Did I Do Anything This Year?
The year is up! I can hardly believe how fast the time has gone… Jeepers. It’s been absolutely frantic from start to finish and I’ve loved (almost) every minute. I thought I’d end the year by letting you know what I’ve been up to in a recap, just in case y’all missed some of the good stuff…
SUSU Letting Agency
This is a biggie! A few years ago, Union Council mandated the sabbatical officers to look into a business case for the Letting Agency and this year I prioritised this piece of work. We’ve done huge amounts of research and we’ve done the maths: in the next academic year, SUSU will have its own Letting Agency. Be patient with us; agencies take several years to really lift off because we need to establish our name in the market and trust with landlords. However, our aspiration is to eventually have a stake in the market which means we can raise living standards and be a powerful force for good. Hurrah!
During October and November, I launched Don’t Settle!, a campaign which sought to inform students that the housing rush is bullsh*t and to impress upon their rights as tenants. We’ve had thousands of hits on our new website, volunteers got out to ever hall and campus and handed out over 5000 flyers and according to the Vent About Your Rent survey, almost 60% of students had seen the campaign. Speaking of which…
Vent About Your Rent
I launched this brand new survey during February this year, in order to fully understand what the housing market is like for students. Over 600 students completed the survey and we’ve pulled together the findings into a snazzy report so that students can better understand what’s right and what’s downright funky when it comes to rent prices, admin costs, and letting agencies themselves. Find the results here, or pick up a physical copy from The Advice Centre or SUSU reception.
Policy Against Rogue Agency Practises
Something students kept saying to me is how irritating it was that letting agencies were able to flyer/leaflet in halls of residence. In as early as October, leaflets were found on the floors of halls, which perpetuates the feeling of rush and panic which students so often fall for. I was the same: in first year, I signed a contract in November! Ridiculous… To combat this, I wrote policy which states that SUSU is absolutely against this and we’ll work with the university’s legal and residences team to combat it and build a dialogue between SUSU and letting agencies.
Automatic Council Tax Exemption
At the beginning of my time in office, I worked with the university to deliver automatic council tax exemption for students. I’ve heard there have been a few teething problems, but this is an excellent start and has removed a huge hassle for many students.
Created the Peer to Peer Support Network for 2013/14 and beyond…
This is exciting news! Having undertaken a large amount of research on what other Unions do to help students through mental health concerns, including running a workshop at the Aldwych Conference, I found that peer to peer work is becoming increasingly popular in helping students cope with stress and university pressures. With help from staff, I wrote up a proposal of how to run a support network inspired by the work carried out at Oxford University. I’m extremely excited to say that this proposal has been approved by the Trustee Board and we have obtained funding to launch this in the coming year. If you’re a student who would like to be trained and supervised as a peer supporter to other students, watch this space!
Lobbying the University for Better Provision
This has been a tough one, but I think we’re finally making some headway here. I have been lobbying university staff all year, including the Vice Chancellor Don Nutbeam, about the provision for mental health needs of students. This has particularly focused on counselling and other talking based services. The great news is, staff have informed me that they will be undertaking a review of their services by 2015, to include a more holistic and accessible approach to support services for students. This is awesome news, but I’ll be looking to my successors to continuing applying pressure here
Conducted Research to Understand the Needs of Students
Along with the research I carried out to understand what other Unions offer to students, I wanted to know what our students thought of mental health on campus. In October I ran a survey on counselling provision, which was a massive help in proving to senior university staff that improvements were needed. I also carried out a survey specifically aimed at nurses, so that we can understand the unique pressures for these students. We’ve written the results up and work will be carried out next year to provide more support for nurses.
Created ‘The Invisibles’
To help combat stigma towards mental health illness, while simultaneously equipping students with some tips on maintaining their health, I created a video series called ‘The Invisibles’ with SUSUtv. I found 4 willing volunteers who took part in the series, which saw the volunteers at university-run workshop sessions and then reflecting on their mental health afterwards. Due to some illness in the student production team, we couldn’t release these this year unfortunately. However, you can expect to see them next year!
Sustainable and Significant Community Change
Created mutually beneficial partnerships
As an area of development for SUSU, I have worked hard this year at getting SUSU’s name out there into the wider city. In order to support the needs of students whilst also sharing some of our expertise, I have created two strong partnerships with local organisations:
The first are the Street Pastors, a local group of people who volunteer in the city during the evenings to help people get home safe and stay out of danger’s way. The Street Pastors have come up to campus three times already this year, twice during late-night events and once during the exam period, in order to help students feel safe and secure. We’ve had very positive feedback and the pastors will be back next term to help during Freshers’ Week… they’re a brave bunch!
