How can student reps effectively negotiate with staff?


John Choi

John Choi

As a course representative, it can sometimes feel that you are working against staff, and that student demands are the exact opposite of what staff are willing to provide. During my training as a student representative at the UCL Students’ Union, we were taught how understanding the difference between ‘positions’ and ‘interests’ can help boost the persuasiveness of the matter we were advocating for and our chances of success. This negotiation tactic was first popularised by Fisher and Ury in their seminal book Getting to Yes, and can be applied in a wide range of sectors, including student representation.

Understanding positions and interests

Positions: In essence, positions are what you (and in a representative’s case, the student body) want. This might be recorded lectures, additional career support, or more menu items in the cafeteria.

Interests: Interests, on the other hand, are the motivations for wanting the position. It is the underlying reason why the position is so important and valuable to them. For instance, in the case of recorded lectures, it might be that students believe that their revision workload would be significantly lighter if they had the option of revisiting their tutor’s explanations. 

When the differing stances of students and staff seem irreconcilable, it is often due to a failure to uncover the underlying interests. Focusing solely on positions and leaving the underlying interests unrecognised will make a compromise virtually impossible to achieve. Taking an extremely position-focused stance may also risk losing a healthy, long-term partnership between the representative and the institution.

Before going into any committee meeting, representatives should do (at least) two exercises:

  1. Understand why students are demanding whatever they are asking for, and outline the reason(s) for them.
  2. Make an educated guess on what the interests of the faculty or department might be on a particular issue.

By raising the interests of both your position and that of the institution, you can figure out whether any common interests exist. This is your mutual ground. And once you find that mutual ground, the conflict of positions doesn’t seem so frictional anymore. Now, both students and staff can work towards a common goal and arrive at a mutually beneficial solution.


Example: Vending machine

To demonstrate how this model translates into practice, I will use the time I requested my department to install a vending machine as an example. At the time, our department building had only just completed its three-year renovation work, and so the facilities were still very much new. Inside the building was a small cafe that had relatively short opening hours. This posed as a bit of a problem for students who would stay on campus to study during late hours. If they ever needed a light study snack, they had to walk out of campus grounds to the nearest convenience store. These students then suggested that a vending machine be installed in the building, to enable them to focus on the study task at hand and avoid having to make elaborate trips around the busy metropolitan area.

Enter, the conflict of positions. As business entities, it is only natural for universities to want to minimise any unnecessary costs and overheads. Therefore, without a proper investigation into the underlying interests and the possibility of mutual ground, staff aren’t going to be convinced enough to employ their funds on a new project.

The aim of reducing costs, however, is only part of a university’s greater goal in providing high quality education experiences. Better financial flexibility could allow the university to invest in projects to achieve that goal. This was our common ground. I emphasised that if students were able to focus on the task at hand without having to leave their seat whenever hunger strikes, it would boost student productivity. This was especially the case during assessment season, when students would definitely (and sadly) be burning the midnight oil. The result, I argued, was not opposite to the university’s aims, but in fact were aligned with their interests in supporting the academic performance of students as well.

Two months later, students in our faculty could enjoy a Snickers bar or a bag of candy raisins without stepping a foot out of campus grounds.

One thing to consider is whether the position is the only way of addressing the interest. More often than not, the answer is no. There might be other ways to satisfy the interest without having to resort to that particular position. In our case, had the university thought a vending machine would be too expensive, other options might be available, such as extending cafe opening hours.

A model for staff too

Students and representatives aren’t the only ones who would benefit from using this conflict analysis, so could universities and staff too. For example, when departments plan to roll out a new project, they should highlight and emphasise how it is aligned with students’ interests. Otherwise, the added value to students will not necessarily become apparent to them. It might give the impression of ‘staff knows best’ and students might feel that the new change is being ‘forced down their throats’.

About the author

John Choi

John Choi

John, Unitu's communication officer, is a final-year student at University College London (UCL). He was an elected Course Representative and then Lead Department Representative for the Faculty of Laws, and has won the UCL Students' Union Academic Rep of the Year Award 2019 and 2020.
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