what we needed to do to make his life easier, but identifying the missing ingredient was tough. Why at MDX didn’t students get the buzz factor from the union in the way they had back when I was an officer in Hull?
This led me to the conclusion that the thing that was missing in Hendon was a social sphere. Back when I was an officer in Hull I could always rely on a group of Sports Club Captains and Society Chairs to create a ‘buzz’ around an event or a campaign, as an officer this was my probably my biggest tool. I would guess that the number of students who were genuinely engaged in the broader work of the SU in Hull would have been around 300. That means I would visually demonstrate the difference in terms of being an officer at Hull verses MDX like this…
The difference in breaking students down between 4 sabbs leaves a ratio of 1:5750 whereas Hull ratio’s are 1:53 and then 1:42 which is clearly more manageable. It’s that middle section of the Hull circle is what I would categorise as the social sphere.
Academically, the power and effectiveness of a social sphere is an area which deserves a much greater study than this piece can offer, however I will crudely summarise a source which our university wouldn’t accept (Wikipedia provides a great summary). The writing of Jürgen Habermas is really useful for anybody trying to organise social change. Whilst Habermas concludes that the public sphere was ultimately eroded, his description of it as being something that enables open decision making which is accessible to broader sections of the population, and which creates engaged citizens, would probably summarise our how our ideal Students’ Union would operate. This poses the question- can resurrect the public sphere within Students’ Unions, should we?
The public sphere (or to give it the full original German description ‘Öffentlichkeit‘) is an area where individuals come together in a disorganised space discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. Classically it can be spotted in coffee shops and salons, however in Students Unions in can be seen around the fringes of union council meetings, course rep conferences or AGM’s. Understanding the public sphere requires understanding how it contrasts with the private sphere. That is the space in which someone is concerned purely with matters which directly affect them. Crudely a private sphere might be someone having a transactional, one off interaction where they don’t take a broader view as to its implications; and lots of these exist within an SU without engaging in the broader organisation (for example drinking in the bar but not having a view on who should be elected as the VP Services, or using a student advisor but not voting in the VP Welfare election). MDXSU has always had a vibrant private sphere of students- however when it comes to wanting to affect broader change this can become a frustration, and over the past two years I’ve decided that our ability create a public sphere out of our engaged students will make or break the future of MDXSU.
In his historical analysis, Habermas points out three so-called “institutional criteria” as preconditions for the emergence of the new public sphere. The discursive arenas, such as Britain’s coffee houses, France’s salons and Germany’s Tischgesellschaften “may have differed in the size and compositions of their publics, the style of their proceedings, the climate of their debates, and their topical orientations”, but “they all organized discussion among people that tended to be ongoing; hence they had a number of institutional criteria in common”
The 3 things which are necessary for a social sphere to emerge are
- the disregard of status in which a conversation can occur between equal parties
- a domain of common concern in which groups can come together with a shared area of interest, and
- the space has to be inclusive with, as far as possible, barriers to participation broken down.
Having considered all of the above, we took the decision to take those students currently engaged in our private sphere (student voice leaders, student staff, society execs, members of our committees) away to create a status free environment where the area of common concern was the Students Union- and to remove all the barriers to participation (such as cost or interest levels) by making it both free and interesting. What did that result in? Taking nearly 100 students to the Scouts HQ for 3 days of activities, training and chatting about the SU. And the results have been incredible.
The Holiday Photos
Here’s the bit I know you have actually clicked on this link hoping to see- my holiday snaps! (Or, more accurately, a visual demonstration of a social sphere developing, depending on your point of view). You can see the whole album here)
For the first time ever we had students sat in a room listening to us talk about the student union who hadn’t been tricked.
Another first was MDX sabs addressing a room and getting spontaneous applause.
We used the variety of scouting facilities to get students to meet each other in unique circumstances, some societies who have never previously worked together started to discuss shared events and how they could co-operate in the future.
Because the space allowed us to spate into much smaller groups we were able to hold smaller caucuses looking at specific areas of work for the SU such as liberation assemblies, our anonymous marking campaign and how to reduce the drop out rate.
We took a break from the Kayaking and the aero ball to talk the students through our freshers program, the excitement levels in the room were incredible and the buzz that they have already started on social media makes our lives selling events much easier.
To illustrate the importance of the general election in deciding who gets to make decisions, we created a heated debate about which areas of government they would cut if they were the cabinet, whilst staff and officers walked around lobbying on behalf of the areas they wanted to protect.
These students are debating controversial topics (such as whether the Olympics was value for money and whether we should have an English parliament) but only 3/11 of them has a green post it note and is therefore able to contribute (mirroring the voter registration numbers for 18-26 year olds, the other 8/11 had to stand on the sidelines watching)… those not allowed to speak found it very frustrating and have subsequently formed a very active voter registration campaigning society
Just time for a quick final group photo before the social sphere returned to Hendon.
It also created a buzz about MDXSU on social media, the photo album that we shared on facebook has had 800% more clicks than anything else we have ever done!
Loved the last few days at the MDXSU residential!
Winning the orienteering challenge, doing fun activities and a camp fire!
Cannot wait to start back at uni!! The past three days have been fabulous!
Sad to be going home after my little adventure
Such an amazing student residential!
So inspired by all of you, can’t wait to work with you all! Bring on Freshers!
My overriding emotions at the event were pride and optimism- pride that we had finally reached out to students and that we have a genuine chance of building a student community. The Scouts were absolutely fantastic to work with and I am happy to chat through logistics such as costs with anybody interested in doing a similar thing. Habermas said that the social sphere takes a long time to build and to make viable, but that it can be destroyed really quickly. We have a long way to go before we have an active and sustainable social sphere, but it is really promising to have been able to take the first step towards its creation. What an amazing 3 days!