Chris's Tumblelog

The Tumblelog of Chris Ruff, Activities Officer at the University of Bristol Students Union.

A (belated) defence of Students’ Unions

In a recent blog on the Guardian’s Education site, Nottingham graduate James Sanderson asserted that, judging by the fact that students can pay up to £200 towards their running costs during their degree, Students’ Unions probably weren’t worth your cash.

The article understandably provoked an immediate, instinctively defensive reaction from many of those involved in the Students’ Union movement. Poorly researched and far too short to cover the range of activities that modern SUs are engaged in, the temptation was to toss it to one side and move on.

However, to dismiss the article entirely would unfortunately be to dismiss the views of a large portion of the national student body; the arguments – hinging on the declining influence of Students’ Unions in University and Governmental decision-making as typified the unsuccessful tuition fee protests, and their apparent over-emphasis on minority concerns, such as “transexual toilets [sic]”, which “aren’t representative of the average student’s concerns” – come up again and again and are therefore deserving  of some attention.

For those that are engaged with the Union on a regular basis – and I’m not just talking about the minority that turn up to AGMs or participate in the annual officer elections, but the thousands of students who join societies and sports clubs, get involved in Epigram or Burst radio, volunteer in the local community and raise funds for charity through RAG – the argument for paying £200 over the course of your degree is easy to make; for the price of a ‘designer coffee’ (the standard that all student finances seem to be measured against) every three weeks, you get access to a whole new world of exciting experiences and social interaction that most won’t have experienced before and will probably never experience again.

Plus, as an ex-editor-in-chief of Nottingham University’s student newspaper you’d think the blog’s author, having just been published in a national broadsheet, might be more appreciative of the career opportunities his Students’ Union experience has offered him!

According to our figures, this year around 10,000 individual students have signed up for Union activities like the ones mentioned above. Even if you take off around 20% for those students that join loads of societies at Fresh then never go to any of them (“yeah, like, I just joined Harry Potter Society… for the banter!!”) then the myth of a ‘disengaged majority’ of Bristol students seems untenable.

For the rest, the claim often made (as Mr. Sanderson points out) is that SUs are ineffective at fighting for students and their concerns. Taking Bristol as a case in point, this is patently not true.

This year, thanks to the Students’ Union we now have a cheaper food option on campus, extended library opening hours, as well as student approval on halls of residence rent-setting. Moreover, after lobbying pressure from UBU and numerous Bristol students, the University have decided to rewrite large sections of their access agreement with the Government in favour of cash bursaries.

These are not insignificant victories, and the issues are unquestionably relevant to huge numbers of students. But that’s not to say that Students’ Unions should solely concentrate on these big issues. Any membership organisation that does not take seriously the concerns of vulnerable minority groups cannot be said to fully represent the whole, so if by having a gender-neutral toilet we improve the lives of even a handful of students then it is clearly a vital investment. I for one am proud to work for an organisation that values equality and diversity so highly, promoting inclusivity and tolerance in all the work we do.

The tuition fee vote was not, as the article suggests, the final nail in the coffin for the student movement, but in fact a turning-point in University-Union relations. As the whole higher education sector enters uncertain territory and £9k fees become a reality, University managers are increasingly turning to Students’ Unions in order to find out the priorities of the student body. The Government may not be listening to students, but at a local level the relationship is stronger than ever.

Finally, I would ask you to imagine University life without a Students’ Union. No matter what personal opinions you may hold about how this particular Union is run, surely you can imagine a world where students are reduced to mere spectators? The fact is that many students in the world do not enjoy the same levels of representation and influence as us here in the UK, and there is certainly a tendency to take it for granted.

Although far from perfect, Students’ Unions are essential for improving your time at University and more relevant today than ever before. Maybe we just need to shout about it a little more.

The Union Building’s official new name is…

'The Richmond Building: Home of the Students' Union'

"Huh?"; I hear you say.

