Posted by: sarahwakefield | July 5, 2010

Week Three: Being active, not reactive.

This was the first week where the new exec were left fully alone in our offices to contemplate the tasks of the year ahead. However, there was little chance for contemplation with the plethora of meetings and greetings which occurred this week. This week has presented situations of immense frustration, debate, but also excitement about what being involved in something as strange as ‘the student movement’ might involve.
The key lesson which I’ve taken from this week has been about how easy it is to continually react to situations without considering the wider consequences these knee jerk reactions might have. However, the nature of being an Student Union sabbatical officer is that you are in many situations in which it is difficult for you to not act in a reactive manner. I found this in the middle of the week when I was sat around the table of Senate (the most senior academic decision making body in the University with elected representatives from the University staff) and I wasn’t sure if I should make comments or bide my time for the opportune moment. I did the latter and discovered that opportune moments are unlikely to arise without you taking a proactive role in creating them.
So this weekend when I was sat in a Q&A session with the Vice Chancellor of Nottingham I was lucky enough to pin him down on whether he would favour higher fees over a graduate tax. The answer was yes, which  was less than encouraging to hear. However, I managed to catch him afterwards and explain my point a little further. Unfortunately for me Vice Chancellors,  unlike Student Union officers, are able to maintain a consistent line without having to work out what they think every year and they are also subject to pressures other than the interests of their student bodies.
Vice Chancellors and University policy along with gaining a vision about Union projects have been the key trends of this week. The first I have been rather reactive in my dealings with as I learn about the internal politics that the University, along with any other institution, has and how the Union has a role to play in University dealings as the student representatives. The second trend, of think about Union projects, has very much linked to longer term visions of how the Union can provide better representation of students, whether through an improved course reps system, making societies more accessible, ensuring the ascetics of the Union are pleasant, or simply getting students excited about Union democracy.
This is all linked to a bigger vision, which I owe a lot to Gabriel (the outgoing General Secretary), for helping me to understand. Manchester has amazing potential – to become the best Union in the country in the space of ten years. It’s incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to be part of making that happen, but it’s going to take a lot more than one jumped up 22 year old.
That realisation made me really grateful for the weekend conference which I went to in Nottingham along with Kate, our Academic Affairs officer. This was a meeting of the Aldwych Group (a collection of the Russell Groups Students’ Unions) which get together seven times a year to chat about what our Universities are up to, share best practice and give each other support, inspiration and hugs (though the latter is not compulsory, but did make working 8 days straight worth it!).
We talked quite a lot about cuts to Higher Education and also increasing costs. It seems that a big challenge within this is to ensure that students are not simply seen as spoilt brats throwing their toys out of the pram when fees are cut. There is a need for reasoned arguments about what the consequences for education, and indeed the whole socio-economic climate, of the country will be if certain decisions are made about how Higher Education is provided. I hope very much that in this consideration, the Browne Review, the government and our Vice Chancellors do not behave reactively to the difficult climate we face in the UK. I hope they take the active approach which the US and Germany did during recession, and use investment in education as a means of stimulating innovation, rather than narrow participation by rebuilding our Universities as ivory towers for an elite.

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