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Student Investigates...Building Success at Exeter

Saturday 01-01-2011 - 00:00

The University of Exeter Students’ Guild enjoyed a fruitful year in 2010, underlined by its crowning as Higher Education Students’ Union of the Year at the NUS Awards. It was during the students’ union elections that the guild really showcased its membership engagement, achieving the highest proportional voter turnout in the UK at over 36 per cent. Adam Walmesley, leading journalist at the university’s student-run newspaper Exeposé and runner-up for NUS Student Journalist of the Year 2010, investigates the guild’s success at the elections.

Higher than any surrounding obstacle, Sir Robert McAlpine cranes dominate the University of Exeter skyline. The University of Exeter Students’ Guild, nestled within the unsightly Forum Project construction site, is a facet of the rewards of reaching the higher education summit.

Awarded NUS Higher Education Students’ Union of the Year in July 2010, after winning the NUS Participation Award in 2009, the guild has transformed itself in two years from a bureaucratic mess to the pillar of success.

During summer 2008, the guild had announced an £80k deficit, resulting in job losses and restructure. Cuts forced remaining staff to tailor their resources more effectively, emerging with a strategic plan that better facilitated its membership.

A record-breaking 36 per cent voter turnout in the 2010 elections underlined the student body’s engagement with its union, and provided the cornerstone for the latest NUS award. When voting closed at 4pm on Friday 26 February 2010, 5,742 votes had been cast over eight election days.

Compare that to 2007 when a fifth of the student body voted, and a few hundred disengaged students nullified the efforts of the sole candidate for president by voting to re-open nominations.

Jonnie Beddall, University of Exeter Students’ Guild President, reflects: “We’ve changed a lot over the last couple of years. We’ve gone from being in a precarious situation to being on a very sound footing. The elections success is indicative of what we’ve achieved across the board.”

The guild refuses to sit still and take its high electoral turnout for granted. Planning for this year’s elections has been ongoing for months. Will Page, the guild’s Research & Representation Co-ordinator, says: “It never really stops for us. For some unions it’s a process that happens over six weeks.”

Outgoing sabbatical officers collate a list of potential runners before handover in the summer, and their successors write personalised letters to the students as the application period approaches. A dedicated elections team offers personal meetings to potential candidates and prepares them for the rigours of elections week.

Far from shunning the challenge, Exeter students have warmed to the experience. Niki Crabb, a candidate in last year’s elections, remembers the week fondly: “We sang, we danced, we generally had a good lot of banter, and I also kept everyone going with cups of tea and lots of cake.”

Campaign techniques range from structured manifesto-driven pledges to colourful clothing, musical accompaniments and nearridiculous stunts. Jen Stoneman, Representation Co-ordinator at the guild, describes the scene on campus during election week: “It’s a bit of a carnival, a bit of a spectacle.”

Large-scale participation at Exeter within clubs, societies and volunteering organisations transfers itself into sabbatical elections. Dozens of students put themselves forward as candidates each year, and hundreds more canvass for their housemates, friends, coursemates or fellow society members.

Publicity for election week is primarily done by those running for positions. However, multi-language election posters, coordinated display screens and several meticulously constructed all-student emails are additional staff-led marketing strategies.

“I pushed the all-student email at another institution and their turnout went up by 5 per cent,” claims Page. The effect of the allstudent email at Exeter is unparalleled. In line with the deployment of an email last year, student voting surged upwards. The final morning of voting saw under 200 ballots per hour; after the message was sent it hammered to nearly 1200 ballots per hour.

Volunteering hours are an invaluable ingredient to the Exeter success recipe. A senior elections officer works full-time for two weeks, and a team of neutral students keep the week running smoothly. Sabbatical officers dedicate all their activities towards elections for a week.

Far from glossing over mistakes from last year, staff have published an 18-page Sabbatical Election Report. Rules have been revamped and relaxed for the upcoming elections in an effort to make the system fairer. “By opening up the system of who can help with your campaign, we reckon we can get more people involved,” Stoneman says.

Following unsubstantiated allegations of rule-breaking and a ‘difficult’ group of candidates last time, staff have decided only to monitor practices that can be controlled. Canvassers are no longer required to formally register; a requirement which previously discouraged some people from supporting their friends. Off-campus anti-campaigning rules will also be relaxed, because nightclub activities are difficult to see, let alone prove.

Breaking the guild record for a third consecutive year will be no easy feat. A 40 per cent turnout is an ambitious target, even if the 6,000 voter benchmark should be breached with rising student numbers. Jonnie Beddall explains why Exeter is aiming so high: “The guild has to have a high voter turnout in order to indicate a healthy campus. If we sat back and said we don’t care about the turnout, we’d be failing in our duty.”

Rich Stearn, last year’s President, is optimistic. He hopes that, “by us relaxing the rules, the percentage should keep on growing. During the elections, my target was 100 per cent, hopefully one day that can be attained!”

Success will breed further success, if the last few years are illustrative of the future pattern. The Exeter experience, an exhausted but relevant term, should continue to drive the election machine onwards. Beddall believes that “Exeter is a special place and does have a special feel about it. People do get engaged, do get involved, and it has a very different feel to it on campus than any other university.”

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