Well yes, this needs a bit of explaining…

As regular readers of my blog will know (I know you’re out there somewhere), there was some controversy earlier in the term when it was announced to students that their beloved (!) Union building would be renamed the ‘Queen’s Road Building’ or ‘QRB’. The overwhelming majority of students were against this for the reasons explained in an earlier blogpost.

After negotiations with the Deputy Vice-Chancellor it was agreed that this maybe wasn’t the best name, and I pushed for the ‘Students’ Union’ to feature prominently in the title. I would like to thank everyone that joined the facebook group because having that support behind me was incredibly useful.

The result is a compromise which pleases the University because it alludes to the fact that the building will now be multiple occupancy, but also has the Students’ Union in the title, reflecting the main, and most important I might say, user.

Richmond Building?

The Richmond Building derives its name from two sources:

The first is that the Chancellor of this University is Baroness Hale of Richmond. An amazing woman by the way, check her out here. The second being the fact that the roads around the Union are ‘Richmond Terrace’ and ‘Richmond Hill’.

A fair compromise

In the end I guess that is for you, as students, to decide. However, I believe the name is much better than ‘QRB’, and accurately displays what the building is about whilst retaining a student identity. The students of the future will know that this place is the Students’ Union and that it is a place unlike the other buildings at the University.

Cheers,

Chris

Focus on ‘RAG’

Hello all,

A question at last week’s AGM reminded me that perhaps recently I’ve been concentrating too much on the society aspect of this role and not spending enough time on RAG & UBU-Volunteering.

With ‘RAG week’ coming up in no time at all, it seems a good time to focus on the fantastic charity fundraising work that happens here at UBU.

Current fundraising total

Bristol studentshave so far raised a staggering £54,510.78 for local and national charities. Last year the total was £109,000 and in the past it has been as high as a quarter of a million pounds!

Where does the money go?

The money raised through our events such as BARMY, Jailbreak and RAG Week goes towards supporting local charities. Over the last three years, £48,609 was donated to 48 different projects in the local area through our fund with the Quartet Community Foundation. Grant applications are accepted from voluntary and community organisations working with children, older people, medical support and disadvantaged communities.

Some of the highlights of the RAG year are the Kilimanjaro climb, Nepal trek and Everest Base Camp climb. These events are used to raise money for international charities.

Finally, almost every Saturday of term time we visit a different city in the South of England and carry out a street collection in aid of a variety of national charities.

For an extensive list of charities recently supported by RAG, please check out the website here.

Rag Week 2011/12

Check out the full range of RAG week activities here.

Eat Pancakes! Win an iPad 2! Make Britain’s biggest burrito! Enjoy a massage-a-thon followed by a Soccathon!

All this and more, kicking off with the famous RAG procession on Saturday 18th February (see picture above).

Want to learn more?

For more details, please visit the RAG section of the website here: http://www.ubu.org.uk/activities/fundraising/

You can join online and get involved for just £2!

Or, email our RAG coordinator at rag-ubu@bristol.ac.uk.

Society Involvement in Widening Participation

Hello all,

Here at the University, we have a dedicated widening participation office who are tasked with encouraging and facilitating applications to Bristol University from those groups who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

A lot of the work that this office does is with local schools, educating local children about what it means to come to University and trying to dispel some of the stereotypes surrounding higher education. They are also about encouraging those students who might not have otherwise thought of studying for a degree, and enthusing them about all the exciting things that happen here.

The WP office already employ vibrant students to be their ‘ambassadors’ in local schools because it is clear that students themselves are more likely to get kids excited than some old University Professor. But why stop there?

In my view, societies have the potential to be a tremendous resource in this sense. Showing these kids about the ‘other’ side of life at Bristol University is incredibly important - University clearly isn’t all about books, lectures and libraries. Through societies students get the chance to do things they would never be able to do otherwise, to meet groups of like-minded people, and to be honest, it is society-life that many alumni remember most fondly!

