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Interview with a Union Development and Democracy Officer

Ever wondered how can a students’ union officer improve its student democracy system, persuade universities on difficult matters and engage a wider range of students?

The Unitu team had an opportunity to interview Tom Snape, who shared with us his experience in shaping his students’ union student voice system and insights on how new students’ union officers can make the most of their roles.

Introducing our Interviewees

Tom Snape was the Union Development and Democracy Officer for Keele University Students’ Union (KeeleSU) and its Chair of the Board of Trustees. He was responsible for the strategic and financial development of KeeleSU as an organisation, ensuring that it meets the needs of its members, whilst leading efforts to campaign around local issues.

Why did you run for this role?

Tom: I was definitely interested in representing my peers and trying to push for some change in the university and in the Union. And it just seemed like a really good opportunity for me to learn as well. 

What were your main responsibilities?

Tom: We are having quite high level conversations with the university about kind of strategic direction and major projects that were going on… and similar conversations within the Students Union as well. They were working out what we wanted our services to look like, how we wanted to engage with our students and represent them, how we can improve our representation and the way that we could engage with our students to have a better understanding of what it is that they wanted as well. 

But then that was very often blown up by big events that happened, that changed what we had to focus on. So there were lots of strikes when I was when I was an officer that took up a lot of time and kind of forced us to change our focus.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in your role?

Tom: One of the biggest challenges knowing where even to begin. Because it’s really easy when you’re in a role like that, to just listen to the people that are nearer to you, and that you kind of know where you’re from a certain, as a student, you’re from a certain section of the student body, and you kind of have generally will have a good idea about what those kinds of students, the students that are like you will want or what their views might be, but trying to reach outside of that group of students, and I understand what the student body in its kind of entirety wanted, it’s much, much harder. So that was probably one of the biggest challenges and then kind of inevitably, then you’re kind of pulled in several different directions, right? So the student body will probably have a couple of often conflicting, or completely conflicting views or views that can be at tension with each other. And working out how to reconcile those, and how to kind of push forward on like big areas, when it’s not even necessarily clear among the student body, what, what they want. So you’re pulled in a couple of different directions there, but often, then the University are trying to pull you in one or two different directions. So it’s just trying to like, understand where it is that you need to go, kind of based on all that stuff.As a programme, we send out our surveys during week nine of the academic year so we can react to feedback before the end of the module.

The university has its own formal feedback system that includes student surveys at the end of each module.

Students also have access to the Student Voice Forum. Chosen representatives speak on behalf of all students to discuss ongoing issues and to provide feedback on a macro scale.

And what was your approach in dealing with those challenges?

Tom: One of the biggest challenges knowing where even to begin. Because it’s really easy when you’re in a role like that, to just listen to the people that are nearer to you, and that you kind of know where you’re from a certain, as a student, you’re from a certain section of the student body, and you kind of have generally will have a good idea about what those kinds of students, the students that are like you will want or what their views might be, but trying to reach outside of that group of students, and I understand what the student body in its kind of entirety wanted, it’s much, much harder. So that was probably one of the biggest challenges and then kind of inevitably, then you’re kind of pulled in several different directions, right? So the student body will probably have a couple of often conflicting, or completely conflicting views or views that can be at tension with each other. And working out how to reconcile those, and how to kind of push forward on like big areas, when it’s not even necessarily clear among the student body, what, what they want. So you’re pulled in a couple of different directions there, but often, then the University are trying to pull you in one or two different directions. So it’s just trying to like, understand where it is that you need to go, kind of based on all that stuff.

How did you find out these reasons behind you?

Tom: I generally I found that you’ve got to make time to have those conversations. So we we spent a lot of time just opening up our offices or space in the union and just kind of saying, “come and have a chat to us.” And we would like to talk to students who are worried for about as long as they wanted to, we would ask them questions about how they were feeling. And that’s kind of how we would drill down to the underlying feelings that they had or the underlying concerns that they had. 

