One invariable question, no matter how interesting your life at that present moment is, at dinner parties, having coffee or impromptu bumping intos, is “so what are your plans for the coming year?”. For myself and many of my friends this has been a question of dread as, given the current job market, it may not be the next best thing with amazing salary and reputation. Indeed, aiming for an internship with a good reputation and no pay is the main target for many graduates at the moment.

So to offset this question, before I was lucky enough to land myself a job, I talked to some helpful friends who suggested thinking about the broad themes which I would want from my ideal position in the future. For a while, I thought this might involve higher education as, having spent a year and much brain power getting to grips with the new, rather bizarre policies round Universities I felt I had a level of understanding about where Universities could do better.

However, then I thought back to what I really cared about at 15 when I didn’t care

about jobs or status, it was all about doing what I loved, which seemed to be a better starting point than panic about needing employment. At the age of 15 I had been inspired by a student helper in my church youth group to think about what I could do, as a school student in Durham, to have a positive impact on the world around me. After bashing the idea round with my parents and friends I decided that I could promote Fairtrade, so I set up a Fairtrade group in school, wrote to various charities and got lots of free literature and stickers. This group met every Thursday lunch time in Room 12 and learnt about Fairtrade, with this video being a particular hit:

I even caused a stir with one teacher by putting up anti-G8 posters up round school, apparently it was too political (though the print outs of the Millennium Development Goals stayed up).

Eventually our plans turned into a 7 hour live music event in the foyer of the Gala Theatre Durham, we raised about £300 and got in the local press by getting the CEO of Traidcraft and the leader of Durham City Council to speak.

The energy and excitement of the volunteers and the interest of those who came was a fantastic experience and has been mirrored in many events I’ve been part of since, especially with the UMSU Make Trade Fair Society.

Two of the guarantees to the producer make buying and promoting the Fairtrade logo so appealing are:

  1. “The Fairtrade minimum price defines the lowest possible price that a buyer of Fairtrade products must pay the producer. The minimum price is set based on a consultative process with Fairtrade producers and traders and guarantees that producers receive a price which covers the cost of sustainable production. When the market price is higher than the Fairtrade minimum price, the market price is payable.” 1

2. “Money paid on top of the Fairtrade minimum price [the Fairtrade premium] that is invested in social, environmental and economic developmental projects, decided upon democratically by a committee of producers within the organisation or of workers on a plantation.” 2

In my next two blogs I’ll look firstly at what these guarantees really mean and secondly common criticisms which I have encountered, especially at university, with economics students…!

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Posted by: sarahwakefield | June 30, 2011

Final thoughts and thank yous!

As I leave my position of General Secretary today I present to you my final swan song about the future of student representation and the University of Manchester in the coming years, whilst also using this as a platform to express my thanks to all those people who have helped me over the year.

Three themes which I have been talking about continually in this year to the University have been Partnership, Personalisation and Quality. I believe that these will be the core areas which Universities will be looked to deliver on in relation to students in the coming years. With the increase in fees, students will be looking for appropriate levels of quality, whether in the teaching experience or in the availability of learning materials.

However, I have always felt that students add an immense amount of value to a university, whether through their research, their impact on the local community or to the reputation of their institution. As such, they must be treated as partners in the future of Universities, or risk becoming detached from the community which they exist within which would mean the University would lose the value they can add.

Although there are base standards which students will, and currently do expect, if a culture of partnership with the student body is nurtured students will retain a loyalty to their institution and the researchers and teachers who work there. These standards will now be laid out in Student Charters, but it seems important that these documents also lay out how students are accountable to the wider university community. If this is compounded by a greater personalization of the student experience where, even in the biggest University in the UK students know who to turn to for advice and academic enhancement, the University of Manchester can become an exemplar of excellent teaching and true academic community.

On the broader topic of changes to higher education; there have been a large number of reports on the social impact of universities and, as the outgoing President of NUS, Aaron Porter, said in a speech to the members of UMSU this year, “a well developed and supported system of higher education is surely the sign of a civilized society”.

One of things which has genuinely upset me throughout this year is the failure of the press and broader public opinion in the UK, but particularly England to articulate the value of the research and teaching for members of society who may think they are not touched by the existence of Universities.

