Five simple ways to involve students in university governance and decision making with impact

Encourage and trust students to take part in decision making. Ben Vulliamy, Chief Executive at University of York Students' Union, lists the impact students can make on university governance.

Too often the measure for whether students are involved in governance is the number of officers who sit on the Senate, or the number of Council meetings that include elected officers, rather than thinking about the ways in which students influence the decisions and culture of university governance. Digby Jacks, NUS president 1971 – 73 is quoted as saying;

 “Representation must never be seen as an end in itself. Too many union officers see it as a question of communication and merely sitting on the appropriate committee. The purpose of representation is to secure educational and social change”.

Here are some ideas about higher impact ways to involve students, not just in attending the meeting, but demonstrably influencing the meeting and the outcomes of university governance.

Share leadership power and responsibility

Find spaces where elected students can co-chair institutional meetings. Demonstrating partnership in the management and leadership of committees is a great way to showcase the quality and trust of partnership. It develops your students’ leadership experience and can positively influence their investment into the substance of discussion.

At York the Academic Registrar and Students’ Union President jointly chair the university student life committee – shaping agendas together, steering priorities within and outside of the meeting. It is both a statement and a practice of trust and was recently praised by Halpin in an institutional governance review.

Sharing leadership power with officers will often help them take responsibility and that combination of power and responsibility is good governance. It can also reduce power inequity showing that institutions value and recognise the leadership acumen of students and young leaders as much as the professorial leadership of academia.

Make friends and influence people

Think about soft and hard relationship management. The way we work and engage with people is shaped by how we feel about them (consciously or otherwise). Often, students’ unions teach elected officers about building up the soft relationship management in order to allow greater influence of the hard relationship management: asking how someone’s family is before we dive into a heated discussion about funding or inviting the PVC to the Summer Ball before we ask them to present an accountability report to the student council.

The same goes for university leadership. If you are able to have fun with students / learn more about their passion and what makes them tick, engage with them in their spaces as well as in your management offices, it will change your relationship with them and build greater mutual respect and their confidence to articulate themselves within your governance structures. 

Create spaces outside of formality

At York we encourage the lay chair of council to meet informally with the elected officers from time to time outside of council meetings. This is ideally done in student spaces to avoid any sense of the elected student being summoned to the management offices by the chair. Instead it allows the chair to come and learn about student life in the places students socialise and convene. This allows the officers to talk about what’s beneath the skin of formal governance in day to day student life and what the issues are that students are really talking about. If they have heard about how students feel about accommodation outside the meeting it might influence the formal discussion about on campus lets in the council meeting. You might often rather they shared some of this in private rather than unexpectedly within the Council! It also allows the chair and the student officers to coach one another a little.

 Give them real power

In Latvia it is common for elected students to have power of veto over institutional decisions, a bold practical statement of power. In practice the power is rarely exercised but knowing it’s there forces a quality of proactive engagements between decision makers and student representatives.

If the institution is nervous that the controversial budget might not be signed off on, they will spend time with the students in advance to identify compromises that make it palatable for example. While I imagine there might not be examples of UK universities being brave enough to give students the power of veto, a lower risk approach is that you actively seek to have formal endorsement from students in the papers for key items. This forces the same conversation. If your rent increase were to be supported by students, what assurances and compromises would you have to offer them and maybe it’s worth it to gain the support of students on such a controversial and difficult item of business?

Hand parts of the informal agenda over to students to shape or co-create

We have occasionally handed over slots in Council or University Executive Board development over to students to curate at York.

A full group of full-time officers and liberation officers ran a ‘speed dating’ style session where Council members rotated between desks to meet liberation officers but also to hear the BAME officer talk about ‘the key issues that affect black student experience’, or the RAG officer talk about ‘student and philanthropy’ or the wellbeing officer talk about ‘the impact of the cost of living on working class students’.

Helping Council members understand and hear first hand the experiences of students within the development space shows students that the council values the lived experience of students as part of their development and helps them bear in mind that testimony when they are subsequently making decisions.

We have also had ‘focus slots’ where officers have co-authored and delivered sessions with the estate’s director on accommodation development, or delivered sessions on free speech with the University Secretary. This harnesses the SU experiences in the institutional decision maker and better aligns the respective policy positions and practice between the University and the students.

At the core of this is the encouragement to think about the trust you put in students and elected officers, an encouragement to build relationships with them and not simply invite them to sit at a table or rubber stamp decisions.

In an institutional culture that sometimes insists on academic(s) judgment being somehow untouchable, sacrosanct and not open to challenge from those without a professorship, showing a genuine willingness to hear the ideas and opinions of others and celebrating their role in decision making can be challenging. But if you do it, it can truly enrich institutions and enhance the relationship between universities and students.