It was a number of weeks ago that I had made the decision that would change the course of my day, from my daily routine, to a new experience, which would lead me to a better understanding of the University that I had been attending for almost 5 years.
At the last Union Council I had nominated myself to become one of the Union’s student representatives on the University Senate. After a somewhat sketchy pitch, and a nervous wait I was successful in being voted in. That was that, for a few weeks, until I received my invite to the first meeting of the year, with the accompanying documents.
Over the next week I digested the contents of the files. I have had experience of union committees but I could see that this would be a bit of a step up. I did my best to understand the issues at hand, as I was determined not to be a bystander, but to remember the students that I was supposed to be there to represent. It was important to me that in some way I was able to represent them.
By noon on the day of senate I was at the Union, as in order to support its representatives we had a briefing prepared, so that we understood the issues being raised, and went in confident, rather than unsure.
By the end of the briefing I felt in some way ready, managed to grab a quick lunch, and by 2pm I was at the entrance to Student services waiting for the rest of the delegates from the union. Once we had all arrived myself, Sasha and Joe (the Union Council Delegates), Billy and Rob (from the Sabbatical Team) climbed the stairs and made our way to the Senate room.
The Senate Room
This was a room of which I was very familiar, as it also housed Union Council, but as the doors opened it was a very new experience. We were just on time, and the room was filled with Deans, Academics, and Researchers, and all eyes turned towards us. It was possibly my imagination but it felt as though a silence had poured over the room as we shuffled through to find the only empty seats at the back.
It was then that I saw, to the side of the room, were my personal tutor and two of the more respected lecturers from my department. It was at that point that you begin to wonder how we can begin to contribute, or make any impact on the discussions to come. Would this representative body of the University expect us to be seen and not heard, and how would we be judged when we spoke.
The meeting started almost the second we had settled down into our seats, and opened with an introduction to senate. The theme was on improving the way senate worked, moving from the procedural set up of discussions, to using the meeting to focus on the issues that really matter.
This began to make me think of the changes taking place in our own organisation, and the similar attempts to improve the way we can interact and make changes to the Union. But it was what came next that really took me by surprise.
“And now I will read the obituaries…”
As the Vice Chancellor began to read of the list of names which included not only academics, and students, but of all manner of staff, who had tragically passed away since the last Senate the membership rose to their feet. I was fumbling with my chair attempting to stand in the small amount of space at the back of the room, while trying to make space for the person in front of me to be able to do the same. Once I had found my footing the room paused for a moments silence to show respect to the names that had been read out.
To me this moment was very human, and the University had, for that instant stopped being this faceless organisation, this machine which was ever moving forward, and became a community. One where over 30, 000 people are working together towards similar goals, with the number and figures that often represent the enormity of the university structure becoming real people.
As the agenda points began being discussed I started to wonder if I would have anything to contribute when the time came, or if I would end up just becoming a spectator. The Vice Chancellor then began with the motions up for discussion. There was a pause after a motion was presented, and where I had expected complex discussion there was nothing. The room was asked if they were happy and the room let out a collective shrug.
The Turning Point
The meeting continued and it was then that the room suddenly became far less intimidating. This was not the faceless university, or the mass of academics debating policies above the understanding of a mere student, this was Council, and Union Council was something I understood very well indeed. I was there to represent students, and I was no longer concerned about what they would think of our questions, as they were in exactly the same situation as we were. I glanced around the room and there were senate members struggling with their laptops, trying to find the right papers. I was prepared to question what I didn’t understand, because I was not the only one.
It was then that the students at the back began to speak up, and question. I was being given an opportunity to directly question University Policy, and I was able to give a voice to the students I was there to represent.
An area which was up for discussion was the future of funding for the University in the current climate, and this was the topic that prompted much debate. It was also then that I came to one of my most important realisations of the session.
Billy (SUSU President) had been waiting for about ten minutes before the Vice Chancellor finally signalled him to ask his question. We were in the middle of a discussion on the opinions of Senate to Southampton charging at the higher end of the fee scale to make up for the loss of over £45, 000, 000 worth of funding from the recent budget cuts.
He gave an impassioned plea to Senate to ensure that they think long and hard about the course of action they were about to take, and to what level they set their fees, as we believed many students deserve better value for money for what they currently pay. Alongside this he also raised the issues surrounding the transparency of where our money is going.
It was then that the opportunity to speak was moved to the next person. It was good that the consideration of value for money been raised, but I had fully expected it to end there. But when the next person spoke they brought it back to the points raised by the Union. Agreeing that we must seek real value for our students, and that we had to provide much better explanations of where that money goes. Examples of contemporary institutions around the world were cited, showing how they had a better record of answering to their students for where their money goes.
Discussions continued with a whole range of views from PhD students and Post graduate fees, to the quality of our IT support for our students, and a whole range of opinions were expressed, with many offering contrary opinions.
After the meeting was over it was time to catch the bus and return home to my normal evening routine. But the way I thought about the University had most definitely changed.
The University is not a faceless corporation, but a community. The Vice Chancellor and the University Executive will push forwards with proposals on how the University can survive these tough times, but we must remember are no more in charge of the University than our Sabbaticals are in charge of the Union. Without the support of its community, of its Deans, its students, its academics, its support staff, the machine won’t work, in much the same way that the Sabbaticals depend on the support of its student membership to breathe life into the Union and give it direction.
I saw that one person, one student, one idea can make a difference, and can make real changes to how this community is run, and in Senate the student voice is by no means passive with far more support than we possibly realise.
There is however a clause to this realisation, as the voice is only as loud as the number of students who stand behind it, and it’s with this we can have our biggest impact.
If we don’t like the way things are run, and believe the University could do better, then we need to bring our concerns to Senate to make ourselves heard. There are big changes taking place in the University as we speak, some very subtle, effecting the inner workings of how the University is run, and some are very obvious, like the price of our degrees, but all have a huge impact on our experience at this University.
Many of the ideas are good, but some are often rushed, or reactionary, and not to the benefit of the whole of the community that makes up this institution. It is up to us to help shape those changes, and ensure it remains a University to be proud of.