Where limited public funding should be spent is a sensitive topic at the moment, and I write on a day when there are strikes around the country on the future of public service pensions, but we must keep sight of the fact that education is something which impacts upon the innovation and productive levels of society for decades.

Whatever your personal views on whether society or individuals should pay for the provision of higher education and research it is undeniable that the policy of the coalition government has been a disaster for the sector and tax payers. The policies on student visas, tuition fees and cuts to teaching, research and capital budget will only result in a weaker sector, which ironically is likely to cost the tax payer more, whilst their say over education is reduced.

The future of Higher Education in this country is being offered up to private providers who, although accountable to individual students, will not be accountable to the wider society which they will be impacting on. Furthermore, the much debated fees structure will not created the system of choice and social mobility which it has offered and is likely to have hidden economic consequences such as discouraging those with high debt levels from taking out mortgages. The fact the government failed to anticipate that Universities would need to charge high levels of fees to cover cuts which were disproportionally high compared with other sectors, and other gaffs has left me convinced that this government is unable to think through the broader consequences of policy and shows a lack of  insight and maturity which is desirable in those we elect to run the country.

I would encourage everyone to look at the No Confidence Campaign in the governments policy in higher education which is being led by students and academics in Oxford, but has been taken up across the country. http://www.noconfidence.org.uk/

To end on a lighter note, in a last word blog I couldn’t end without thanking everyone who has given me massive opportunities this year, starting with the students who elected me to be part of leading a students’ union in such as challenging year, both for UMSU and for higher education nationally. When I was elected I had no idea that in the next year I would sit down for dinner with the Nobel Prize winners for Physics 2010, be interviewed by the BBC News at 10 after meeting Nick Clegg (and saying he should be ashamed of himself), march with 50,000 concerns students and lectures in London over the future of education and take UMSU through structural changes in staffing and governance which will change fundamentally the way we represent and support students.

My second thanks are to the fantastic executive team I have had the pleasure of working with – Robyn, Jeremy, Hannah, Emma, Miles, Kate, Amanda, Joe, Luke, Mark, Hisham, Mo and Sadia – your dedication to improving  representation and services in UMSU has been a great inspiration, I often feel we have turned into parodies of our roles, but that has been what has made us such as strong team.  It’s been a difficult year, but the professionalism, dedication and maturity with which you have all taken the challenges of this year has been breathtaking and I wish you all well in the future.

Thank you to the staff at UMSU for staying dedicated to serving the students of Manchester in what has been a year of change and transition. I have been honored to be part of appointing so many talented new members of the senior management and staff to UMSU. I know you will help take support future executive officers to lead UMSU from strength to strength.

The University have been true partners this year in understanding the changes UMSU is going through and supporting us in that processes. Alongside the Vice Chancellor, board members, Vice Presidents and senior managers who have been both advisors and challengers in UMSU’s conversations with the University, I must extend a particular thanks to Pat Sponder and Martin Conway who have worked incredibly hard this year to rebuild a fractured relationship and allow the student voice to come through clearly once more.

I am grateful for the University’s engagement with difficult and challenging topics. We have not always agreed, but a defining moment for my meetings with the University was the atmosphere and debate in the room when the decision was made on tuition fees. It was the hardest meeting I have had to sit in, but I was touched by the Board’s acknowledgement that the government policy did not reflect their views on how education should be treated by the state and their knowledge that students are much, much more than consumers. I hope this belief is carried by future Boards and management.

Thanks to the officers and staff of NUS who have helped students’ unions come together so effectively over the past year – your training and support has been incredibly valued.

To my long suffering friends and family who I assured that ‘It will be better in two weeks’, I am now anticipating that as of tomorrow my work load will drop and I can catch up on the many phone calls and social engagements I owe. Thank you for your support, patience and provision of food.

Finally, I would like to wish the very best to all those involved in improving and enhancing the student experience, higher education and research in Manchester and nationally. My very best wishes go to Letty Newton UMSU’s new General Secretary. I have every confidence in her and next year’s exec team to take UMSU from strength to strength and I believe that the future of student partnership is safe in their hands.

I will continue blogging in a personal capacity looking at issues of wider social change and campaigning.

