Bristol SU respond to Tab article: ‘More can and should be expected of sabbatical officers’

‘The words recently written by James Heale can only be met with agreement’

The words recently written by James Heale, outgoing Editor of the Bristol Tab, can only be met with agreement. Our SU can do better. The elected officer team can do better.

As the incoming Officer team at Bristol SU, we welcome the recent article, titled ‘How can Bristol SU connect better with its students?’; because it eloquently outlines the concerns that many other students share.

Heale’s article is effective in that he offers his critiques with some sensible and practical solutions. Some of these solutions already exist, but the article is a timely reminder that how the SU works, and how it's perceived, are often out of sync.

We’d like to answer the three questions raised in Heale's article; on representation, accountability and communication, with a brief overview of our plans for 2018/19. It is no coincidence that we identified these same themes in our own planning sessions earlier this month, and are working to address them together.

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The original article published two weeks ago

Representation

The fact that many students do not feel represented by their students’ union is perhaps our biggest concern.

Thousands of students engage with the SU through our 360 societies, sports clubs and networks – one of the highest numbers in the UK – and hundreds of SU events. Similarly, the engagement with Bristol SU's elections is among the highest of any student body in the country.
But still, we recognise that too many of you feel distant from Bristol SU.

For many students, the idea of ‘elections’ conjures up images of random people harassing you when you’re trying to eat your lunch.
Perhaps more would struggle to even list our six officer positions, let alone what we do. Our democratic channels have their issues, and this is an area that we are always working on.

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The outgoing team of sabbatical officers, 2017-18

The SU has reduced the number of democratic events it holds. Its new networks system gives more power to students, and has already led to many successful student-led campaigns. More can be done though, and this year we want to shift the culture at democratic meetings from one that can be toxic and tense, to one where students feel comfortable engaging and having their voices heard.

We want all students to feel represented, and we can feel proud that students' unions have always been at the forefront of driving social change. We will always champion the rights of marginalised social groups, such as Black and Minority Ethnic students, and LGBT+ students. Thus, the conversation may not always feel relevant to students not from these identity groups.

Yet, as Heale’s article points out, this should not be an either/or situation. We must work harder to get the balance right, bringing the whole student body along with us. After all, if it is only marginalised voices who are fighting these battles, then the rest of us are not fulfilling our roles as supportive allies.

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Incoming SU sabbatical officers 2018-19, pictured at the NUS awards

Accountability

Bristol SU is like any political structure in that accountability presents a problem. As the article rightly points out, the quick turnover rate of officers means that holding them to account is difficult.

Officers always begin their terms with the best intentions, but simple changes can be incredibly challenging to fulfil in the university environment. These systems are complex, and often frustrating, in ways that students don’t have the time to fully understand.

The many committee meetings and forums that officers attend may not be as revolutionary as picketing the streets, but these spaces are often where the big decisions are made.
Officers work hard, often 7 days a week, but change takes time.

Though officers can't always carry out all their election promises, we see our biggest problem is that our good work isn’t visible to students. The lack of transparency between officers and students leaves you feeling alienated from us, your elected representatives.

We are changing the SU website so that the work we’re doing is available and accessible for any student who would like to know more. We’ll be writing regular blogs for the website, as well as communicating through our own social media channels. You'll see us talking about the work we do that is long-term, or that involves university committee meetings. This way we hope you'll see we’re being open throughout long and difficult projects.

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An image from the SU Society Awards 2018, held in the Balloon Bar

Communication

Many students don't understand what the SU, and in particular the officers, do day to day. Some would go so far as calling it opaque and bureaucratic – something which we plan to address this year.

Many students feel that the SU has been on the wrong side of some important debates in the recent past. The officers must stay in touch with the students they’re representing in order for this to change, and that’s exactly what we aim to do.

We want students to come and speak to us – in the office, on campus – something that is rarely done at present. That can be a daunting experience for some, so we're also placing a greater emphasis on students contacting us through our social media with any concerns or points they have.

We, the incoming sabbatical team, promise to tackle these issues head on. We're here for students, we're listening, and we can't wait to see you all in September.

This article was written by the 2018-19 sabbatical officer team: Sally Patterson (Liberation, Equality and Access), Stan Ford (Union Affairs), Shubham Singh (Postgraduate Education), Nasra Ayub (Undergraduate Education), Ginny Troughton (Sport and Student Development) and Vanessa Wilson (Student Living).

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