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The Hot Seat: Kat Stark (UWLSU)

Thursday 27-11-2014 - 11:59

Like all SUs, the University of West London Students’ Union is on a mission to build a better union for its members, but unlike some, its harnessing the family feel of its campus to realise what excellence looks like in a modern London SU.



For this week’s Hot Seat, we sat down with UWLSU’s Chief Executive Officer, Kat Stark to discuss everything from collaborations and fostering communities through to question 23 in the NSS.

Tell us about your current role at University of West London Students’ Union.

I’m the Chief Executive. Like most CEOs in SUs, I report to the Trustee Board via our President, Josh Goddard, and I lead our union to achieve our 2018 Strategy. I head up our talented team of 20 permanent and 65 part-time staff, and approx. 350 student volunteers. You can see who we all are here.

UWLSU is currently working to ‘build a better union’, can you tell us more about this process?

We are trying to work out what excellence looks like in a modern London SU. It feels a bit like an adventure – we’re not sure what the destination is but we’re determined to get there! We are testing things out, learning from within and outside of our sector, and most importantly involving students.

My sense is that it won’t be that hard to get to ‘good’ – this year UWLSU jumped 10% in the NSS question 23 from the bottom quartile to the 2nd. But reaching excellence will be a challenge that will require us to innovate.

I feel optimistic that we’ll succeed because we’re working in partnership with other SUs facing the similar challenges.

What are your union’s other key objectives for the coming year?

We’ve got some really exciting projects going on this year – it’s one of the benefits of working somewhere that really values creative innovative ideas. Here’s a few of my faves:

  • A collaboration with Registry (sounds dry I know) is part of a face2face conversation project we’re rolling out this year – already we’ve managed to have structured conversations with 98% of new UWL students!
  • Following on from Middlesex SU’s successful student residential last summer, we’ll be piloting our own student residential in May 2015. I’m so excited to see what some intensive training and team building will do for them and what impact it will have on the UWL community.
  • Recognising that volunteering is a barrier for some students getting involved, we’re launching new ways of engaging in the student community. We aim to have 100 student staff by the end of the year, delivering SU activities to their peers. We also aim to engage hundreds of students in enterprise activities, most of which will have a social element.
  • Oh and we’re also doing a little review of our governance and student representation arrangements.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing students’ unions today?

Change is both our biggest challenge and our biggest opportunity. Change within the HE sector and change within our national and global society has radically impacted on both who students are and what students are.

SUs must do what we’ve always done which is to involve our membership and adapt to their needs and wants.

Digital life is changing how people think – I’m talking about our brains and stuff. Digital activity isn’t a distinct activity like sports clubs or a bar – it’s a mode of delivery like having a meeting or holding an event.

Like other sectors, many of us are lagging behind and I worry that as a sector we’ve not yet got to a critical mass of staff with the knowledge and skill to keep up (let alone lead).

Not long ago our biggest comms worry was trying to get students to use less paper on pointless flyers and posters. Now here we are dealing with the fact that TL;DR applies to pretty much anything over 80 words long and where students experiencing a hyper-personalised digital world don’t feel that ‘PG International’ or ‘STEM UG’ are categories that adequately capture their personality.

Imagine what it would look like if we were really on top of it as a movement? We’d have invented Facebook. We probably should have.

How does your union communicate with its students?

For us, face2face student2student is what we aim for wherever possible which is why we’re running projects that require us to systematically talk to large groups of students – a bit like the systems used in constituencies by political parties to deal with the tens of thousands of voting residents. Obvs, we use the other methods too – social media, txt, calls, emails and even posters sometimes.

You have a great background of working in senior roles at various SUs in the past. What do you feel makes UWLSU unique?

The people. UWL has a family feel – there’s closeness between students, staff and us. I often see the Vice Chancellor in the SU café and our Chair of the Board lives opposite the SU bar.

I’ve never worked anywhere where so many students know who the senior staff are or where Heads of Schools literally know their students’ names.

There’s also a strong sense of purpose shared amongst all UWL people. UWL raises aspiration and people’s lives change as a result of coming here. What better reason to get out of bed each day and come to work?

What was your first experience of working within the student movement?

I was a sabb at Warwick Students’ Union back in the day – the forth ever woman President. I’m pleased to say that Cat Turhan is in there now as the 5th woman President – nice one, Cat!

I couldn’t love Warwick SU more. The opportunities I had through that union were incredible. I’m so pleased to have worked with two brilliant Warwick SU Chief Execs – Claire Horton (whilst I was a Sabb) and the current CEO Jacqui Clements. Both of these women continue to inspire me.

What advice would you give, to women in particular, who are looking to work in senior roles at unions?

  1. Go for it, obvs! We need hundreds of thousands more women reaching senior positions in the UK – Sex and Power is an annual report that I really like because it gives a succinct overview of where we’re at. I find it useful to have the facts – many people think we’re pretty much there. Incorrect.
  2. Don’t make the mistake I made and read ‘Lean In’ in a bid to get ‘in the zone’; it will make you feel like an under-achiever. You’re not.
  3. Work out who is on your team – these are people who may or may not formally work with you but who get you and believe in your potential. Make time for them.
  4. Reach out to new people to create your networks. You’ll need them if you want to avoid re-inventing the wheel – and when you’re trying to recruit new staff in your team.
  5. Create a work team that takes their job seriously but not themselves.

Find out more about the University of West London Students’ Union by visiting their website at www.uwlsu.com or by following them on Twitter at @uwl_su

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