Thursday 19-03-2015 - 17:03
Have you ever felt there was an 'engagement problem' on your campus? Middlesex's Director Ed Marsh talks to us about social spheres, residentials and how we can learn a thing or two from a particular German sociologist.
Give us an overview of your role as Director at Middlesex Students’ Union.
It’s much the same as being a Union Manager, a Permanent Secretary, a General Manager, a CEO, a chief of staff or a consiglieri. I think that one of the reasons there is such diversity in terms of the names that my role is given is because the role itself is so diverse, (I know that at least one of my colleagues has ‘bingo caller’ buried within his job description!).
When I started at Middlesex, the brief was to take a students’ union that had struggled to find an identity for the past decade and to make it excellent on its own terms. Whenever I try to capture the journey that the SU has been on I always come back to the Bob Dylan lyric ‘when you ain’t got nothing you ain’t got nothing to lose’, and that’s allowed us to try all sorts of innovative and exciting things over the past three years, some of which have been great successes and some of which haven’t, it’s my job to support the staff to be as innovative as possible and not to allow a fear of failure to develop.
The demographic of students in Hull, where you were President of the students’ union, is very different to that of Hendon, where you’re currently based. How has this affected the way you’d usually approach your work?
On my first day at MDXSU (MUSU in those days) the officers sat me down and gave me a presentation on their priorities for the year ahead. Shreya Paudel (now of NUS International Students’ Officer fame) summed up their priorities as being ‘quite a lot of things’, but the main one was ‘to create a real buzz amongst all 23,000 students’. The officers had cleverly broken down the student population so that they had roughly 6,000 students each and they described how they were going to create a buzz in their section.They worked really hard all year and the union supported them as well as we could, but in reality even the best union can’t create a buzz amongst 100 per cent of its students and our ‘buzz’ was limited to a fairly narrow section of the student population who got energised by debates on governance structures and no platform policies. Watching Shreya work so hard made me think that what we needed to do to make his life easier, but identifying the missing ingredient was tough. Why at MDX didn’t students get the buzz factor from the union in the way they had back when I was an officer in Hull?
This led me to the conclusion that the thing that was missing in Hendon was a social sphere. Back when I was an officer in Hull I could always rely on a group of sports club Captains and society Chairs to create a ‘buzz’ around an event or a campaign, as an officer this was my probably my biggest tool. I would guess that the number of students who were genuinely engaged in the broader work of the SU in Hull would have been around 300. That means I would visually demonstrate the difference in terms of being an officer at Hull verses MDX like this…
You’ve made leaps towards creating a ‘social sphere’ at Middlesex Students’ Union, but what is a ‘social sphere’ and why is it important to the students’ union?
The difference in breaking students down between four sabbs leaves a ratio of 1:5750 whereas Hull ratio’s are 1:53 and then 1:42 which is clearly more manageable. It’s that middle section of the Hull circle is what I would categorise as the social sphere.
Academically, the power and effectiveness of a social sphere is an area which deserves a much greater study than this piece can offer, however I will crudely summarise a source which our university wouldn’t accept. The writing of Jürgen Habermas is really useful for anybody trying to organise social change. Whilst Habermas concludes that the public sphere was ultimately eroded, his description of it as being something that enables open decision making which is accessible to broader sections of the population, and which creates engaged citizens, would probably summarise our how our ideal students’ union would operate. This poses the question- can we resurrect the public sphere within students’ unions, should we?
The public sphere (or to give it the full original German description ‘Öffentlichkeit’) is an area where individuals come together in a disorganised space discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. Classically it can be spotted in coffee shops and salons, however in SUs it can be seen around the fringes of union council meetings, course rep conferences or AGMs. Understanding the public sphere requires understanding how it contrasts with the private sphere. That is the space in which someone is concerned purely with matters which directly affect them. Crudely a private sphere might be someone having a transactional, one off interaction where they don’t take a broader view as to its implications; and lots of these exist within an SU without engaging in the broader organisation (for example drinking in the bar but not having a view on who should be elected as the VP Services, or using a student advisor but not voting in the VP Welfare election). MDXSU has always had a vibrant private sphere of students- however when it comes to wanting to affect broader change this can become a frustration, and over the past two years I’ve decided that our ability create a public sphere out of our engaged students will make or break the future of MDXSU.