Some societies, such as Biology Soc, Computer Science Soc and Spotlights, and have already taken the initiative, developing sessions based around their society’s activity. If you think this is something you’d like to get involved in with your society, don’t hesitate to get in contact with either me or Rachel, our Community Engagement Coordinator (Rachel.Miller@bristol.ac.uk) for help.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to commit to running frequent sessions, maybe you could put on a 30 minute - 1 hour demo session at one of the WP office’s AimHigher days (the ‘AimHigher’ scheme has of course been cut but the name remains) - where groups of local schoolchildren come and sample University life for a day.

Even if you are not on the committee of your society, that doesn’t mean you can’t organise something! Just get in contact with us here at UBU and we can support you every step of the way.

Thanks,

Chris - VP: Activities

ubu-activities@bristol.ac.uk

@cruff89

Gus and I arrive back for the new term and set out our priority campaigns.

My first ever vlog…

The Campaign Against the Union Name Change - “No to QRB”

The Background

As you probably will have gathered, Bristol Students’ Union is currently a building site.

Built in 1965, this building was the biggest of its kind in the UK, and was one of the main selling points for students thinking of coming to Bristol University.

However, those of you that have been to this building will see that nothing much has changed, and the facilities are lagging way behind what 21st century students expect from their Union. Frankly, the building is a concrete eyesore in an otherwise very attractive area.

Thankfully, around 3 years ago the University agreed to invest around £26m in the building. In around 2/3 years time, this building will have been given a much-needed facelift and will hopefully be a vibrant hub of student activity once again.

Here are some of the early architects plans:

Looks great, right? Well, it’s definitely an improvement. Although the exterior of the building isn’t changing in any radical sense, the interior faces a major overhaul - changes which 83% of society leaders have responded to positively. More details can be found at www.ubu.org.uk/build.

However, if you look a little bit closer at the above picture, you will notice three words which feature prominently on the exterior signage; as part of the University’s plans for this building, it plans to rename the building the “Queens Road Building” aka the “QRB”.

What are the University thinking?

The idea from the University’s point of view is that because more UoB departments are moving into the building, the name should reflect that. More precisely, the building will now house the new International Foundation Programme, or IFP (what is the obsession with three-letter acronyms?), as well as other UoB office space. There is also the strong possibility that certain academic departments will be house on the top two floors of the South building.

Their argument seems to be that the new occupants will not want to operate in a building called the ‘Students’ Union building’, although whether this is true is disputable. Please read on.

What is good about the proposals?

This building desperately needs a facelift, and certainly the £26m investment is very welcome. In the project, there are plans to completely revamp the Anson Rooms to make it a great gig venue once again, as well as building a brand new Cafe/Bar, a radio studio, two dark rooms, properly sound-insulated music practice rooms, a dance studio, as well as many other modern, flexible spaces that clubs and societies can use.

It must also be said that, in the new building, although the amount of square metres available for society use will be slightly reduced overall, the efficiency of the space will be greatly enhanced. That means no more strange rooms that stretch round a corner, or randomly-placed pillars that render a space unusable. The architects have also taken great care to find out exactly which spaces were needed based on an exhaustive study of last year’s room bookings.

In a poll of society leaders at the start of the year, over 80% said they were happy with the architect’s initial plans for the activity spaces.

What aren’t students happy about?

At an earlier Corporate Board (the main University meeting where decisions are made about the budget and planning of the refurbishment), I had raised the possibility that students would not be happy with the building being called the QRB. Those present agreed that perhaps this was not the best name, and that students could help suggest one that was more appropriate, but that calling it the Students’ Union building was not an option.

When students were consulted at the Student Council of the 5th December (one of the best attended in years with 120+ attendees), they were almost unanimously against the idea that this building should be called anything other than the Students’ Union building. It was therefore decided that this would be the stance of the Students’ Union in any discussions with the University.

