In July 2021, I started as a Sabbatical Officer in a students’ union focusing on education and democracy. This was my first experience working in higher education after studying for a year, during COVID, so I went in with some pretty high expectations of making a change. I had experience co-running a Students’ Union in further education, but even then I knew this would be something entirely different.
I was asked, when I requested permission to co-run the SU at my former workplace, if “looking after drunk students and organising club nights” is what I wanted to do. I confidently said yes, even though, no that is not at all what I want to do. A students’ union is more than just club nights, societies, sports and being a local, student-friendly bar, it’s being the support for students to go to when they need it most, it’s helping them to realise their voice and use it to make a change, and it’s to stand with the students when no-one else will — and that’s what I want to do.
I realised I wanted to work in a students’ union shortly after volunteering with the National Society of Apprentices. Working with the team made me feel that I was making a positive difference in the world, and not just for everyone, but for a specific group of people that are often excluded and ignored. I attended NUS Conference in 2018, 2019 and 2020 (unfortunately remote/online) and it was an incredible experience, one that I am so grateful for as it showed me what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Back then, I wasn’t sure exactly what I even wanted to do in a students’ union. While I had researched and talked to others in further and higher education, I did not understand everything that went into working in a students’ union. I don’t think UCAS has a page on “I want to work in a students’ union, but I don’t know what, I just want to make a difference, please help”.
As soon as I started at Southampton, the union was the first thing I researched and wanted to be part of. I ran for course representative, took part in democracy, and at the first opportunity I ran for a sabbatical officer role. I was elected and what I was expecting wasn’t close to reality.
The pay in higher education is unbelievable. The vice-chancellor at the university gets an absurd amount of money and it’s just universally accepted (or is it?). In 19/20, the VC’s pay was 8.1 times more than the median basic average pay at the university. The VC earns £287k a year. Who approved this? Why does he need so much money when staff in FE have to take out second jobs just to live and support themselves? However, it is just as bad in HE. Our Chief Executive in the students’ union was on £90k, and we’ve lowered it to £80-85k and that’s still a large amount of money I can barely comprehend.
- Ignoring student requests
I knew this was a possibility. In my former workplace, students were desperate for lockers and the Principal always said no (without much reason, either). But I didn’t realise how extreme this could go. In January, our students pushed hard for exams to be moved online due to the Omicron variant and for their own personal safety. The university said no. This was picked up nationally and the university sat firm on keeping exams in-person. It was a big loss for us and it made me feel very insecure about my future studying at the university. However, we were able to request some considerations (ensuring students would still be able to progress with their cohort), and while it hasn’t brought back complete confidence, it has helped a little with ensuring they do care about students.
- Making top-level change is difficult
In further education, getting the Principal in a room to propose an idea is surprisingly easy compared to trying to make any change in higher education. Dealing with a silent meeting after saying, “why not?” after a senior leader said, “well, digital assessment wouldn’t work” is more awkward and difficult to come back from than anything I had to deal with in further education. I’m sure they were holding back a laugh, but I’m not going to give up on digital assessments. I also had the issue where our Educational Services team were discussing automated captions and turning them on. I offered, “why do we need permission? Let’s just do it”, so they did and it was turned off again within days. Oops.
- Students are considered in decisions more than you think, but staff still need a nudge
When I’m sitting in a meeting offering the student voice, I often find I don’t need to say or do anything. The needs of the student have already been considered. Though this isn’t always the case. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I am in a meeting where we’re bouncing off ideas and they have student feedback ready to go, but it’s still disappointing when I offer what I know and get ignored. However, as reassurance, I always follow up with the staff member and ensure my point gets across, even if I have to get the data myself to prove it.
- There’s more career progression and opportunities
When I worked in my former further education college, I always wondered what my career progression would look like. I started out as a volunteer student digital leader (though, honestly, I only worked one day), accepted the position of learning technologist apprentice, and finally became a full-time, permanent learning technologist. When I left, my coworkers were promoted to senior learning technologists, but what’s next? Would they take my former manager’s job, but how long would that be and would there only be one position available? In the short two years I’ve been at the university, I have completed a part-time role as a student helper, an internship working on several university education working groups (such as accessibility, inclusion, digital and personalised learning), I was elected vice president education and democracy, and in July, I will be taking on a new role as a digital capabilities intern. I am also a student representative for the university for the Quality Assurance Agency, and the UK Advice and Tutoring organisation. While this may not be seen as progression, and rather me jumping into different roles, the skills and experience these opportunities have given me may not be the same as my four years as a learning technologist, but it has helped me discover what I want to be when I’m older — in more detail than “in a students’ union, please”.
In conclusion (I hate conclusions), there is a lot to learn in higher education and things aren’t always as they seem. When I was in my first year throwing out demands and holding staff accountable, I didn’t realise how much work needed to happen in the background before progress could start to show. When I get a complaint from a student, from their perspective it seems like an easy task (and sometimes my own perspective) but it actually requires more than seems reasonable. I’ve been told to stay in higher education due to the opportunities and pay, but I don’t think I want to commit to anything. For me, it’s not about the pay, it’s about making a change and a difference for students. Though, we all know that doesn’t pay the bills.