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The Hot Seat: Ben Ward (UMSU)

Friday 10-04-2015 - 14:48

The University of Manchester Students' Union made history last month by recording the highest voter turnout in a student election in the UK ever, with 13,264 votes cast by students during its Exec Elections. We spoke to their Union Director, Ben Ward about how his team achieved it.


Tell us about your role as Union Director at the University of Manchester Students’ Union.

I’m the senior staff member of the organisation, responsible for the strategic and operational development of the union. I work closely with the student officers to ensure we make student life better for our 40,000 students. The last year has been one in which we’ve really tried to put the union back on an even footing after some challenging times. We have a great platform on which to build some really exciting things over the coming years.


This year, your union made history by recording the highest voter turnout in a student election in the UK ever, with 13,264 votes cast by students during its Exec Elections. How did you achieve this? 

The short answer is that we’ve seen some phenomenal growth across our different involvement channels this year. As an indication, society members have grown from 7,600 to almost 12,000, so in many ways the election turnout is a by-product of that. In addition, the effort from across the union which went into planning the elections from key messaging to some of the engagement channels used was really pleasing. So many people came together to really have a stake in making them happen. We also worked very closely with the university student communications team to ensure they were supporting all our activities.


Last year, a total of 7,947 students voted in your Exec Elections, so that’s a steep rise indeed. Did you approach anything in particular differently this year? 

We tried to do as much differently as we could. The election turnout over many years had been quite poor in comparison with the rest of the sector, so any idea was a good idea. It was great to have a chance to be so experimental and think about how we might approach different groups who either do or don’t currently interact with us.


Regionally, Manchester has the largest student population in the UK, with 38,430 of these students belonging to your institution. How do you communicate the Exec Elections such a large membership?

We use a range of channels which are fairly standard to everyone in the sector. We have full access to university data so we can clearly segment by demographics and involvement levels. We have over 31,000 followers on Facebook and 11,000 on Twitter. We had full coverage on all the staff and student intranets across the university, again trying to build more stakeholders into the process.


What are the most common challenges involved?

We aren’t particularly great at understanding what motivates and drives our diverse student body to participate, even though we have really high levels of involvement. They need to be able to see a hook and a benefit to their voting. I think we can do more to profile the impactful work officers are undertaking every day of the week. We try to broaden our appeal to different groups who might not see themselves as wanting to participate in democracy.


Can you tell us about the typical demographic of students who turned out to vote, and which faculties they tended to belong to?

We have quite detailed data on all this, and counter-intuitively the faculty breakdowns match exactly that over the overall institutional profile (within around one per cent). There is still a challenge to engage more with health and medical students however. We are pleased that over 35 per cent of all voters were international students against an institutional level of 25 per cent.


Where do the Exec Elections sit within your unions overall strategic priorities and why is it important for students to get involved?

They are a priority in as much as they are a marker for wider engagement with our activities. Although we have election turnout as a KPI, it sits as part of a basket of other indicators around memberships, satisfaction, volunteering etc. I would always want to see election turnout as a by-product of wider engagement, save for the fact we want to be an engine room of civic participation. The democratic education we do in students’ unions has the potential to build a commitment to voting for life and we shouldn’t forget that. Part of our culture change is about normalizing activities such as voting into student behavior.


With 2015 being a General Election year, do you believe the high voter turnout you’ve enjoyed will empower your students to vote on Thursday 7 May?

Yes I think it really will. As part of our elections, we asked whether people intended to vote in the general election. Over 11,000 said that they would be, with some interesting opinion polls being generated that we will publish in the lead up to the General Election in May. We have worked really hard on a voter registration and education campaign, as over 25 per cent of people had dropped off the electoral roll in student heavy areas. We have made our election turnout a key message of our media work in our 100,000 voices campaign.


What advice would you offer to your staff counterparts from other students’ unions who are looking to achieve a similar spike in voter turnout and engagement on their campus?

Don’t focus on election turnout, allow innovation in all your engagement activity and the election numbers will follow. Encourage all your staff and officers to take an interest and have a stake in the election to really grow commitment (it was great seeing some of our facilities team talking to students about the elections as much as the student voice staff). Becoming really visible across the campus and in people’s social media and academic life, I can’t over-emphasise working in partnership with the university to achieve this. Don’t be afraid to innovate and try things you may never have thought of; Democra-tea is one idea you can have for free! Start now ready for next year, think about how you will showcase the amazing work your officers are doing on behalf of those who have just entrusted them with their union.

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