Posted by: sarahwakefield | March 28, 2011

£9000 fees at Manchester

On Tuesday 22nd and Wednesday 23rd March I attended the University of Manchester’s Board of Governors Conference. Below is a digital record of what I laid out in today’s edition of the Mancunion.

During this conference there was discussion about what the University has been doing over the past year and where it would like to be in the future. On the Wednesday morning a vote was taken on, amongst other things, the fact that Home Undergraduate tuition fees should be increase to £9000. Below I’ve laid out the reasons my abstention in this vote along with the themes which I contributed to the discussion over the two days in many other way. I and other members of the Exec have been pushing these themes in various meetings with University management and governance.

I hope these resonate with you. If not please contact me with your thoughts: generalsec@umsu.manchester.ac.uk

£9000 fees

The decision to abstain was one I really struggled with, and I’m still struggling with. The difficulty I had is that my role in the Board is to be both a student representative and a governor of the University. As a governor of the University, it falls on me to ensure that the University is going to be viable in years to come.

However, everything in me says that a £9000 fee, and indeed the whole of the governments policy on higher education, from student visas to the repayment system for fees, from the cuts to the commercialisation, is entirely wrong. In light of the swathes of funding cuts, for the governing body the risk of not increasing fees would have meant other measures, which in my view, are also deplorable for the student body.

These may have included laying off large numbers of staff, disinvestment from a student experience and an increase in international student fees who already pay over the odds. These and other options may still happen, but the fees were designed by the government to be the obvious way for Universities to offset the cuts. However, I am also unconvinced that the full £9000 is the necessary amount to keep the University solvent.

Finally, one of the core messages I have been delivering to the Board and senior management is has been that students should be considered as partners, not consumers in this University. To vote against would have undermined the partnership we have been seeking to build between the students and the University. It would have shown we do not understand the impossible situation, which the University of Manchester, and indeed all Universities find themselves in.

We are all taking the hit for a government who has fundamentally missed the point of what higher education is about. We needed to have a debate as a country about the value of education to the whole of society when this legislation went through. We lost that debate and now future students and those who miss out on the opportunities we have had will bare that cost

The Student Experience going forward

Below are some of the broader themes which I have been and will be continuing to push in my time of office.

Government policy on Higher Education is poorly thought through

As the Board is compromised of those both internal and external to the University, some of whom have a strong lobbying voice, I felt it was important to ensure that they understood the large flaws in the government’s policy on higher education. These include a repayment system which may mean if you have a debt of £39,000 (tuition + maintenance) you will end up paying back up to £84,000 in repayments due to the way the interest rates work. (BBC News Website) This does not benefit students and their families, Universities, or even the government. Only the loan companies will benefit from this kind of debt.

This small element of the whole policy reflects the lack of coherent thinking in the government policy on higher education and a fundamental failure to articulate what having a higher education system should mean for the UK. This was reflected in the Board’s discussion, as they “reluctantly” felt they had been pinned into a corner when it came to the decision on fees.

The only way for the University to thrive is by viewing students as partners, not consumers

Students should be viewed as learners and researchers, who contribute to the culture, diversity and credibility of this institution. This partnership can also be reflected in the way education is delivered, but also through being treated with respect and inclusion over the decisions that will define the future of the University. Practically, this means much more than having General Secretary at the Board of Governors.

For example, any discussions about closures or changes to courses and modules, should take place with the students who have experienced them, or wish to. Furthermore it helps with the communication of changes. As a Union we will be looking at our Student Rep system to make sure that we have the right structures in place to support students in representing their views at every level, whether module, course, department, school or faculty.

There must be consistency in the quality of education delivered, with an increasing focus on personalisation

We know that there is some really excellent teaching delivered in this institution, with many courses and departments building a culture of community and belonging. However there are many which do not. Every student should be able to tell the story of what being a student on their course, at the University of Manchester, means.

Until this is consistently delivered Manchester will continue to lag in the league tables and the National Student Survey, but as a Union we are committed to helping those areas which are underperforming at the moment understand how to increase this sense of belonging.

Manchester should strive to build and lobby for a culture of education that benefits the whole of society.

Manchester has the opportunity to take the lead in defining how we believe that higher education should be viewed. In order to retain public funding of research and teaching, which enriches this country and indeed the world, academics and their advocates must start explaining in accessible language what the benefits of funding a higher education system is to the whole country.

