Marking the last day of your 2019/20 elected Executive Committee’s time in office, President Megan Ball wraps up our end of year updates and reflects on both the highs and lows of the last year…
366 days of representing you
What. A. Year.
I can’t believe that as of tomorrow, I have been your Student Union President for a whole year. 366 days of representing, championing and celebrating students at Winchester.
I can say without a shadow of a doubt, it’s been a journey. A wonderful journey in which I have learned so much about myself, but a journey far different than anyone could have ever imagined, planned, or received training for.
Back in January, I made a list of all the ‘Big Things’ that had happened in the year so far; it included things like: a completely new Sabbatical Officer and Part-Time Officer Team, an office move and refurbishment, two out of four members of University Senior Management leaving and being replaced, 5 Deans and Directors changing, a snap General Election, an inaugural Student Union Strategy and a brand new University Strategy, and something called ‘Coronavirus’ hovering around the press. I remember thinking ‘Wow, what a year we’ve had so far! It’s got to calm down soon!’.
That was before I could even add UCU Strike Action, COVID-19 pandemic & the Black Lives Matter movement to the list.
This also does not include the moments, twice, where I have attended student funerals, stood alongside their family and friends, and said goodbye to a beautiful soul taken far too soon. And that is something that no amount of Officer Training can ever prepare you for.
‘Unprecedented’ has been a word that has been thrown around a lot recently, but it completely sums up my first year as President. There has been unprecedented change, unprecedented actions and unprecedented emotions.
My lesson for the past year is this:
Being Student Union President can be the most rewarding, fun, and exciting job in the world. I am honoured to be able to represent you all, speak for you and champion all of the fantastic things that you do. But notwithstanding all of the positives, it can also be immensely tough, emotional and lonely; and you can be berated and have your personality criticised for simply doing what you believe in your heart to be right.
Calm before the storm
I definitely spent the first 6 months of my role trying to get to grips with all that came with it. Ellen, Vic and I made up a brand-new Sabbatical Officer team, something that is fairly rare, as most Sabb teams have some new incoming Officers, but also returning Officers doing a second term. I don’t think it would be unfair to refer to us as ‘SU Underdogs’. Apart from being involved in some sports teams, some democratic forums and being regular BOP goers, we really didn’t know all that much about the Student Union. We certainly didn’t know much about student representation, governance and the political landscape of the Higher Education sector.
I spent a long time grappling with the bureaucracy and intricacies of being a Student Representative, as well as trying to develop all of the skills required to represent thousands of students successfully. Which meetings did I attend alone, or with my fellow Sabbs? Who was ‘in-charge’ of certain projects? Where did I need to direct questions to get the real answers? What did all of these acronyms mean (we’re talking TEF, NSS, ARPP, EBITDA, APP, SAC, SADC, PPDT, HEFCE, QAA, OIA, and the list goes on…)? How the hell did I chair a meeting?! It was like navigating a new world with a hazy map that had directions written in a different language.
I also feel as though I spent a long time trying to develop the Student Union’s relationship with the University. There were things I didn’t understand about my predecessor’s time in office, with tensions and disagreements that just went totally over my head (which after a year in office, I most definitely now understand). As a Sabb Team, we wanted to make a huge effort to foster a great working relationship with the University; getting to know University Managers, helping out where we could, working at Open Days and frantically searching for the approval that we thought we needed to show us that we were doing a good job.
Winchester, we have a problem
I was quite ill over Christmas. I’m very honest about the fact that I was completely and utterly exhausted when December came around. After 5 months of working 65-70+ hour weeks, thrown in with a personal relationship breakdown, an unexpected house move, and what can only be described as a battering on my mental health, I was ready for four weeks off and to come back refreshed and ready to start all over again in January.
This was also when I decided to re-run in the Student Union Elections to be your President for another year. Being successfully re-elected for a second term in office would, without doubt, be the shining light in what was headed to be the Semester from hell. It is a decision that I will be thankful that I made for the rest of my life.
Strike Action was not something that I had ever experienced before. Throughout my primary, secondary, further and higher education, I had never had my teaching affected by my teachers or lecturers striking for better working rights. Therefore, when an email dropped into my inbox informing me of 4 weeks of industrial action that would affect our University, it was time for some serious research on the matter.
This started an education on true and ethical student representation, unlike anything I had ever imagined. There were meetings with UCU branch members, previous Presidents and members of University Senior Management to try and understand the effect this would have on our students. There were meetings with our Executive Committee to determine our stance and approach. There were Open Forums and spaces for students to ask questions and raise concerns.
Then, there was a crash course in how to deliver effective communications to students who didn’t understand what was going on. How to explain industrial action, action short of strike (ASOS), and the complaints and refunds process. How to let students know that we would support them in any way that we could. That their Student Union would ALWAYS be there to support and help them and fight their corner.