Why?

  • Loss of identity

Fundamentally, the renaming of this building is a small but hugely symbolic change. For over 40 years Bristol students have been able to call this building their own, and it is well-known as a place they can get away from their academic studies, access the support they need, and engage in the activities they love doing.

If this building were given a different name, then it becomes just like any other - ‘The Queens Building’, ‘The Victoria Rooms’, ‘Senate House’ etc.

If any of the Corporate Board had ever been here on a weekday evening between 5pm and 11pm, they would know that this building is not like any other at the University! Where else can you have people abseiling down the central staircase? Whilst there is absolutely no problem with other University departments using the building during the day, the name needs to reflect the primary user of this building and the importance of those activities that happen here.

In addition, students feel comfortable about coming to the Students’ Union building and expressing themselves, knowing they can come and make mistakes in a safe and welcoming atmosphere - a name change gives the impression that this place’s primary purpose is no longer to serve the needs of students.

In the words of one student:

"Changing the name to the QRB will of course make no difference whatsoever to the people who work in and use the building. Students will continue to refer to it as the Union, because buildings for society and extracurricular activities at any university are called Students’ Unions. The only noticeable difference will be when freshers are given their maps of Bristol and wonder why on earth this large university doesn’t appear to have a Union building. It will of course be explained to them that some nameless, faceless people at the top of the hierarchy have for some bizarre reason decided to change the letters on the Students’ Union to read Queens Road Building, but in actual fact it is still the place where you find the art studios, theatres, meeting rooms … The change would serve no purpose except to make students feel further alienated from the people who run the University, and cause mild embarrassment when prospective students ask why the University doesn’t have a Union building."

  • Do the other stakeholders really care?

The International Office, Accommodation Office and the Access Unit have lived happily in this building for a long time. I am currently investigating as to whether they believe that by being located in a building called the ‘Students’ Union’ they feel that they have been adversely affected. In my opinion it is unlikely that this is the case.

In contrast, the Students’ Union has a lot more to lose from being in a building called the QRB. For example, as a gig venue, the Anson Rooms at Bristol Students’ Union is well-known to local promoters. In addition, a building called the QRB is very clearly marked as a University building, and it appears that any interior design of the foyer would need to reflect that. From the (admittedly early) architects plans, the central ‘link’ area seems to have a very “bland, corporate feel” that is incongruous with the diversity and colourful nature of the activities that happen within the building.

  • Future considerations

To many this campaign might seem frivolous, especially if you are not a regular user of this space. However, it is important to note the important future consequences of such a move.

As discussed earlier, by changing the name, the University are making a statement about the usage of this building:

By calling it the ‘Students’ Union building’, they would be saying that they value the non-academic side of student life, and acknowledge how important it is to the overall student experience. They would also be saying that the services the Union provide are vital to the successful running of Bristol University.

With student numbers increasing by 20% next year, and students facing £9,000 fees and uncertainty at every corner, it’s more important than ever that the Students’ Union has a strong voice and is valued by its institution.

Finally, in response to this increase in student numbers, it might well be that the Students’ Union wants to negotiate some of the space back in this building (as many of you will attest, it was crammed even before the refurbishment!). Clearly, if in the future this building is called the Students’ Union building any arguments for more space will have more weight than if it is called something else.

All these reasons and more are why the Students’ Union are standing up against the proposed name-change of this building.

What next?

Share the story, tell your friends!

Join the campaign on Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/pages/Keep-the-Students-Union-the-Students-Union-No-to-QRB/257831420944108

Read the Epigram article about it here - http://www.epigram.org.uk/2011/12/students-lose-name-on-union-building/

Sign the petition online (to be available after Christmas)

Thanks,

Chris

Union Policy relating to Activities and what I’m doing about it… #2

The purpose of this blog is to detail what policies are currently in action at UBU and what I am doing about it.