Manchester should be more innovative in university access programmes than the government requires

As the University has a commitment to social responsibility, they are currently doing a good job at going further on attempting to get those from less traditional backgrounds into University.  This includes thinking beyond income brackets to liberation groups (Women, BME, LGBT and Disabled Students) who are traditionally under represented at various levels in higher education.

We also know that student drop out rates is an issue, particularly for mature students. We believe that increasing a sense of community in the University will go a long way to addressing this issue.

Finally

On a personal note I would like to add that I have learnt so much from being the representative for the students of the University of Manchester these discussions. I would like to thank all of you who have given me this opportunity. I know that many of you may disagree with the stances I have taken, but I hope you can appreciate that I have taken no decision lightly and I have always had in mind how we can continue to improve the experience that all students have at this great institution.

Well, this was a depressing few weeks in many ways, so it was a good job we had some great events to lift the spirits, including a General Meeting with enough people to go ahead for the first time in a year and a half. I’ve also had the chance to talk to students who are leading various societies and give them advice and encouragement about overcoming difficulties to achieve great things with the people engaged in your cause.
However, this was the fortnight in which the biggest shake up proposals for higher education in decades was announced. The Browne Review came out with some truly radical proposals. The NUS had been bracing itself for reacting to a proposed fee structure of £5000-£7000 per year and what appeared was a proposal for an unlimited fee structure, loans which will be charged at commercial rates and a massive cut in the teaching budget for Universities – including a proposal to entirely cut the government teaching budget for Arts and Humanities. This would mean for the University to even put in what they do at the moment for these subjects they would have to charge, occurring to some University Deans I’ve spoken to, well above £7000 a year to make up the deficit.
From the Universities there seems to be concern about who will fund the gap if fees go up by this amount as, ironically, it won’t help the national deficit. This is because the government funds student loans until we repay them and this can take decades. This suggests that the proposals suggested by Browne are a philosophical and political one about the nature of Higher Education rather than the economic one it is being presented as.  Indeed David Willets has spoken about the need to introduce market discipline into the higher education sector.
Suggesting that students pay the full amount of their fees implies that there is one beneficiary of a university education – the student themselves. Of course in reality the stakeholders in you and I receiving higher education are much wider; as a society the better educated your population is the more successful you are economically, the more peaceful the country is, it presents businesses with employees who have broader critical thinking skills, the ability to mingle with those outside of their social group and work to deadlines within their own timetable.
However, there are some more immediate benefits of University which are often not celebrated. I come from Durham which is a University City which economically depends massively on the student and staff population of the University particularly as, unfortunately,  business in the North East is less dynamic than in many other areas. Here the Univerisity provides hundreds of jobs
One thing I will be mourning which is not news worthy in many ways, but for me has been an important part of life here, will be the further loss of diversity in Student Union events and activities. With the increase in fees and less generous loans the need for students to work during their degrees will become ever more pressing. I was lucky to receive an allowance from my parents and Grandad which allowed me to throw my energies outside of academia into Union activities which ultimately led to my election to this post. I have many friends who have limited their extra curricular activities, be it in sport, campaigning or leading a society because earning money needs to come first. This can only be set to continue with the increase in fees and demand for part-time degrees. Something with the student movement must consider over the coming months is how we will restructure and allow ourselves to be accessible to those who are likely to most need the protection of a Union.
On the day after the Browne Review Nancy, our Vice Chancellor came in to UMSU. She received some searching questions about the University’s reaction to Browne and CSR, but on the whole they have chosen to stay silent on Browne. However, she concurs that there are massive dangers to cutting funding and has been speaking out against this.
The University had been modelling for cuts of 30-35% and although the CSR headlined at 25% cuts for HE, “the devil is in the detail” according to a source in HEFCE. The CSR has said that it is building on the Browne Report and it is likely to be a wrap in Parliament. All LibDems signed a pledge before the election to vote against any increase in tuition fees (as many of them still argue for free education). However, it looks like the majority of them will be going back on this. Please do lobby your local MP on this issue and ask them to vote against the proposal to increase fees and make massive structural cuts to Higher Education. Even if they attempt to soften the blow by keeping the cap generously at £7000 this will prevent problems for University funding because of the cuts there are making and also for students who will think about their debt before they apply.
Over 400 students from Manchester will be marching at the national demo on 10th November and if you would like to join them coach tickets can be purchased from the Union ticket office for £5. You can find out more information about the demo at www.demo2010.org
On a lighter note, at our General Meeting on 20th October we managed to pass a policy which states that Manchester students are against the cuts to higher education and on the day of CSR it was certainly timely to do so. We also passed five other policies, including holding a referendum on online voting for General Meetings, Peace through Education, Unite Against Fascism, Ethical Union Policy and Representation for International students.
There was some controversy around this meeting as shortly after a member of the Union called for a quorum count (a count to see if we still had the needed 300 people in the room) we lost quorum. However, as for 30 minutes after this count has happened the chair doesn’t have to accept another call for the count, several motions got passed in this period with less than 300 people in the room. It wasn’t an ideal situation and it has left several members of the Union angry. I hope that we can find a solution to this in the governance review which will be undertaking in the coming months.

