A lesson in fearlessness from a Former SU president

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Sometimes you meet people and are struck instantly by their tenacity. Ayo Falana is one of these people — an individual, it seems, who doesn’t take no for an answer. This is surely one of the reasons why Ayo makes such a strong Student Union offer — and, now, an SU President.

Ayo has extensive and varied experience, having been Vice President Education Officer at the University of East London’s Students’ Union before becoming President of the University of Wolverhampton Students’ Union. We’re excited to see what insights he can offer.

Tell us about your experience as SU President

My time in London was a valuable first experience with Student Unions. So when I came to Wolverhampton, the first thing I did was to contest for the presidency position in the SU.

I started speaking to Sabbs and they briefed me on all the little issues. You know, the things that are normal issues in any Students’ Union: “These students are not participating” or “They’re not engaging with us.”

But Wolverhampton was different to London — people within the university talked to each other less here. I don’t know why exactly, but everybody was doing their own thing and it was a challenge to break that down. It was especially difficult when we went into lockdown, but even on campus that was the first challenge: to engage the students and to talk to them directly.

The first thing I did was to go to their classes and do a lecture shout out to them. I was able to tell the students “This is me. This is what we can do together. This is our university and this is how we can make it better.”

At first, the students didn’t know their SU officers and didn’t know what they do — or could do, for them. But just by talking to them and encouraging them, they started bringing in their issues.

Breaking down the culture was the major challenge. And going into lockdown… that was a nightmare.

How did you go about building awareness among students about what the Student Union does?

We went with social media — because that’s really the only avenue, especially during lockdown.

Students didn’t want Zoom sessions, they wanted live Q&A. So live social media discussions were the only way we were able to engage with many of them during that time.

It was effective, though. We had our election during COVID and students engaged more during that election than when they were on campus the previous year. We were constantly updating them because students want updates every week. Every two weeks we did a video with the Vice Chancellor on board.

Was it important to retain a strong relationship with the University's key stakeholders?

Having senior staff coming to the table speaks volumes. It provides a sense of calm. And that’s why talking with the key stakeholders is very important.

How did you ensure the university took action on its feedback?

We constantly challenged them. We had to ask the right questions and go through each meeting action by action, following up on everything we’d agreed on.

We would look at every promise we’d made and ask for progress updates. Everything the stakeholders said they were going to do for the students — it’s our job as SU officers to get it done.

And in doing so, the number one thing is getting your facts right. I can use facts and figures to back up what I say at meetings — that’s your number one weapon — but only if they’re accurate.

So, for example, we have a school rep system: each of our 16 schools has a school rep of its own. These school reps hold meetings with their programme reps and their Deans. They bring up all the problems they want us to know about and feed the data back to me.

If there’s a pattern in the issues students are bringing, that means there’s a problem. We present those problems at faculty meetings and if they don’t get resolved at faculty meetings, we take it to the academic board. And so on.

The university will never say yes to you in the first instance. You have to keep trying; do your research, present the pitch back again and give them more rationale.

How did you close the feedback loop and communicate with the students on what's happening?

Firstly, we feed back the same way the problem came to us. We might go back to the school rep or the programme rep, whichever was the source and tell them the outcome of the conversation.

Then we also look for instances of those reported issues decreasing. If over the next one, two, three months we stop hearing complaints and issues around that area, then we know the problem has been solved and the feedback loop is closed. If not, then we have more work to do.

How can we keep students engaged with feedback in the hybrid learning space?

To be honest with you, this is one of the most difficult things to do right now. Many students have reached their threshold post-lockdown and they are being resistant. If you could tell them you’re reducing their fees by £5000, then that would be music to their ears! But other than that? I don’t know…

When we move back to campus, though, there will be a billion ways to get students engaged. I used to leave my office around 10pm at night. I divided the SU into two. There was one place for study and there was some space for games and people were coming in all the time. We need to replicate that again so we can have that same traffic.

At this University, we have 23,000 students. I only need to know 500 students; 500 of them should know 10 people each. That way we can reach 5000 people and it grows exponentially. If they don’t know about the SU, then you tell them about the SU. If you don’t have the time you create the time later.

Another way to get them engaged is through programme reps. I don’t allow staff to appoint programme reps. We appoint course reps via a mini election, so that’s another way to get them involved as well.

What advice would you give to the current student union presidents?

The number one advice is to be fearless. If you don’t go to your meetings or read your papers, you don’t come across as seriously invested — and then they don’t take you seriously.

You must be open-minded towards both parties, both the students we are representing and the university you’re in. Represent your student fairly. Speak with them, not at them. Listen to them, reassure them. 

My job is to validate their voice.

Key insights

  • Always have the facts at your fingertips
  • Create a culture of talking to students
  • Be fearless and persistent.

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