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Northumbria SU: securing the change they want to see

Thursday 25-02-2016 - 11:06

This is a guest blog from Joe Holt (Vice President Education) and Matt Auden (Vice President Welfare) at Northumbria Students’ Union.

“Activism isn’t the only way to affect change in HE.” A quote from NUS Conference 2015 that has stuck with us.

At Northumbria we don't have a history of big flashy physical campaigns, but we’ve made a name for ourselves in playing the political game; securing change for our students in committees, in meetings and boardrooms, and through effective and evidence-based lobbying. And this year is no different. We’ve achieved notable successes for two underrepresented student communities – Postgraduate Research Students and Students with Disabilities. As well as sharing what we’ve done, we want to give you an insight into the methods and practices we used to help other students’ unions achieve the changes they and their students would like to see.

For the second year in a row, we’ve secured backdated pay for underpaid PGR students who had been working throughout first semester. The students had picked up the discrepancy between the paid and advertised rates when they received their payslips. They reported the issue to Siti, their Department Representative. After raising it with their staff members, Siti contacted Joe who emailed the PGR Director, Associate Dean for the Faculty and the Pro-Vice Chancellor. Following initial conversations and some evidence searching, using e-mails and NUS’ research from 2013, ‘Postgraduates Who Teach’, we met with the university and agreed the outcome – the students would be remunerated at the advertised rate.

Saving Disabled Students’ Allowance was a team priority this year, and after months of attending committees, making recommendations and lobbying of relevant members of the university executive, we’re pleased to announce they have confirmed the institution will cover the costs of key areas of disabled students’ support that the government axed in its DSA funding cuts. This is a substantial amount of money and we’re really pleased that the desired result of our efforts has come to fruition. Three things were crucial to the success of our campaign. Firstly the union was able to ensure we had a Sabbatical Officer sit on the Task and Finish Group, set up to look at this issue. This meant we were involved at every point in the process, saw all the papers and kept talking to staff who would make the decision in and outside of meetings. Secondly, we made great use of evidence to support our rationale; anonymised case studies from our advice service to highlight individual students’ troubles; reports from student groups, societies, and focus groups for quantitative data. Finally, we stressed the importance of the institutions reputation in terms of how it responded to the DSA cuts, and the impact this could have on prospective disabled students attending applicant visit days and questioning the support they would receive if they were to attend Northumbria.

As a students’ union, we’ve found it invaluable having a solid understanding of the way our institution works. We’ve got a seat on a lot of the key decision-making committees to ensure we can effectively represent our students’ views where it matters. Some of them we’ve always had a seat, others we’ve lobbied, requested and fought for because we viewed it as essential to what we were campaigning on. Since securing a seat on Tuition Fees Group three years ago, we’ve had greater student scrutiny of proposals to manage one of England’s largest bursary schemes. Don’t be afraid to press hard for an invite, or to invite yourself; it’s your job to be there, and your students need you to voice their views when the decision is made. It’s been instrumental in communicating our stance to those that mattered…which moves us onto our second point; knowing who the key movers and shakers are, and effectively lobbying them.

As well as sitting on the appropriate committee, you need to lobby members of staff outside of meetings. We do this at pretty much any opportunity we have – in catch ups, a quick word in the corridor, an e-mail to chase up a response, even at a congregation’s dinner after a few glasses of wine! Though it seems like you’re pestering, it can demonstrate that the issue is at the forefront of your agenda. Don’t be afraid to question, challenge, and use your position and use your mandate, and don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself – there’s no such thing as the wrong place or the wrong time.

Lastly, you’re only as powerful as the feedback you have. Make sure it’s strong, meaningful and varied. Make use of student feedback from sources such as case studies, focus groups and even qualitative comments from surveys. Senior university staff rarely, if ever, hear student experiences directly and it can really drive home your point when everything else is about words on a page. Evidence and research done by independent organisations including NUS’ plethora of resources on NUS Connect is invaluable as well. This is most useful when the university staff who write the papers have already made up their mind and present evidence that supports the decision they want made. The time taken getting this will be worthwhile. Being evidence-based in your efforts is great for bringing about change, though the wins and results, no matter how big, are subtler due to the methods used and the lack of physical and visible campaigning. It can be difficult to showcase a conversation behind closed doors that leads you to the outcome you want, but ultimately it’s the result that matters.

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