The second is the NHS’s new mental health facility, The Recovery College. The college opened in town in April and it is a whole new way of seeing mental health support. Rather than having service users congregate in hospital environments, service users are now encouraged to come along to a college, which is a positive and aspirational education environment. This is a great step forwards in making those with mental health conditions feel less stigmatised and better integrated with the wider community. Since the service users are college students and SUSU is made of students, why not combine forces? I have written up a relationship agreement which means that college students will have temporary membership to SUSU while they’re studying to get better with the NHS. This means they can use our facilities and do all the things SUSU students can do. In return, NHS professionals will deliver training and workshops on campus to aid us in our campaigning work and to help us understand mental health needs more thoroughly. This is one of my proudest achievements of the year and I can’t wait to see the positive impact we have on the community!
Created Community Action
Community Action is a pot of ring-fenced money, completely dedicated to students who want to carry out their own projects and schemes in the local community. We have paired up with SVS (Southampton Voluntary Services) to understand the current needs of our community and so far we’ve launched one successful project; our students are running a nature walk and sustainability lessons for young carers in the New Forest. This is an amazing start and this should only grow in the next few years!
Action Against ‘To Let’ Signs
I created a positive dialogue between SUSU and our local Residents’ Associations in order to take joint action against ‘to let’ signs in our community. ‘To let’ signs are a total nuisance; letting agencies use them to fuel the panic which makes students sign contracts early, they advertise student housing to opportunistic burglars and they’re an eyesore. We wrote an open letter to Southampton City Council which whipped up almost 350 signatures from students and local residents alike, demanding that something be done about them. We’ve heard from the council and they have pledged to tackle ‘to let’ signs as part of the changing landlord legislation due to come into force later this year. Winner!
So those were my three areas of focus this year and I’m really chuffed with the progress I’ve made with support from SUSU staff and university colleagues. Of course, I’ve been working on plenty more outside of these three areas.
Here’s a run down of what else I’ve been up to…
After several students raised issues with which external businesses we invite onto campus, I passed policy at Union Council stating that we will have ethically audited all of our suppliers and partners by 2015. We will audit the companies by using an impartial and external organisation, like Corporate Critic for example, and students will decide what our ethical priorities are as an organisation. The great thing about the policy is the intervention: if we find that any of our suppliers are ethically poor, we will be opening a dialogue with them in order to help them improve. If they’re not willing to improve, then we’ll find our services elsewhere, but the aim is to get all of our suppliers and partners up to a certain ethical standard in the long-run.
And while we’re on the topic of business ethics, we’re currently writing a bid to the NUS’s Green Fund (despite not being affiliated we can apply because the funding is from HEFCE – Higher Education Funding Council for England). Our idea is to create a new project called BEES (Business Ethics and Environment Students/Staff) which would see our students and university staff ethically audit local businesses and intervene to make them more sustainable. We’ll know if we’ve been allocated funding in a few months’ time so watch out…
Union Council, our highest decision-making body, our Student Leaders and our sabbatical officers have seen a long-term imbalance in gender and since 54% of our students are women, something needed to be done to tackle the culture surrounding SUSU’s governance. I worked closely with students to create a policy that was passed at our AGM’s Union Council, which seeks to do three things: firstly, to run a survey to find out what barriers women students may face and why they don’t always run for leadership roles; secondly to produce a Leadership Programme to build on the success of the Women’s Workshop I ran this year; and thirdly to put measures in place to ensure that 50% of our Union Councillor roles were for female candidates and 50% were for male candidates. This means that our Union Council will see a more appropriate gender split than the average 35%/65% split that we’ve seen over the last 7 years.
Lover’s Walk consultation
Southampton City Council carried out consultation over Lover’s Walk and the accessibility of it as a cycle route just last month. Since students are some of the key users of the route and they were under-represented in the consultation, I ran a survey to better understand students’ views on the route. As I expected, the majority of students were more concerned with the lighting and safety of the route over cycle safety; I wrote this up into a report and presented it to the City Council, who can see that there are clearly issues here. My report will be used in the Council’s consultation summary and I’ve been assured that our comments about safety will be included and discussed at length. Hurray! I look to my successors to continue applying pressure, but I think we’ll see a breakthrough in the next year or so.
Seeing it all written down is so odd; I forgot how busy this year has been! It’s been absolutely incredible and I’d urge anyone and everyone to run to be a sabbatical officer. It’s genuinely life-changing and you get to make serious change to a huge organisation. Plus people respect and listen to you even if you’re hungover or wearing pyjamas. Bonus!