It seems a bit silly writing a blog belatedly, but so much occurred in these two weeks that it seems worth recording them.

Everyone said to me, “don’t worry, after Welcome Week everything will calm down a little and you’ll have more time to breath.” Everyone that is apart from a good friend of mine who was Communications Officer last year…”it all kicks off after the first week he warned.” And indeed in the first week of term my focus was very much on two things, our first Council meeting which doubles as training for Council members and the interview for our new Union Director (our senior staff employee).

The first meeting of Council pulled off fairly well in the end, with an imaginative game from Miles getting everyone up on their feet and running about in the first fifteen minutes. This broke the ice in a forum which has enough political difference in it to fill any meeting with potential animosity. This year I am very much hoping that Council can provide a forum for solid discussion and debate around issues of higher education, but also the future governance of our Union. I also hope it is a place where already active students can feel empowered to make these decisions, but that they will be proud to represent an active democratic part of UMSU.

I was really chuffed that after some good advertising in The Mancunion five candidates came forward to be the chair of council, arguably one of our most important positions constitutionally (they make judgements where the constitution is silent and also do much to set the tone of council meetings and general meetings which they chair). I am pleased to see Cory Bernard to take the position as someone who has, up till this point, been more involved with societies than democracy in the Union. Every time I see him now he has a new sticky note in his copy of the constitution!

Much of the rest of the week was spent in preparation for and then the two day interview process of deciding who should be our new Union Director. This is an important position as UMSU employs over 40 full time staff and it is important for our direction and tone that we employed someone who is able to appreciate the potential in UMSU and have vision for where we can be in ten years. Part of the sadness, but also enjoyment of being an exec officer is that you have the chance to set the flavour of a Union for a limited time. The Union Director on the other hand can really set the atmosphere you work in as the way they organise your staff team, the building and the Union’s relationship with the University can make a massive difference to an officer’s ability to achieve. I am more than confident that Andrea Strachan who we appointed is going to do some great things for the students of Manchester. In many ways my involvement on the interview panel for this appointment is one of the most important long term decisions I have and will make in my time as an officer. I feel content that whoever our successors are they will enter a well supported and strong Union whose resources can be fully exploited to the benefit of Manchester students. It was pretty strange as a 22 year old whose only interview has been for a waitressing position to be interviewing people twice your age for a job which pays more than I am ever likely to earn!

After making the appointment there was a sense of relief, but of course lots of practicalities which needed to be sorted the following week and lots of emails which needed catching up on.

The best part of this second week was probably, rather shockingly a University meeting called ‘Planning and Resources Committee’. This is a sub committee of the Board of Governors and in some ways has the potential to be rather dull, it’s a large meeting with a wide agenda. However, half way through the meeting one of the Vice Chancellor’s secretaries burst into the room and went straight to Nancy, whispered something quickly to which Nancy stood immediately said, “Albert, continue chairing the meeting”, and rushed out. Just before the door closed behind her I heard “are you serious” coming from her in an incredulous voice. Ten minutes later she popped her head round the door, while we were discussing Manchester’s place in the league tables, stating “I’m just nipping out to talk to the press; we’ve won the Nobel Prize for Physics”. Everyone turned to the statistician and asked “How many places will that put us up” to many chortles and good feelings. Of course, it’s been one of the few good pieces of news in the build up to the Browne Review and CSR.

