Monday, July 31, 2006

Thoughts on the end of my time with Queen Mary Students' Union

Over the past three years I've served as an Executive Officer of Queen Mary Students' Union and today my final term of office comes to an end. I'd like to make public the email I sent to all those who served as Executive members alongside me:

To all those I have served with over the years,

Although terms of office last until the end of July, with the Mile End term ending tomorrow (sorry medics!) now seems an opportune moment to write some "finishing remarks".

The last three years on the Executive have been a roller coaster of a time, with spectacular highs and lows. There have been the high profile events, such as the collapse of the Chemistry department, the fight against top-up fees, the attempted College take-over and many more. There have also been the lower key matters, no less important in the grand scheme of things. And there have been the routine things, some of which can seem so mundane but are crucial to an organisation being able to function for the purpose it is there for.

There has been fun too, whether the intentional such as the parties, the unintentionally hilarious moments or the spectacles of academic meetings. Sometimes I believe Henry Kissinger was right when he said, "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." My Philosophy lecturer once told how when he was an undergraduate course rep he attended a department meeting with two of the biggest names in British philosophy of their generation. During the course of the meeting (meant to be primarily about logistics), the two highly educated academics got into such a row about the validity of each other's strand of the discipline that they ended the meeting have turned their chairs so as to have their backs to each other!

Disagreements often exist in students' unions too. Many have argued strongly, not because they wish to cause trouble or because of some obscure stricture, but because they passionately believe that the course of action they support is best. Often disagreements can get intense when different people approach the matter differently. But ultimately they have the same basic goal. There is so much more that people agree on than disagree and it is shocking when arguments over small matters get out of all proportion. It is never possible to please all of the people all of the time, but one can seek to understand motivations genuinely and seek to address concerns. At the end of the day people are all human beings, all needing help and safety, feeling pain, seeking understanding and are all still individuals. Many make mistakes - I know I have and am sorry for them - but that does not diminish them in value. To quote one of the best things I have ever heard said on this:

But at the end of the day, your Union is comprised of individuals - not of offices, not of positions, not of titles, not of money, not of committees - but of people. Try and remember that when you deal with them.

There are also frustrations, both at the seeming lack of action and the belief that serious errors are being made. In the case of the former, always remember that Union officers are not all-powerful beings. Much of the work involves negotiations with the College, University, Council and other bodies and the Union and its representatives do not always have the final say. It is very hard to change some things, especially when one also has to provide existing services. As for the latter, sometimes communications fail, even in an error of the internet and mobile phones, and information is not sufficiently disseminated or is misinterpreted, leading to confusion and concern. Also many will take a concern about an issue not because it affects them in the slightest - indeed to ignore it might be to their personal benefit, especially in regards time - but because they are concerned for the effects it can have on the Union and the ability to improve the student experience.

The "student experience" is an ever more diverse thing these days. When I was an undergraduate the first chapel service of each year saw the Chaplain deliver the same sermon about this, comparing it to the way that the way Lyons Restaurants have been succeeded by a plethora of different places with different cuisines offering one the chance to have a meal while in town. There was a time when most degrees were identical but now they are modular. Students used to be by and large drawn from the same narrow band of society - now they are far more diverse in many different regards. They used to primarily live in university accommodation - nowadays many commute great distances and an ever-growing proportion live with their parents. There are far more mature students studying, whereas in the old days the traditions of a single career for life resulted in universities being almost exclusively dominated by the recent school leavers. Globalisation has led to far more students than ever before being able to study overseas. And changes in qualifications and demands have led to a phenomenal expansion in postgraduate education, with far reaching consequences.

It is a changing world and the Union, like all students' unions, has to keep pace with changes in the nature of the student population if it is to successfully support and represent its members. For those facing reviews in the near future, I would this advice - try to ensure that the nature of a problem is identified and do not apply the wrong solution. One can divide the problems facing students' unions in their governance structures into a number of broad areas:

*Physical geography - i.e. things like whether the institution has a single campus or many sites miles apart, whether places are easy to get to, whether the bulk of the student population lives within spitting distance or spread out across the entire region and so forth. Such things are almost impossible to change.
*Building structures - such as where a facility is located on a campus or the capacity of rooms available. The opportunity to make these changes comes along probably much less than once in a generation.
*Technological developments - sometimes technology changes so fast and changes the way in which people interact that it is a struggle to keep pace.
*Constitutional and regulations - these can sometimes feel a pain but they are drafted the way they are for a reason. Sometimes they do need modification, but do not assume that all problems can be solved by a constitutional amendment.
*Cultural - not only changes in society, but very specific cultures exist in each university, with different emphases and expectations.
*Individual - you do sometimes get problems from particular individuals that make you feel things need to change. However, problem individuals happen all the time no matter what.

Food for thought for the future. If any of you are facing changes, I am willing to offer whatever help I can.

Finally I would like to thank all those that I have worked with. During my three years, there have been no less than forty-four other people serving on the Executive, all of whom I thank now:

Aran, Charis, Charlotte, Cindy, Dan, Dave, Dave, Ed, Emil, Faisal, Freddie, Gemma, Grace, Gugs, Hannah, Hari, Helena, Jason, Jeremy, Juliet, Karen, Kat, Kayleigh, Kish, Laura B (RIP), Laura BW, Martin, Michael, Michalis, Paddy, Paul, Pete, Punam, Rhiannon, Rinki, Rob, Rory, Sam, Somaya, Steve, Tom, Vicki, Vicky and Vina.

Some of you are now moving away from university, others still have study to go on their degrees, others are embarking on new course and others still have sabbatical posts to take up (and some of you aren't rid of me yet!). Some have already Whatever your path, take care.

One day I shall come back. Yes I shall come back. Until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxiety. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.


Paul Burgin said...

Trust you to end your post with a Doctor Who quote! ;)

C4' said...

Well said Tim!


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