And that kind of allowed us to be really quite reactive, though. Sometimes we’d have little sessions like that, where there’d be like a handful of students, or 10 or 20 students. And a couple of times, we had some quite big ones. So we had one meeting where I think we had 200 students in attendance. And we took a while talking to them about what was going on. And like what we wanted to do and like hearing their perspectives.

What would you consider your most successful project or initiative related to student representation?

Tom: In my time, we did a big review of our democratic processes. So we had quite an old and outdated system of democracy that was around these things that were called Union General meetings, which is like quite an old fashioned, almost trade union style, way of running your democracy, which is basically like, and if you want to have your say, as a student, you have to come to these physical meetings. And that kind of under the format of those meetings was very weird. There was lots of like language that was almost parliamentary like if you were a new student who didn’t understand what was going on, that would just baffle you or make you feel like you were in the wrong place, or it wasn’t a place for like, someone like you felt very, like, very weird. 

So we did a lot of work over the two years I was in office there to understand what students would be willing to engage with, how you create a space that is more inclusive. Through a combination of tools we wanted to use to kind of engage with our students, we ended up kind of adopting a bit of a hybrid model where we kept elements of physical meetings. But we did lots and lots of work to make those really accessible and inclusive, so we had kind of much more informal group discussions rather than these big meetings with like parliamentary language. But we also had the ability for students who weren’t able to attend to comment online and let us know what they thought about the issues we were discussing there. And like there was a kind of pre meeting vote on what was discussed too. 

It allowed us to harness some of the useful bits for the physical meetings, because there were some useful stuff coming out of them. But it also meant that a wider range of students are able to engage with them. And that has meant kind of in practice, that those meetings are better attended and kind of do get more valuable stuff out of them. But also, students who can’t physically go have been able to kind of take part and have their voice heard too.

What were the main processes you were using to collect the student feedback and hear their voice?

Tom: The online tools we mainly use were kind of, like kind of upvote downvote system. So students who had ideas had their ideas put on a webpage on the union’s website. And students could vote, vote them up, if they liked them, vote them down, if they didn’t and comment their thoughts in particular about how it would impact them.

We also, on our Instagram, and Facebook would post a lot more about the specific issues we were talking about, and that could drive more engagement with the issue being discussed online. And then with the physical meetings, they are much more kind of decentralised with group discussions based around topics, where students feel much more free to just like have a chat about the issue, rather than necessarily having to engage in a kind of parliamentary style debate. 

And that meant that we could create a much more nuanced understanding of what you thought about the issue, rather than necessarily a student submitting a proposal and saying yes or no, on that proposal. Because those discussions were basically like focus groups at this point by they were much, much more useful. When we were talking to people at the uni, or the counsellor or whoever it was about the problems, we were much better equipped to understand what it was that we needed to happen. We kind of had the information that we needed to kind of do our jobs.

And then how did you get the university to listen to the student interests?

Tom: Yeah, so that’s always a difficult one, right? A lot of the time, it’s about trying to tie it to something the university are thinking about already. So league table positions were really important to the university. So we would often adopt language around student satisfaction or other questions that would be on the National Student Survey, when we were talking about these problems, because their league table position was one of the most important things they needed to protect in order to maintain a viable university and attract students. And so if we were concerned that and if you would make us unhappy, we’d say, well, we’ve worried that this is going to impact on our students on students that satisfaction scores. 

We did a lot of work as well with our student reps to explain to them how to do that work as well. So when we train our reps, we showed them how to pick apart National Student Survey data, and kind of talked to them about adopting language around students satisfaction, and specific metrics to try and drive through the changes that they wanted to drive through. 

Sometimes it was also about finding the right people to talk to or finding allies in the institution. Universities are quite decentralised organisations generally. So if you can find allies on a committee or in the right department, who you can win over, then it’s much easier to get things done. But we’ve spent a lot of work building relationships with senior university staff and trying to get them to see things from our perspective, or that moves them on certain issues. 

Other than that, polling and data is always really useful as well, any kind of data that we could point them to would always tend to get them to do stuff. For example, lots of students were telling us that the food at university on campus was overpriced, or that they weren’t happy with it, but we were never able to get the university to take it seriously. And then we did some really quite basic polling, just by like Facebook’s polling features, just asking students to say whether they agreed or disagreed with that statement. And from that, we managed to set up meetings with some of the university’s catering team and their providers, and got them to commit to changing who their supplies were, so it was more affordable. 