Another motion passed around 2 years ago was entitled "Space in the Union".

This motion drew attention to the fact that Bristol has a huge amount of clubs, societies, volunteering projects and various other student groups and, despite having one of the largest Students’ Union buildings in the country, this was still not adequate to house them all!

Obviously, this situation has worsened this year with the Union refurbishment knocking out around a third of the space (for more information see here).

This motion mandated the VP: Activities to try and source out easily-bookable space on University property, bearing in mind the process is often torturously difficult if you go through the University’s online form.

Thankfully, this year I’ve managed to negotiate with the University some bookable space almost every weekday from 6.30 onwards (when teaching finishes). This has eased the pressure somewhat, but it is clearly still not enough and I’m doing what I can to make the booking form for all the other rooms a lot easier to use.

For information about how to book these rooms free of charge - please email ubu-roombookings@bristol.ac.uk.

Chris x

Union Policy relating to Activities and what I’m doing about it…

As you’re probably aware, each year at the Union’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) and at Student Councils throughout the year motions are passed mandating this Union to do certain things.

Motions passed remain valid for 3 years, and in the past the filing system has been inadequate, so it was unclear as to who would make sure each policy was given attention.

This year at the start of term we made a commitment to compiling a policy file and making sure each policy had an appropriate Sabbatical officer who would ensure that UBU worked towards it. On this blog, I plan to go through all those that fit into my realm, and to tell you honestly what I’ve done or what I am planning to do to make sure they become a reality.

  • Increasing collaboration between Student Activity groups

This Union resolves:

1)    To mandate the VP Activities to introduce a scheme that supports, increases and incentivises community work by clubs and societies.

2)    To introduce a scheme that supports, increases and incentivises charitable fundraising by clubs and societies.

What has been done:

The fundamental gist of this motion was to get more society and sports club involvement in fundraising work or in community volunteering projects. Although no such scheme has been set in stone, this year has seen a large amount of club and society involvement in these kinds of activities.

RAG has worked with a large range of societies to put on fundraising events including Dodgeball Soc, Islamic Soc, Massage Soc, Food Soc, Bristol Real Ale, UNICEF on campus and Live Soc amongst others.

Regarding community work, building on some successful schemes last year, several societies are getting involved in comding Biosoc, who intend to go into school and deliver science-based workshops to kids in the local area. They are also looking to expand this to include other departmental societies like Matrix and Fusion.

To incentivise this, it doesn’t seem right to offer financial reward to these societies, but if a society regularly engages with this sort of thing then we will undoubtedly look favourably upon them when considering grant requests. What’s more, these activities are recognised by the Bristol PLuS award, and our very own Union awards.

To sum up, this is an area that UBU has been working hard on, mostly through our Community engagement coordinator Rachel Miller and our Student Volunteering Coordinator Georgie Cove. However, that isn’t to say we can’t do more, and publicising these opportunities is one way that I can help and will continue to do so - after mentioning at the society leader training day that some societies worked in schools last year, we received three emails from societies that were interested and wanted to learn more.

If you run a society and want to look into how you can fundraise or develop closer ties with the wider community, please email me at ubu-activities@bristol.ac.uk, or Georgie on ubu-volunteering@bristol.ac.uk.

Remember to check back soon to see what I’ve done about another policy I’ve been working on - "Space in the Union".

Chris x

Day 18

Day 18

Movember 2012

image

As you can see from my previous efforts I’m a big fan of Movember. If you are too,  join the Bristol University Mo-Team - go to https://www.movember.com/uk/register/details/team_id/39376.

The whole month will culminate in a massive party in Bar 100 and AR2 with:

Moustache judging

Cheap ‘Mo’-jitos!

Fake ‘taches for the Mo-sistas

Fundraising for men’s health

DJ’s from Bristol University DJ Soc

Check out the facebook group for more details…

Happy Movember!

Accent theme by Handsome Code

twitter.com/UBUnews

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