The opportunities from getting involved in student representation are vast.
Summer is a time of change in Students’ Unions as incoming elected Full-Time Officers begin the handover process and re-elected officers start making plans for the year ahead. In SUBU, this (Monday 1st July) is Brad Powell’s last week as Vice President Welfare and Equal Opportunities and he will be taking everything he has learned over the last year to channel it into a Master’s degree at the University of Surrey. We welcome Joanna Ann, who was elected by BU students back in March to represent their welfare issues and champion their equality. Her handover has begun and she is being inducted into the responsibilities and expectations of being a representative, which will continue over the summer, joining the re-elected officers; Abidemi Abiodun- VP Community, Ade Balogun- President, Lea Ediale- VP Activities and Lenrick Greaves- VP Education.
Considering so many people develop their understanding of policy and decision-making from undertaking student representative roles – whether in school as a school councillor or perhaps at a local level as a voluntary Member of Youth Parliament, or whilst in University as an elected paid Full-Time officer, or lead of a club or society – the impact that it can have on people’s lives and future job prospects hasn’t been well documented.
Both contenders for the UK’s next Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, were representatives whilst studying at Oxford; Boris as the President of Oxford Union and Jeremy as President of the Conservative Association. I’m sure that if asked, they could tell you at least 3 things about how it helped develop them in relation to where they are today. We have seen funding cuts for youth/student democracy in local authorities as budgets are tightened; without an impact measure of how helpful undertaking student representative roles are, these valuable opportunities continue to be under threat.
As the new Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council come together and make decisions on funding allocation for services; it will be interesting to see what the future holds for student/youth democracy such as support for UK Youth Parliament in this local area. Currently only Poole has a member of youth parliament and deputy; they now find themselves representing young people across 3 areas, with uncertainty about whether youth parliament will still have a role locally in the future. A Wonkhe article yesterday asked ‘What role should students and their SU’s play in the community?’ and perhaps part of that should be to reinforce the importance of having the student/youth voice at local, regional and national decision-making tables.
This is where we need those who have experienced positive impact from taking part in representative opportunities to talk about how it helped them. On the 22nd June I was invited to the first British Youth Council convention of the year to be their keynote speaker and inspire the newly elected student representatives, talking them through all the different opportunities that they have opened up for themselves by taking part in something so important. I also ran a couple of workshops on leading successful campaigns because I wanted to give back to a movement which has got me to where I am today. British Youth Council is an organisation funded through the Government to ‘empower young people across the UK to have a say and be heard’ and it supports UK Youth Parliament, along with other similar initiatives. I shared my experiences at the convention of being a youth representative from the age of 12 and the opportunities that have shaped me, such as being part of the first group of Members of Youth Parliament (MYPs) to debate in the House of Commons, 10 years ago this year. As I was talking I was struck by how much the support, resources and funding have been cut. Another thing I noticed, and mentioned in my speech, was that one of their key campaigns continues to be the same as when I was in the role – lowering the voting age for 16 and 17 years olds to have the right to vote, so they too can influence key decisions that affect their lives. Without this important right the voices of young people can be brushed aside. [It’s been debated many times in Parliament but was tabled once again in April of this year as it was not part of the Conservative manifesto pledges.]
If you take the example of Brexit, the referendum took place 3 years ago this month and students who were 16 and 17 at the time did not have the right to vote on something affecting their future. They are now of voting age, but the decision was taken out of their hands.
We’ve seen the impact that Greta Thunberg has had on the world; demonstrating the power that students and young people collectively have when they come together on an issue they are passionate about, as well as doing this above party politics. The UK Youth Parliament demonstrate every year how students and young people are a force to be reckoned with, making national manifesto commitments to supporting mental health, tackling knife crime, and fighting to lower the voting age to 16. We especially see this when they debate in the House of Commons and demonstrate more mature forms of debate than their ‘adult’ counterparts. Here you can see Francesca Reed, former MYP for Poole, introduce a motion in the House of Commons on improving mental health services.
Meanwhile, BU continues to look at ways students can have a voice at different levels of the institution. The importance of the student voice has been enshrined not only in BU2025 but is also a key component of the QAA’s Quality code, which was influenced by SUs around the country (see Wonkhe). It has expectations and practices on how students should be actively engaged in quality assurance and enhancement processes: “effective student engagement contributes to quality assurance and enhancement processes by capturing the voices of all students”.
BU recently completed a Focussed Enhancement Review (FER) on the Student Voice in line with BU2025. BU and SUBU representatives looked at how the student voice can be enhanced in different areas. Students fed into the FER on the Student Voice through their Vice President Education Lenrick Greaves, who was part of the FER, and also through a student consultation event held by the Students’ Union back in May. Work continues on enhancing the Student Voice at BU through a task and finish group. Perhaps more can be done by institutions to show how the student voice is important in decision-making to influence local authorities to do the same. Until then, the question remains about the future of student representation outside of a University setting.