In students’ unions, General Meetings and Union Councils have been the staple of policy making for decades; and before mass electronic communication became common place, these meetings were the easiest way of gathering opinion, debating topics, and voting on policies. In this piece a former MMU sabb argues that Q26 and technology may mean that the era of the SU meeting will now come to an end.
Most SUs have replaced a physical meeting for policy making with online votes, whether that be formal referendums or informal “ideas”. However, there are unions where the meeting still rules supreme. It’s odd when you think that in some universities you would regularly get over 1000 students attending these meetings, indeed some unions’ rules required a minimum of 1000 students attending in order to pass policy. Apart from one or two notable exceptions, however, attendance at these sorts of meetings has dropped significantly; partly because students have got other forms of entertainment in their lives (TV, Internet, games consoles) but mostly because meetings are not engaging and have become dominated by the same old hacks.
I’m an old hack – it’s why I became an SU officer. I had to be convinced (some time ago now) that 30-odd students in a room wasn’t representative of the student body as a whole. I would have said that students don’t know what they want or what is good for them, but what I realized is they really do. The meeting is a forum for one type of student – the already engaged student – but if a union is to be truly representative then it needs to engage of as many students as possible.
On the horizon is a sorely needed shot in the arm for student engagement, and general meetings are about to come under threat by just one question. Question 26!
The National Student Survey is changing to include a number of new questions on student engagement. This includes a change to the question about students’ unions. Rather than simply asking how satisfied a student is with their SU – which is usually a better measure of the entertainments department, or how much money the university spent on the new union building, than it is of student representation – the question specifically asks how the students’ union represents students’ academic interests. One of the aims of this new question is to improve the practice of SUs around representation and engagement.
When I saw the new question, my first reaction was it was much better than the previous one, and that immediately led onto thinking answering the NSS might be the first time some students realise that academic representation is what their students’ union is supposed to do! If a union just expects the small number of students that turn up to its meetings to be representative of all students, then it’s sadly mistaken; and they will find out soon enough when their previously stellar (old) NSS Q23 score suddenly becomes a distinctly average (new) NSS Q26 score – and this will not be welcomed by some non-representation staff.
Engagement is not about promoting the status quo better (like bribing students into attending meetings with free drinks and pizza). The way priorities on academic representation are debated and formed, before it’s even put into a policy, needs a major rethink. It means getting rid of general meetings and councils, however politically difficult that is.
The problem is that policy is often thought to be the start of student engagement – here’s our policy and we’re going to lecture you on why it’s right – rather than the culmination of a successive period of gathering student opinion and forming policy based on evidence from it. It used to be that students would let you know their views by turning up to a meeting whenever you arranged one, now you have to go out and talk to them. Actually talking to students turns up issues you may never have previously thought of.
An NUS vice president once said to me that I needed a budget for buying coffee for students. You could spend the lunchtime next to the coffee shop, buying students a coffee in return for talking to them for 10 minutes and gathering their opinions. The students you bought a coffee are likely to not have even known there was such a thing as a meeting in the first place, let alone turn up to it.
The new SU question has an impact on the university too. If a union is chasing their Q26 score, they might begin to put much more pressure on their parent institution in areas that are potentially uncomfortable for it, but not specifically measured in the NSS – such as extenuating circumstances policy, hidden course costs, or ethical decisions that the institution could be caught up in – indeed an issue could be anything in the institution’s gift. Should the student body feel sufficiently aggrieved about an issue, especially when the issue effects final year undergraduates, and the SU hasn’t at least tried to resolve it with the university, then expect a hit to that union’s score when the NSS comes around. For a union that is not sufficiently engaged with students to pick up on the problem in the first place, a low score is guaranteed.
Whether the new question is sufficient to drag some SUs, even if it’s kicking and screaming, into the 21st century when it comes to engagement remains to be seen. If the boring meeting remains, the union gets comfortable in their policymaking and doesn’t address the concerns of the wider student population. With any luck, Q26 will be the end of the students’ union meeting.