Habermas points out three so-called ‘institutional criteria’ as preconditions for the emergence of the new public sphere. The discursive arenas, such as Britain’s coffee houses, France’s salons and Germany’s Tischgesellschaften ‘may have differed in the size and compositions of their publics, the style of their proceedings, the climate of their debates, and their topical orientations’, but ‘they all organized discussion among people that tended to be ongoing; hence they had a number of institutional criteria in common’
The three things which are necessary for a social sphere to emerge are:
The disregard of status in which a conversation can occur between equal parties
A domain of common concern in which groups can come together with a shared area of interest
The space has to be inclusive with, as far as possible, barriers to participation broken down
In September, your team piloted a successful student residential ‘MDXSU On Tour’, which ran again last month. What are the main aims of the scheme?
Having considered all of the above, we took the decision to take those students currently engaged in our private sphere (student voice leaders, student staff, society execs, members of our committees) away to create a status free environment where the area of common concern was the students union- and to remove all the barriers to participation (such as cost or interest levels) by making it both free and interesting. What did that result in? Taking nearly 100 students to the Scouts HQ for three days of activities, training and chatting about the SU.
And the results were so positive that we re-ran the whole thing again earlier this month, this time we had nearly 150 students who came, and the focus was on keeping up the momentum for next year, with sessions aimed at helping societies to plan ahead to next year’s welcome week and supporting student voice leaders (course reps) to ensure they are able to elect successors so the hard work doesn’t go to waste.
How did it all come together, who attended and what did the SU learn from it?
Initially it came about because the scouts got in touch to see whether or not we would be interested in incorporating their facilities into our give it a go program, and whilst the facilities are very good I had to be honest and tell them that getting 50 students onto a bus for an hour each way for an hours rock climbing would be a hard sell. We then got talking about their residential facilities, and how they are primarily in use over the summer holiday and at weekends and they are keen to increase the use of the cabins during the week in term time. This seemed far more interesting because our terms don’t line up with the school holidays so particularly September becomes very attractive to university students.
If you could summarise the feedback you’ve received from students at MDXSU On Tour in three words, what would they be?
We did a ‘word cloud’ on the feedback and the three top words were: inspired, amazing and loved.
What advice would you give to students’ unions looking to run similar residential schemes?
It is a lot of hard work, and takes real commitment from the entire staff team to pull off but the momentum that it has given us has made everything far more likely to succeed, so I would say go for it! It is worth it when you see a social sphere that looks like this starting to develop!
Ahead of the General Election, Middlesex Students’ Union are creating ‘treasure hunts’ to encourage students to register to vote. Can you tell us more about this?
At the latest residential we were lucky enough to be joined by NUS celebrity Piers Telemacque who gave a speech to inspire our students about the General Election. Luckily this was the same day as NUS announced it had won the funding from the Cabinet Office, so we got the students to form teams of eight, to imagine that they had £10k to spend and to create an idea to get students to register to vote which was then pitched dragons den style and voted on. The winning idea is to hold a weak of treasure hunts where the clues are General Election themed and include registering to vote. Participation will get you entry into a pirate themed rock the vote party and one successful team will get an all-expenses paid trip to Euro Disney! What I love about the idea is that completing the clues will require broader political engagement than just registering to vote.
Huge credit has to go to NUS for securing such a significant amount of money at such a crucial time.
You served as NUS’ Vice President Union Development for two terms from 2010-2012. How has the ‘union development’ landscape changed between now and then and what are the challenges facing SUs today and in the near future?
I think that the biggest change I have seen is in regard to the work that NUS does for apprentices, the change in the last three years has been incredible and the staff and officers responsible for that deserve huge amounts of credit. Five years ago they weren’t really on either the government or the NUS agenda, you only had to see the coverage of the National Apprenticeship Week this month to see how much has changed.
The biggest challenge of the future for SUs is the increasingly diverse nature of both our sector and of students. The traditional model of SU delivery in many ways looks the same now as it did 93 years ago when NUS was set up. Since then there are 200 times as many SUs and millions more learners. The traditional model which relies on students having time and money and being interested in quoracy checks suits an increasingly niche group of students, I’d say that tackling the hyper diversification will be the biggest challenge of the next five years we need to start engaging with students in their own networks, through their identities and communities.
You can find out more about Middlesex Students' Union by visiting their website at www.mdxsu.com or by following them on Twitter at @MiddlesexSU.