Friday 05-12-2014 - 11:26
It’s more common than thought for unions to not enjoy such a rosy relationship with their ‘parent’ institutions. This was the case at Greenwich for some time, but since rebuilding its democratic structures and relishing a spell of engaged officers at the wheel, the union is working in tandem with the university to deliver for their students. This week, SUUG’s Chief Executive Jenny Greenfield explains how this is all underpinned.
Tell us about your role as Chief Executive at Students’ Union University of Greenwich.
It’s been great working in this role and working with students for around five years. Over this time we’ve built up the Trustee Board and it’s now thirteen-strong - including our four sabbatical officers, students and external trustees. We’ve got 30 full time and part time staff, and around 120 student staff who mainly work in our two bars and three shops, over the Greenwich and Avery Hill campuses.
The University of Greenwich is a multi-site institution and your SU also runs ‘GK Unions’ in partnership with Kent Union to support students based on a shared campus in Medway. How does this partnership operate?
There are around 10,000 Greenwich and Kent students at Medway and they are members of their respective unions, but GK Unions works across both sets of students to build a Medway community. The representation and democracy area is the only one which is lead by two ‘home’ unions. We have a Partnership Board which really acts like a pseudo-Trustee Board – it includes Kent and Greenwich SU staff, GK Unions staff and a rep from each university. The arrangement does bring some challenges – in particular, communicating to students – but really it works because we’ve built up a good relationship between the home unions’ staff teams and sabbatical teams and the GK Unions team.
There are plans to develop your union’s social spaces on both Medway and Greenwich campuses. Can you talk us through your involvement in this process?
The university has a new building in Greenwich, and this has freed-up a large building on the main campus which we would love to be located in – currently we are in a small building slightly off campus. We (mainly me and our President Alex Brooks) have been part of dozens of meetings over the last couple of years to discuss this and we hope we’ll soon be able to reveal exciting new plans to students! At Medway, a currently unused building is being redeveloped into a ‘student hub’ – again, many meetings later, things look very promising and we are all keeping our fingers crossed.
How has the union been communicating these developments with students?
It’s early days yet - although at Medway the GK Unions Manager has already worked on tours of the new space for students and consulted with them, and we’ll be continuing the consultation and information-sharing using all of our comms channels over the next couple of years. Generally, communications is an area we’re focusing on this year (I’m sure every SU says this!) with more use of images and video in particular, in online and social media comms, and we ‘live streamed’ our recent Annual Members Meeting which was very effective.
Developments at the University of Greenwich's shared campus in Medway.
One of the KPI within the University of Greenwich’s five year strategic plan involves increasing ‘students’ participation in SU and other social, sporting and support programmes’ from 20 per cent to 50 per cent by 2017. How has the union been working towards this objective?
Impressive research! We’ve got a number of internal targets which feed into the university’s KPI and things are looking very positive. We’ve got over 700 programme reps now – compared to around 90 two years ago. Students’ participation with activities is also really healthy – over 5,000 students participating in student groups, 60 per cent up on 18 months ago. The next step is boosting the elections turnout, and work’s already started on this.
How instrumental have your elected officers been in fostering good relationships with the university?
We’ve got a really active and engaged sabbatical team and they’ve made big strides in improving a relationship which it’s safe to say was pretty damaged only a few years ago. One of the many benefits of this is that university staff feel much more positive about the SU and are acting as advocates for us with students, which is helping us engage the hard-to-reach groups.
Although Greenwich benefits from a wide demographic of students and 75 per cent of staff in senior management roles within the SU are women, you currently have an all-male sabbatical team. How will the students’ union be using its upcoming officer elections to encourage more women to contest sabbatical positions?
We’ve just had our first ‘women in leadership’ meeting actually (to meet a manifesto pledge of the (male) president!) and we’ve got lots of ideas. Last election we had an increase in women candidates, we now have four women part-time officers and we introduced a women’s officer role last year. Things are moving slowly in the right direction.
Before joining Greenwich, you worked for Shelter. What attracted you to the student movement?
I had no idea what to expect, to be honest, but having been part of it for five years now I can’t imagine going back! I worked at Oxfam for a bit as well, and the same as Shelter, it’s very easy to feel quite distant from the ‘beneficiaries’ of a charity when you’re working in certain roles.
What do you feel makes students’ unions a unique place to work and what separates Students’ Union University of Greenwich from its peers?
As for the last question really, the fact that the students are an integral part of the organisation, and the culture of democracy and fairness which is really easy to take for granted once you’ve been part of the movement for a while. Each new team of elected officers brings a fresh injection of energy and new ideas and that really does re-invigorate the staff team. As to what separates us – obviously, a superb, talented and dedicated team of staff and elected officers!