 

Posted by: sarahwakefield | September 28, 2010

Week Fifteen: Welcome week for everyone: past, present and future.

Cycling in on Monday I could feel a change to the air that was more than the weather deciding the summer in Manchester was most definitely over. There was a buzz around Oxford Road, feeling of confusion, as if something was going to happen, but noone was quite sure how it would turn out or quite how it would get done. On reflection, this seems to be the most likely way for most of this year to feel. Running to keep up with the events, most of which will pass you by, even as someone who works full time in the Union.

This week felt for the first time that we could get together and deliver strong outcomes for students, because of the nature of the SU’s structure means that we can keep an eye on what happens in a students every day life and if needed take these issues straight to the most senior levels of the University and get things done.

This was epitomised most strongly for me this week when we discovered a facebook event called ‘Fuck a Fresher’. Now, this is a phrase which most students will have heard banded around, but this event had been set up by a promotions group who had been working within University   halls of residences selling tickets to first years. The event was simply bad taste and was the means of Social Junkies of getting a little bit extra exposure for the nights they were promoting at the possible cost of inviting sexual exploitation of students new to Manchester. The Union is not about preventing it’s members having a good time in the way they want to, but it is in our interest to ensure that they can do so in a safe space. As Social Junkies had been working within University Halls of Residences we were able to get into meetings with senior University managers and make immediate contingency plans and also put in place the framework for planning a safe Welcome Week for next year. The full story has been covered on p1 and 6 of this week’s Mancunion.

In stark contrast to the hectic nature of the Student Fair I attended a meeting of the University’s Board of Governors and in the midst of planning on Monday a meeting with exec and the Vice Chancellor.
Up until now University meetings have felt a little bit exotic, a slice of meeting excitement outside of the normal flow of a day in the Union. But this week they gobbled up my time away from students. Don’t get me wrong, it is great fun and a bit of a kick to sit in representing the student body to a group of 50+ year olds who have all done something impressive in their field to get to the level of Governor in the University. But having societies back being active in the Union reminded me why I had a passion for this role in the first place and why I am so proud to represent our members to the University and wider community.

This week, therefore, I was struck by the past, present and future of the Union. The societies which I had signed up to during my first student fair, the University meetings which allow students to speak up for their needs and finally the future of a Union which responds to the everyday problems which students encounter, moving quickly to offset the damage and build a safe environment for students to thrive and express themselves.

PS as part of my manifesto pledge I said I would spend 2 hours every week talking to students and this week I spent many hours talking to chairs of societies and members of their committees to see how we could serve them better, next week I hope to get out and about a bit more!

Posted by: sarahwakefield | September 28, 2010

Week Thirteen and Fourteen: getting prepared for the onslaught

The last two weeks before Welcome Week and the influx of students. The exec have been doing lots of hard work to make sure that it’s an exciting and easy for all the societies involved. There has been consolidation of lots of the ideas which we’ve been working on; internationalisation, Fuse TV, reviewing our process of governance, pulling together training of UMSU’s Council and advertising for the role of Union Director – our most senior staff position.

Many international students arrived before welcome week to enjoy the induction programmes provided by the university. Indeed, I stumbled into the international students dance which was going on in Club Academy in the Union. One of the things which saddened me and indeed some of the students I spoke to was the fact that there were no British students there for them to mingle and chat with.

Joe has been working hard to make sure that we as a Union are going to be able to serve our international members well and ensure their experience of Manchester is very much worth the full tuition fees they pay! We are going to be supported by NUS in the coming year as we audit the activities which international students under take in the union to help us understand, not only how we can improve in supporting them, but also how we can help all our members receive a truly ‘internationalised’ experience.

We may be looking at some recommendations which make the University shudder with the possible logistics which may involve integrating all students into the early processes of registration. There is a balance to be struck between ensuring that students from the UK and all over the world can find those who understand their culture and allowing those who want to investigate and try new things to do so.

