Recently at Newcastle University we held our first ever ‘speed networking’ session for members of Council (our governing board), students’ union officers and students’ union staff.
The inspiration for it came from reading a blog post by Ben Vulliamy (Chief Executive, University of York Students’ Union) published by AHUA last year. In it, Ben offers some ideas for higher impact ways of involving students in university governance, one being staging events like speed networking, also known as ‘speed dating’ where the student perspective is given prominence. ‘Why not give that a go here?’, I thought.
I knew that the outcomes from our last external review of governance and Council’s latest effectiveness questionnaire suggested that channels for interaction with the student voice were limited beyond relying on the two student leaders who sit on Council, NSS data or other information that university managers may choose to share.
The recent report on university governance published by the Council for the Defence of British Universities emboldens us to do more to involve students in governance, by suggesting that students should be seen not merely as ‘relevant stakeholders’, but as ‘core actors’. So setting up an event for governors at Newcastle where the student voice would take centre stage felt very timely indeed.
While the idea of speed networking is not new, taking the step forward to hold a session with no agenda other than to require governors to talk and listen to student representatives did feel like a bold move, for us at least. The overall aims were quite simple, however. I knew that I wanted to co-create the activity with sabbatical officers, and that two of the 2023-24 officers had an interest in university governance (President, Shah Yaseen Ali; and Postgraduate Officer, Chirag Kumar). They were very receptive to my suggestion of working together on the networking session, and we established a rapport and mutual respect that, I think, created the right environment for the idea to take shape and to be seen through to fruition.
We then started to plan in detail. It was essential that the session be held in the Students’ Union building: this would be symbolic - governors physically coming along the King's Walk to the SU, and seeing, and being seen in student-run space. We agreed on the importance of exposing governors to a broad range of perspectives including not just other members of the sabb team who do not participate in governance committees, but liberation officers and SU committee chairs. This would be a chance for these student leaders to engage with governors in a personal way, and to dialogue as equals. A true partnership approach to organising and planning was taken: from room booking, and planning use of the space, through to catering. Meetings to discuss all these things were naturally held in the SU bar (over coffee!).
The Chair of Council was firmly on board with the initiative from the outset. Their commitment to trying something new was essential, and they helped to give the session a high profile by announcing it within board meetings. Briefing notes for participants were written and shared with the main instruction to focus on one key thing to learn from each person. We purposely scheduled the session for a timeslot that would follow a regular meeting of Council. This would ensure that governors were on campus and mean they were more likely to attend. In the end 12 of them did - two-thirds of the appointed or elected members, which was a very good turnout. In terms of the format, members of Council spent three minutes in conversation with an SU representative, before moving on to do the same with another colleague.
So, how did it go? I couldn’t claim to know exactly what governors and SU representatives talked about, not that it really matters. Bar one or two timing hiccups, the discussion flowed naturally. Such was the ‘buzz’ permeating the venue the primary objective was clearly achieved. Governor feedback on the session includes:
‘It was great to experience some of the student “vibe”. Their enthusiasm is contagious.’
‘Very inspiring and informative’
‘It was great to meet the NUSU representatives and to hear about their work and the impact it has on the university - their passion, enthusiasm and dedication shone through!’
I believe that what the above comments translate to, is that our governors’ understanding of how the students’ union is led, and what its leaders’ priorities are, is all the better for this experience. It feels to me as if our governance culture has taken a positive step forward as a result. The success of this event shows us that we can introduce other mechanisms that empower governors to acquire knowledge and experience to support their triangulation of data. What tangible impact that has on governor effectiveness we will have to assess further down the line.
So what are the next steps now there is something to build on? We need to spread the word, tell the university community about the session and its benefits. An article is planned for the student newspaper for one thing. A little shared success strengthens the link between the university and the students’ union. It fosters trust and confidence and generates the momentum to have another go, or to try something different. The teamwork approach has created for us a blueprint of how colleagues and sabbatical officers can be changemakers. Hopefully this will encourage others to get involved, or to emulate what has gone before.
Simon Meacher is Head of the Executive and Governance Office at Newcastle University, where he is Secretary to the Executive Board, supports the operation of the institution’s governing body, and manages a unit responsible for strategic risk, business continuity, and information governance.