One of the most notable features of the university’s restructure is the complete lack of student consultation before it was proposed. That shouldn’t be a surprise – there wasn’t all that much staff consultation either – but at the same time it presents an interesting dynamic: first and second year students have agreed to pay the university up to £27,750 in tuition fees (even more for international students) and yet we aren’t considered worthy of input into a decision which will fundamentally affect our degree programmes, whether that’s just in terms of the name of the faculty on the degree certificate, or whether that’s more significant administrative and academic changes.
SUSU have to (and will) continue to express students’ views on this restructure, but there are also wider challenges for the Union that this restructure presents. While we have recently had changes to our academic representation structure, students are still not fully utilising academic representation, and roles across the university are going unfilled. So we need a proper consultation.
Once the dust has settled, we need to look at both key problems we know about, and more generally what students who aren’t engaged with the process think it should look like. Key questions around what the role of a course rep should be, how to represent Joint Honours students in departments with an increasing number and variety of cross-faculty courses, how to bring consistency in representation under the new structures, and more broadly issues around the size of roles, can all be answered by consultation with current and former academic reps.
Consultations on other issues next year need to look at what students think academic representation should look like and what would get them more engaged in the process. We need to discuss with both those who are currently involved in the system and those who aren’t if we’re to truly identify its flaws once the new uni structure is in place. Combining properly communicated forums and drop ins with randomly-selected students focus groups will allow a breadth of experiences and views to be represented, and ensure that the self-selection bias we suffer from at times is muted.
Given the scale of the changes, and therefore the potential for problems, it makes sense to adapt the way problems are reported too. While there is a system online to enable you to find and contact your academic reps, it is less visible and less clear what kinds of problems they can help you with. Introducing a reporting system for course and module-related problems similar to that of You Make Change, which will then send the report to the relevant representative might streamline the reporting process and enable a wider engagement with academic representation.
Opening up feedback and consultation needs to be part of a wider process, too. The Zone Committees are largely a place for discussion on significant university issues, but the fact that only Zone members can vote in them means that they could be (or at least feel) exclusionary for people with good ideas but who don’t want to stand for election or go through the bureaucracy of co-option. Opening up that process so that any student who attends can vote in Zone meetings would be another good reform to help build a wider network of consultation.
This restructure highlights another problem; that the Union is reactive rather than proactive in dealing with feedback. Yes, it is difficult to see how the Union could have predicted this change, but if we had had regular and efficient feedback on what students thought education should look like, we might have been able to come up with clear points to guide the university within the 10 day window in which this could possibly have been changed.
Overall, this restructure brings with it a lot of opportunities for the Union to do things in a different way. It will create some of the most fundamental challenges we’ve had to deal with in recent years, and next year, it is more important than ever for SUSU to show that it does its utmost to listen to student feedback and is open to the changes that might be needed.