One really enjoyable element of these two weeks has been seeing the drip drip of students who make the activities in the Union work come back and pester exec about getting moving on achieving things. We’ve had so long in the Union now, it nearly feels like the end of the year and yet my housemates and friends are returning for another year of study, fresh from their holidays and excited about the challenges of the year ahead! Hopefully over the next few weeks I will be able to gather some of that excitement and feed it into the ongoing meetings I am having with the University about the future relationship between the University and the Union.

Posted by: sarahwakefield | September 7, 2010

Week Eleven and Twelve: What turns me on about Student Unions

So it looks like two weeks in one blog. Within these two weeks I’ve been able to crunch through the hundreds of emails which built up over training and the holiday, enjoy my new shared office, have some fun talks with the University and take some time to catch up with some quality TV (such as the truly amazing Great British Bake Off which will be worked into a blog in the near future).

However, the inspiration for this blog has come from four events; talking to Kate and Amanda about our role in fighting HE cuts, attending a meeting of Russell Group Unions with Joe investigating the idea of internationalisation, speaking to the chair of the newly established film society and receiving a complaint about our minibus booking system.

The first two are going to be big topics over the coming months so I will leave those for now, apart from to encourage you to sign up to the NUS’s Demo 2010 website here…http://www.demo2010.org/

The two latter, seemly smaller issues got me excited as they reminded me why this job was one which I was prepared to go through an election to get. Speaking about the new film society consisted of an impromptu brainstorming with some handy flipchart paper about the route student media has the potential to take in UMSU over the next few years. Greatly inspired by Sheffield’s Student Union’s acquisition of Mary Anne Hobbs it seem to me that student media can get big names excited about the talent Student Unions can offer. Indeed, having written for our student paper for three years and sub edited for two alongside various guest appearances on Fuse FM the value student media has added to my experience of Uni has been massive and I have worked alongside and learnt from some incredibly talented journalists. My experience of student media epitomises what I have been consistently telling people what I love about Student Unions; great peer-to-peer mentoring where students pass on their skills for free in an environment where it is safe to fail.

The second event was receiving an email complaint from a student who was trying to fathom the booking system for our minibuses. As I had a free fifteen minutes before lunch I decided to give this guy a call and chat through his problems to see if we could amend our booking system to fit some of his ideas. His problem was as a medic our General Officer opening hours made it difficult for him to get down and make the booking in person, furthermore we have a rule about not booking the minibuses more than four weeks in advance which was making it hard for him to plan his event. He has been used to the AU’s efficient and clear booking system which he can do over the phone. Being able to take the time to chat to him meant he had lots of great ideas to help us out which will assist Miles, I and our staff to build a more straight forward system which allows our societies to flourish without unnecessary admin.

A good friend said to me last Tuesday, “you do realise that you’re a quarter of the way through your term and you’ve not actually achieved anything”. Indeed, it would be easy to fill days without working on those key outcomes for students, however many of the achievements are going to come from students this year and my role will be to facilitate and push them forward. It does look like there are some priorities, which I will be able to help take the lead on, shaping up more clearly than they did in my manifesto; getting a strong statement on HE cuts through UMSU Council, setting the foundation for a strong three part student media venture, working on the internationalisation of UMSU and eventually the University.

But what will get me excited and turn me on more than anything else this year? Getting those individuals involved and making a difference to others experience, mentoring the next teams of sabbs and knowing we have built an environment where students can try, fail and succeed past what they might have hoped when they first enter our Union building to purchase their University hoodie.

PS I’m going to be posting my exec reports on this website so you will be able to read about my exciting themed exploits at work and the not quite so exciting daily break down of tasks (emails feature heavily here…)

Posted by: sarahwakefield | August 30, 2010

Week ten: Getting down with evidence based representation, exciting

Much of this week was focused on a meeting which Kate Little and I had with our Vice Chancellor, Nancy Rothwell,  and the Head of Teaching and Learning for the University, Colin Sterling. They were keen to catch us up with how they viewed the National Student Survey (NSS) results. It seems that Manchester managed to make big improvements in some areas, but only incremental progress in others (see Kate’s blog for more details on this in the near future). We also spoke a lot about cuts and the process the University has to go to in order to decide how to make cuts to various areas. As we in UMSU find out what the plans are we will let you know so we can get the widest consultation possible.

