Image Credit: YUSU
Contrary to the current media rhetoric, most students are not lazy, selfish or ignorant. In fact, a lot of students have an incredible work ethic and a drive to make change in the world. Sadly, this attitude is often exploited by universities and student unions, and as such, deserves to be recognised and compensated more. Most events in freshers week, almost all college events, and a significant proportion of YUSU events are run by students who have volunteered their time and energy. This in itself is not a problem. Voluntary work is a big part of university life for many students and most would say that the time they spend on college, society or sports teams committees was some of the best time they’ve spent at university. The issue arises when students are put under incredible pressure, with little staff support, and are expected to turn out professional level events on a routine basis. If you talk to any student leader at Uni, activist or committee executive you know, they will probably have countless stories of stressful all-nighters or anxiety inducing events that took significant time out of their studies. Students are routinely stretched to fill roles that should be filled by actual paid staff members. This is a problem that happens throughout the University and in the students union - a problem that, therefore, must be addressed.
Yes, student voice is vital in ensuring students are represented, but the line between representation and doing essential work to run the University is increasingly blurred. Often, voluntary roles take up more time than students anticipate, and inevitably the passion students have for their roles drives them to put in more work than should be expected of them. Nowhere is this clearer than in equality and diversity spaces. As part time officers and student representatives previously, we have experienced first hand how student volunteers are expected to work extensively, not only to fill their elected roles, but to make up for things the University should be doing but isn’t. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we have sometimes spent more hours working on YUSU projects than our course work. We are not alone in this. One of the current Women and Non-Binary Officers, Daisy Slate, refers to the YUSU Part Time Officers (PTOs) as “the invisible YUSU workers”.
Despite putting hours of work into events, lobbying the university on matters of sexual assault, decolonising the curriculum, accessibility, and representing students’ interests both pastorally and academically, elected students are often uncompensated. Without the PTOs, course and department Reps, college committees and more, student life as we know it would not exist. Yet, in a feat of shallow recognition of their work, last year PTOs were only given black cards (a term late) and YUSU discount cards (these came even later). It’s especially concerning that the only compensation given to student representatives for a significant portion of the year required going clubbing to benefit from. Although some students greatly appreciated black cards, some may not want to club or they may have accessibility requirements or face other barriers stopping them from doing so. This is clearly an unacceptable disparity that must be addressed. Given that many of the liberation groups do incredible work advocating for things the university should already be doing, such as providing support and hosting events, asking for realistic compensation is not outlandish. It’s ridiculous, for example, for the expectation of ensuring the University is accessible to all to be placed on students shoulders, yet this is often what happens. In the words of Rowan Casey, one of the Disabled Students Officers, “Officers do not have the time, nor the inclination, to check every event and plan on campus. We are not the accessibility police, we are student representatives”.
There are concerns with employing PTOs and other representatives due to legal requirements that could prevent them from being elected as successful sabbs in future (a venture much more likely amongst those who are already in other roles), and there are wider concerns over the expectation of work placed on an employed student that could conflict with their other commitments. Regardless of these concerns, greater compensation is the least that could be asked for. Greater benefits in kind such as subsidised society membership or access to ticketed events would be a good way for the union to demonstrate that the work of its PTOs is valued, without actually employing them full time. The University and its departments should also realise that their representatives are vital for maintaining relations with students and encouraging best practice. They need to recognise these efforts more than they currently do. Student leadership is an invaluable part of university life and for most the positives of the experience far outweigh the negatives - but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Don’t discourage students from giving their time or allow them to burn out. We all lose unless we can support their advocacy.