Kent Union: Are you satisfied?

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By comment-editor on 14.6.2023

Kent Union: Are you satisfied?

During election time, words such as ‘representation’, ‘accountability’, and ‘transparency’ get branded about quite liberally. Long after the elections are over (now at the end of the academic year), however, the big questions remain; how representative of students is Kent Union and do students really have a say in what the Union does? According to the Kent Union Satisfaction Survey in March, 44.1% of students do think that the Union puts forward their interests and concerns effectively. However, 49.1% disagreed that they could easily have a say in what the union does. Additionally, general comments from the survey include the ‘union needs to be seen acting more in the interests of the students’ and the union is seen to be ‘run by cliques’ and a ‘lack of consultation of over major issues of representation.’ Where does this general perception come from, and what are the problems that perpetuate it?

The problems arise, according to Shaun Nichols, the Mature Student officer, as there is a ‘democratic deficit’ within the union. The students union is one ‘run by students’ and when there is a lack of ‘democratic legitimacy’ this ceases to be the case. The Union has spent a lot of money on commercial services and outlets and has been particular successful in this regard. Students are ‘content with the commercial side’ and ‘so are not motivated to fight for issues’ which is an important aspect of democracy.

This, in turn, has contributed to student apathy. Part of the problem is that students need to participate in debate more, and at the moment students don’t think they can ‘access the political part of the Union.’ Students think that the union is a ‘closed shop’ as Sabbaticals rerunning for positions and seen to be taking the sides of their friends during election time not only harms democracy but alienated people and makes the elections seem nothing more than a ‘popularity contest.’

Shaun Nichols suggests that Union structures like the Union Council needs to be promoted more. This is reinforced, more generally, by Humanities Faculty Representative Emma Glass who states that there is not enough ‘mass publicising and advertising of the union’ and sabbaticals need to ‘go out and talking to people more.’ This also links in with why people don’t think they have a say; Tom Bates, part of the Societies Federation Committee, thinks there is a problem with information flow, from the union to the students and vice versa. Firstly, from the union to the students as decisions are made by the Union before ordinary students can get a chance to discuss the issues. And when change is made, ‘students need to see change in practice’ and in their everyday lives. When students feel they are not being represented in this manner, they are less compelled to become representatives themselves, and so information is not fed back from students to the Union.

These information and promotion problems are what creates, Parkwood president Ben Tipple says is a ‘them and us culture’ and is the ‘biggest problem that the union has’. Students seem to assume that the Union belongs to other people and they’re not part of it. This, to some extent, explains why people misinterpret or have the perception of the union as ‘a clique’.

It is possible to start to come to some positive solutions to people’s misperception of the union. One idea, that Tom Bates proposes, is a Student Union mailing list whereby students interested in knowing what decisions are being made at Union Council will get regular updates on the issues being discussed before the after the meetings. This would help people to be more informed and would encourage them to participate more, by promoting Union activities and information. It would help the Union, as Emma Glass has it, to ‘publicise both the positive and negative aspects of the union’ and would help in the creation of ‘a body of the union that’s job is to publicise the union.’

Societies also have a huge part in promoting Union activities, as most students get involved in the union in their own way; one that they enjoy. Ben Tipple gives the examples of ‘volunteering, CSR, inQuire.’ Societies provide a vital link between the Union and the Students, and members of a society need to be made more aware they are part of the union, as their equipment and services rely heavily on the union. Societies are a union resource, and may people don’t realise this as their relationship with the union is merely just through paying membership on-line. However, societies have a huge role to play in fostering the perception of a more inclusive union.

Lastly, the online-voting system for this year’s elections helped increase participation and so people should make more informed decisions on the basis of manifestos and less on popularity (although this has been a contentious issue). This should ensure elected candidates have more legitimacy to represent. The online system could also be used for referenda, which would again increase student’s participation in the Union. This certainly go some way in getting rid of the perception of the union as a clique, a perception that’s bound to arise when union officials become close friends.

Shaun Nichols stresses the point that ‘the Union can’t repeat mistakes happening in Westminster- where less and less people are engaged in dialogue with elected representatives’. If people don’t and are not encouraged to speak up for themselves now at university political apathy will continue to resonate in public life as well.

Long after the elections took place, last term, questions about the union are as pertinent as ever; next year will we see the rise of a new dawn for people’s perception of the Union or will people see the same old cliques running the show?



Comments

  • Yet again, another well written and enjoying read from our very own Zain Sadar. Thanks mate.

    I feel strongly about how the Student Union is run. I know the efforts that you have made Tom and like the Union to up the notion of being about ‘representation’, ‘accountability’, and ‘transparency’.

    It is not always a problem of the Union not being able to communicate with students, but the students not being able to communicate with the Union. Those of us in societies know that the sabs and president are only at the end of an email or telephone conversation? My perception (before I became involved with societies and campagins) was that the Student Union was somthing higher than the students, closer to those in power at UKC. The Student Union should not try to ‘get down with the kids’, but it should make itself more accessable. You can do all the podcasts you like, but if you dont get down to ‘grass roots’ (apologies for the political clishe) the the Union will never be what it should be – a forum for students to excersise their opinions on how the univeristy is run.

    I would argue for:

    A complete overhaul of kentunion.co.uk the website is cluttered and poorly designed.

    Better use of the LCD plasma TVs around campus, to not only promote Union events but to justify their purchace.

    A visible challenge by the Union against the University administrators about THEIR BLATANT LACK OF CONCERN FOR STUDENT ISSUES

    Better use of the inQuire newspaper space – no more recipies and CD reviews – its not Good Housekeeping or a Sunday suppliment!