There are gonna be some issues as an officer that you want to raise that the university just don’t care about, though. And that’s always the hardest stuff to push. So there’ll be issues probably as an officer that you are really passionate about, that you can’t find a way to tie into, the university’s priorities, for example. And that those are the are the ones that will keep an officer up at night, it’s just trying to like work out how to get the university to care, when it’s just really clear that they just, it’s not even on their radar. And that’s why you’ve got to do all the other stuff to like, gather all the data and, and everything else, because and really do your research,

How did you ensure that the action on feedback is made visible to students?

Tom: Yeah, that’s always the difficult one, closing the feedback loop, as the university like to call it, it is really tricky. Because students, when they’re angry, and when they’re not happy about a situation, they’re often not paying attention when you tell them the good news, like stuff that you’ve managed to achieve. Bad news spreads very quickly, and anger spreads very quickly. But something good that’s happened, it’s much harder to get the message out, especially if it’s something that students may see as like, a bit less important. So we used to do all sorts of film, little videos or write reports, and students emails, we kind of do a range of things, to try and get the message out. So our social media would share messages about successes that we’d have, we would write little blogs about what work we’ve been up to, or put videos on the student Union’s Instagram about what we’ve achieved. But in general, it’s about, having a variety of channels, because no one channel is going to reach everyone. 

Did you encounter any challenges with the current processes and methods you had any problems?

Tom: I think probably one of the problems that we had is that we were really, really reliant on things like social media. So for example, we had a Facebook group and we were really, really relying on that, having good levels of engagement in order for us to reach in. And if a student wasn’t on that group, or didn’t like us on Facebook or on Instagram, or read their emails, then there was very little way in reaching them unless we managed to speak to them in person. So we did some work to try and go out and speak to students. So lots of unions now do, I think some variation of a thing called Speak Week where they will physically go out onto campus and give out little cards and ask students to give their feedback. 

But in general, it always felt like we were really relying on students being engaged with us in that kind of community stuff otherwise,  if you were just a student who just wanted to keep your head down and do your studies and clock off and go home, it was much harder for us to understand what it was that you wanted. So we were always like pushing to try and get ourselves into as many different spaces with groups of students that might not be engaged with us as possible.

What advice would you give to current sending young presidents, especially bearing in mind the current situation?

Tom: I know officers are under a huge amount of pressure. I think the biggest one would be looking beyond specifically what students are doing. So thinking about what the underlying interests are, that are causing students to say the things , and it’s that work that is really hard to do at the moment, because the ideal thing to do is have like face to face conversations with students. And that’s really tough, really, really tough. But try to just be, as much as possible, led by what it is that is causing students to say what they are.

And other than that, I think the biggest one is to like look after yourself. As a new officer, you’re new into the new into the role. Often for a lot of officers, it is the first job you’ve ever had, in a pandemic, working from home, with 1000s of students frustrated, angry, locked in their accommodation in many instances. So it could be really tempting, and it often was when I was an officer to be a 24 hour sabbatical officer and like, always, always be on your phone, or like checking Facebook groups or reading your emails and things. But really try and resist that as much as you can and set clear boundaries, because otherwise you will just end up overwhelmed and burning out. And that’s not going to be that’s not in anyone’s interest. It’s definitely not in the interest of the students you represent.

There are a couple of key takeaways for future students' union officers:

  • Avoid relying solely on one type of feedback mechanism. Be sure to use a range of in-person and online processes where applicable.
  • To attract the attention of universities on a particular topic, try tying the students’ demands with the interests of the university.
  • Be sure to look after yourself.

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About the author

Karolina Raupelyte

Karolina Raupelyte

As an engagement partner at Unitu, Karolina supports institutions with their student voice initiatives. She loves discussions about the new ways Universities can capture student feedback. If you'd like to share your thoughts with Karolina - drop her an email at karolina@unitu.co.uk.

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