This was swiftly followed by an even bigger learning curve - how to lobby your University when they put out misleading and false statements about your Union. My attack on the statement, and the Student Union statement that followed, calling for truthful and honest explanations from the University, were seen collectively by over 34,000 people. My name appeared in the Wonkhe Daily, The Times and The Independent, coining me, pretty accurately, as a ‘furious Student Union President’. We boycotted the Open Day that weekend. We received support from all over the national student movement. And we were successful, the statement was removed and replaced with truthful information.
It was an empowering time to be your President…but it was also exhausting and completely heart-breaking to see the relationship that our Sabbatical Officer team had worked so hard to develop completely fall apart.
Then, the week industrial action was due to end and a welcome break was expected, the global pandemic hit.
Suddenly I was thrown into a world of rent freezes, quality assurance, blended delivery, no detriment policies, students as tenants rights, housing conditions, health and safety on campus, international student repatriation, critical incident responses and crisis communications. I was working from home in my tiny one-bedroom flat, away from campus, somehow trying to be part of a Sabbatical Team that prided itself on its personable and ‘open door’ approach, from a distance. Not exactly the year I had planned for.
At the age of 24, I would be leading a student movement and a £1.7million turnover charity, whilst being on a Board of Governors of a multi-million pound University, through a global pandemic, in which students would be displaced all over the globe and I would be constantly urging and lobbying the University to make the right assurances to its student body.
That is not a sentence that I ever thought I would say.
never sometimes hurt me
It would be easy to say that this year has been exhausting, yet rewarding and empowering. That is true, to say the least. I truly mean it when I bang on about being honoured to be in the position I am. But what it is not easy to say, is that this year has hurt me in ways which I could have never imagined.
It is hard to have your personality criticised by members of staff. It is even more hard to be talked down to by those who you spent so long trying to gain respect from. To be told that you are “too emotional”, “too honest”, and “too open”. To be told, “I can’t tell you how to use your social media, but I wouldn’t do it like you are”. It is gut-wrenching to find out that some Academics believe that I have led a Student Union that is only good at “creating unnecessary arguments”; that we could improve by “being more than BOP”; and the bit that hurts most, the suggestion that perhaps we could “actually be a Student Union”.
And I wish I hadn’t had my character attacked by the students whom I represent. But I have.
I have been told that my decisions are “f*cking stupid”. That I should educate myself on how politics and parliament work. I have had my face photoshopped into photos, mimicking me and making fun of my beliefs and successes. I have been screamed at and had insults thrown at me when I have taken people home from BOP. I have been bullied on social media, then gaslighted when I called it out. I have been criticised, laughed at, and mocked by the very people who I work so hard to represent.
I was warned that I would need a thick skin for this job, but the blatant joy that people appear to have had out of my suffering is not something I was prepared for.
A small part of me wonders if I would have instantly garnered more respect had I been a male President. Far too often I have been shut down, or told “I think what you’re trying to say is…”, or had my honest and emotional responses ignored. I personally believe that part of that is because of my gender. Misogyny runs deep across the national Higher Education sector, and it is sometimes hard to not wonder if you fall victim to it.
But part of it also comes from tokenistic student representation - the belief that having a lone Sabbatical Officer sat in a meeting room that is filled with 30 other Academics and University staff somehow qualifies as student representation. The assumption that simply having myself, Vic, or Ellen present means that the views of 8,000 students at the University are represented.
This is just not the case.
It is important that student representation, and the student voice, is considered front and centre when making key decisions. We must not call for the student opinion, and then brand it as incorrect when it does not agree with a pre-made decision. We cannot decide that student representation is inconvenient when it means that more work is required, more consultation, more time and most critically, more funding. We are a University that offers the only Masters course in the UK in Student Engagement in Higher Education. We are sector leaders in educating people in student engagement and quality of representation. As I have said countless times during this year, we must ensure that we do as we say.
By no means is this me signing off. I am not saying ‘right I’ve had enough of this, I’m done!’. There are no white flags of surrender to be seen here.
What I am admitting, and being brutally honest about, is that this year has been bloody hard. I have been thrown curveballs that are more like meteors and been put in harder situations that I would have never considered. I have been tested, both emotionally and physically, beyond my wildest dreams. I can safely say, I have never really known what tiredness is until this year.
I have been lucky enough to be President of a Student Union that has had huge wins for the good of all students – rent freezes, no detriment policies, blended learning and quality education. We have secured continued funding for our Student Union Advisor and our Advice Centre. We are a Union with a brand-new strategy. We are Sabbatical Officers that communicate regularly, openly and honestly with our students. We let you know exactly what we are doing so that you can trust us and hold us to account.
So, I would not be doing you all, and myself, justice if I did not write this honest round up of the past year. Do not mistake this as anything other than this - I am incredibly excited about the year ahead. I am so pleased that I get to take all of my past experiences and lessons learned, and go forward to be President during an academic year that will be like no other. I still pinch myself every day that this is my job and I get to do this for another year. I feel so fortunate that I get to do it with Ellen and Vic, my best friends, by my side. And in those tough moments, the pride I have of the Winchester Student body is what keeps me going. You are all top-notch and I am certain you will change the world.
Enjoy your summers, and I will see you very soon.
(President, 2019 – 2021)