    I know running somthing as big as kent union is more complicated than it seems, but if ending student apathy is a main concern of the Union then some things must change.

    By Comrade Elliot on 27.8.2023

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  • This is really well written Zain. You’ve highlighted some of the worries I have about the union and done it fairly.

    I personally think that the way to get students involved, or at least let them know what is going on is by talking to them. Talking to students and getting to know them will also help get rid of this idea that we are a ‘clique’. All the money that is invested in marketing will at the end of the day only reach students to a certain extent.

    By talking to students I don’t mean knocking on their doors or handing out leaflets. Election week annoys students so much because they are getting a big influx of information and are getting pestered by the same information day after day. If election week was election day, students wouldn’t be so annoyed by us.

    We can talk to students just by networking. I’m a representative of every Keynes student, but I talk to so many more people who ask me questions about what a sabbatical is or what my job is, who aren’t keynes students. Therefore I feel I am a representative of every student I come into contact with and get an opinion/view from.

    There are other ways also. I think things like Education Committee can be integrated more into union council. It is very separate at the moment, and I don’t see why department reps etc should not also be encouraged to attend. If they have been elected into a position they must be enthusiastic for change.

    Why don’t we have more inquire or CSR people coming? We can always tell them when we’re about to sit through a boring presentation and they can avoid that meeting! These meetings affect what they do.

    Finally, one of my plans this year, which I think a few other people agree with, is to have a much more action-filled union. I think people have forgotten what student unions were about, and we have not seen enough change this year. Get ready to make some signs!

    By Lauren Granville on 23.6.2023

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  • Thank you for your lengthy comment, Tom.

    In terms of money and marketing, it’s true the union could do more, the managing director of Kent Union, Jim Gardner, has admitted as such. However, the kind of publicity I’m talking about doesn’t involve money, it involves small things like union representatives, during freshers week, giving freshers advice on where the Student Activities Centre is (many don’t even know where it is).

    Sports clubs are as much as part of the union as any society is; one is not asking for them to hassle their members, but maybe sports club, or more generally society presidents could be trained better to inform members of union affairs like the AGM (something I will try to promote as part of Soc Fed Com).

    The reason why people dislike people running for elections bothering them has nothing to do with the union as an entity, more do to with the fact that people dislike those promoting themselves as the best candidate in a popularity contest.

    Things like the mailing list idea, like the union blog, will never be popular, but it gives students a choice, one they otherwise might not have. Tom, we shouldn’t patronise students, they want to know more about the union as the survey suggests, but don’t know how and what they can do. Let’s not give up on them, we need more diverse and different opinions in union council and in the elected union in general, otherwise the union will become stale, monolithic and an archaic edifice. Lets have more ordinary students in the union, ones that represent students in general and won’t sacrifice their degrees in the name of some crazed union patriotism.

    By comment-editor on 17.6.2023

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  • Some interesting observations Zain and lots of food for thought. Perhaps there’s a bit more I can add to the picture though. Kent Union has just been recognised by the National Union of Students as being overall in the top three Students’ Unions in Britain for participation. This is a huge achievement and one I believe we deserve, however it is always important to remind ourselves that these benchmarks mean little in real terms to most Kent students. There’s no denying that many students do not feel we represent their best interests. This is very unfortunate and I believe the origins of this perception lie for the most part in two factors. First of all we do sometimes fail to effectively communicate to our students. Marketing is something every organisation on Earth struggles to master and we’re no different sometimes. Some good ideas were raised in your article. We can certainly look into an information mailing list of sorts, promote meetings better, get the officers to ‘go out and talk to people more’. I plan to introduce podcasts next term of certain meetings such as Union Council that would be available for download from websites like this one and iTunes etc. The other unavoidable and utterly inconvenient factor is ‘reality’. Kent Union already spends a small fortune on marketing and communication, and plans to enlarge this department yet again over the course of the summer holidays. Students will not thank us if Sports Clubs and Society budgets start getting cut to fund an insatiable quest of self promotion. We also have to think carefully about what information we put out, when and in what way. Sure we can trial a mailing list, but do we really think students will rush to sign up to it on top of the million and one other mailing lists that daily bombard their inbox’s? I doubt it. We could go out and talk to students more… but when and how? Should we bash on their door every few days demanding to know what they think about something, or would interrupting their dinner or lunch in one of the campus outlets be a better time? A mere four days of leafleting on campus during the elections antagonises many. Using societies more isn’t a bad idea, but is this really what students want from their societies? If I were a member of say Rock Soc, I don’t think I’d particularly appreciate being information that had very little to do with Rock music being handed to me at every meeting. I might be wrong in all this and so would appreciate any corrections, particularly from people not involved in the political side of the Union, but my point is that bombarding students with information on a regular basis is rarely the answer. We will always try to find new, effective ways of gathering information and consulting students, but a small amount of the responsibility for finding out about the Union has to lie on the shoulders of individual students. We’re all reasonably intelligent and self-reliant individuals otherwise we wouldn’t be at University. If you want to know something about the Union then you don’t have to look very far. Furthermore, I completely disagree the Union is run by a clique. Yes, many of us are friends, we have a common interest; but the vast majority of student officers are individuals that really care about strengthening equality and opportunity for all, and work extremely hard alongside their degrees to ensure students are listened too. There is clear evidence of this from the statements you’ve quoted from Union Officers in your article Zain, recognition of where we sometimes fall down, and a real desire to improve things. We’re a small organisation which relies heavily on volunteers to give up their free time, but we punch way above our weight in most things and will always have time for any student that needs our help.

    By Tom Christian on 16.6.2023

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