One exciting thing which Kate and I took from the meeting was the position we are in to redefine how UMSU’s relationship with the University works. Currently we do some excellent things to improve the lives of students in Manchester, which my manifesto celebrated, however now, a few weeks into office I am realising that I missed something out; the role we play in shaping the future of education in the University to suit the needs of our members.

Universities are unique institutions in many ways, but one thing which is noticeable is how many different stakeholders (those with an interest in the future of the organisation) have the ability to have an input into its future direction. At Manchester we are lucky to have a senior management who appreciate the need to take what students say seriously. It’s exciting to be elected to a position which allows me to represent the needs of so many people. However, it also feels like we have responsibility to ensure that we are well prepared with strong evidence about the potential options we give to the University and our members on how to approach cuts, or any issues which impacts students.

The Union has great potential to improve how we understand and represent students’ needs to the University and wider society, something we will be working on in the coming months, so keep up to date with my blog and on goings at the Union to find out how you can be a part of forming what that is!

Posted by: sarahwakefield | August 20, 2010

Week 9: Active Political Leadership, Buzzing!

This week was comprised primarily of a very exciting, yet tiring training session run by NUS to develop sabbatical officers from around the country into, well, Active Political Leaders. The week was frustrating, challenging, entertaining, full of buzz words and, perhaps most importantly, made me feel not quite so weird about working in Student Union for a year!

So our adventure began, bright and early on Tuesday morning I found myself in Jeremy’s car (Communications Officer) with a rather sleepy Amanda (Campaigns Officer) in the back. Luckily for me there were quite a few officers from other Unions who I recognised from the Aldwych group and the NUSSL conference I went to in April.

The overall theme of this week ended up setting the vision I have for UMSU (detailed in many blogs below) into a big concrete block of realism. I have worked out a vision (for a Union which is effectively representing student’s academic interests while enhancing their overall experience of University) and I’ve worked out how to solve little problems. However, I’ve been struggling to work out some practical policies about what this would look like. To helps this we’ve been writing lots of handbooks in UMSU, but one of the big messages on this course was ‘Outcomes not Process’ (i.e. don’t sit around writing lots of rules and inventing lots of committees which ultimately don’t get results for students).

Within this there is certainly a balance to be struck. Over the past few weeks we’ve been working with staff members to make sure that silly rules in the Union are removed, for example; charging UMSU societies for the use of the projector, or the Pangeaea team for the use of the building, when the money goes back into our accounts anyway. However, we have also been working on a new funding system for societies to ensure that they are better supported and we understand their needs a little better. This is a process which will arguably have a measurable improvement on the lives of students. I very much welcome suggestions or comments about other ways which we can get to outcomes.

One of the best events we did during the training week was a six hour simulation exercise where we were put into teams and asked to imagine that we were the sabbatical team in the student union for ‘Fibchester University’. It was a very intense exercise as they plied us with papers to read, with new problems appearing every 15 minutes. Before we started I asked if we could set our vision as a team and this was a little bit painful, but we managed it and then cracked on.

As individuals had to leave for media interviews, or conversation with the University’s senior management, we began to realise that we could not take decisions as an entire team and we also needed some form of organisation. At that point we started to gel and using our vision as a guide we were able to focus on what we were trying to achieve allowing prioritisation of our time and effort. It also allowed us to be active with certain situations rather than continually reacting to the various disasters.

One member of our team, Jo, also did an amazing job of file all the paper and distributing the tasks to make sure that we didn’t overlook anything. This exercise really drove home to me the value of trusting team members to do a good job, and was a really interesting to hear in the feedback how, at a subconscious level we leaned on different people for different things; the grafter, the tone setter, the supporter etc. The complexity of our team dynamic was far greater than I had anticipated at the end of the task. Interestingly, much of the rest of the week was spent dealing with the question of complexity, both in deciding policy stances in our own unions and also in social trends around education. But in detailed reporting on this is for another time!

What am I taking home? Three buzz phrases, ‘Outcome not process’, ‘Active not reactive’ and ‘Complexity’; let’s hope they keep buzzing round my head for the rest of the year!

(By the way week 7 and 8 were taken up with a very enjoyable holiday to the States with my boyfriend, but as it is not quite so relevant to representing students, I decided not to write about it on here! Although I did find out that New York University is one of the most expensive in the world at $56,000 tuition every year!)

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