Impact spoke to Will Knapp, the University of Nottingham Students’ Union (UoNSU) Activities Officer, about what he’s been doing for the last six months. He told us about how he has been working to meet his manifesto objectives as well as tackling society storage problems, reforming Societies Executive and formulating a new introduction to SU training.
What have you being doing this year?
I suppose that I should start on my election objectives. A lot of my manifesto pledges are still in my objectives for this year but they have evolved and I now have seven objectives.
“What I’ve done instead is look at the groups that are struggling most or who have been most distant from the SU in terms of their relationship with us”
In terms of enhancing relationships, I have tried to meet with as many societies as I can.
My idea when I ran was that I would meet with every Society President, but if you consider that every meeting would be 30 minutes, that equates to about five weeks per term of solid back-to-back meetings.
That’s half the term before you’ve even started doing anything on the actions that come from those meetings as well as anything in my day to day role another than that.
So that just wasn’t feasible – so what I’ve done instead is look at the groups that are struggling most or who have been most distant from the SU – in terms of their relationship with us.
So I’ve decided to really focus on those groups – meet them and see how they run and then try to get them as engaged as possible really.
Can you give me a couple of example of societies who have benefited from that?
Horse Racing Society, DartSoc and BladeSoc – which were all groups that had under 25 members – the minimum requirement. So I met with them last semester to discuss how they were planning to get out of that.
What else have you been up to?
I have met with the Sutton Bonington (SB) Guild Activities Officer, Sinead Kenna, to work with her to gauge problems out on SB and see what we can work on together – to encourage SB to get more involved and to facilitate collaboration between societies at SB and those at Uni Park.
“My role is to introduce the different campus groups and then leave them to collaborate”
I also went over to the Derby Hospital, met with a few people on the UNAD Committee. I did the Freshers and Refreshers Fairs to gauge the interests into societies and to gauge what they were like over there.
My role is to introduce the different campus groups and then leave them to collaborate if that’s what they want to do.
Have you succeeded in expanding technology?
When I ran, I wanted to introduce an SU smartphone app. However, once I got into the role, I realised that there is no point in creating an app which does what the website does. No-one is really going to download it!
“Currently we are working with Hacksoc to develop the app”
So instead I worked with the SU to determine what sort of app would be most useful for students. We came up with a SU Committee smartphone app.
The idea is that everyone who is in a committee will have the opportunity to download this app so that they can basically do everything that they used to come into Portland to do, straight from their phone. Currently we are working with Hacksoc to develop the app.
So how far along are HackSoc in developing the SU Committee app?
HackSoc has got the brief of what we want it to look like. They’ve got a Hackday in two weeks’ time – a sort of Hackathon – and this is where they will come up with different concepts and then we will go from there to see what we like and how to develop it into a reality.
We also hope to get as many students as possible involved in this project. Unfortunately for me, it won’t come in until the next academic year.
One thing you also said last year was that you were not happy with the SU website? So were you involved in the revamp of the SU website last term?
SU revamping was in the pipeline anyway and it was actually something that I wasn’t really aware of at the time when I ran – so that was quite a lucky coincidence! So I am not going to claim that as a win for me.
So what have you done to improve employability – another of your manifesto pledges?
We’ve created the new position of Employment Secretary on the Societies Executive. They are responsible for linking society and committee members with our employability manager within the SU – which is a new position in itself which also started at the beginning of this year.
“We are looking into establishing a Twitter meets LinkedIn page and this is for any student to use”
Then on top of that we are looking into establishing a Twitter meets LinkedIn page and this is for any student to use.
If a student does something significant or holds a position of responsibility during their time at the University – they can use this website to note it down and then link their experience with the key buzzwords and phrases that employers look for in job interviews.
So when they leave University and are job hunting, they will have this bank of information online that they can pull for their CVs as well as interviews.
Sometimes students will do things at the University which are significant but still small at the same time – things which they might forget about two years later. However, with this page in place, graduates can access and use the information at a later date.
What’s happening with the end of year ‘Society’s Festival’?
This is the one manifesto point that has kind of been put aside in exchange for carrying out other priorities. Coming into the role, you kind of realise that there are so many opportunities for societies to showcase their talent that there isn’t really a need for an end of year ‘Society’s Festival’.
Also in my eyes – coming into the role and speaking to people – there are more significant things to focus on.
That’s not to say that there will not be something happening in the future… Although, I can’t really talk about that at the moment because of reasons ‘out of my hands’.
“This year, as an SU Officer Team, we’ve also brought in celebration week”
However, I can tell you that we are looking to do a centenary celebration in April – something which we are looking to get societies involved in – through performing as well as an opportunity for them to network with significant alumni.
This year, as an SU Officer Team, we’ve also brought in celebration week. This will be the week directly following summer exams, and in this week we will be looking to encourage as much society involvement as possible.
How have you attempted to improve communication between UoN students and the SU then?
I think in terms of communication, the SU Committee app is going to play a major role in that every committee member will be able to download it. This means that the messages that need to be disseminated down through to the rest of the committee from the President will automatically be able to them.
We have also introduced a long-term project in order to understand how projects fit into specific societies because every committee has a different set up and structure. With this in mind, one of the requirements for the Gold Star award is to include a written handover document.
“The Union now has a better idea of how a specific committee member fits into the group which is really useful”
This not only improves the quality of the handover from one year to the next but the person doing the handover now has to outline what they did, what they think could be improved, as well as give key contacts and responsibilities.
A copy of this must then be handed into the SU so the Union now has a better idea of how a specific committee member fits into the group which is really useful.
As we are talking about Stars Training, I will also mention that we will be introducing new criteria beyond simply ticking boxes outlining attendance of training sessions.
Also societies wishing to achieve Gold STAR status will now have to complete a presentation opposed to a written form, making the application process more interactive and engaging.
Can you tell us about any other things that you’ve done to further represent the student voice?
This year for the first time ever, we will talking to final year students to find out specifically what they want for Graduation Ball; what they think of the food, the acts we play, the themes etc.
A member of staff will soon be sending out a general message as well as targeting people (to make sure people come) for a focus group in order to get as much feedback as possible on this. We will also be going around the campuses just to catch students when they are out and about.
“There are long standing contracts from the past such as the venue and financial restrictions which will limit the changes that we can make”
Although it is worth mentioning that we are restricted a bit in that there are long standing contracts from the past such as the venue and financial restrictions which will limit the changes that we can make.
For example, the last few years we have been using Colwick Hall as the venue for Graduation Ball – for this year that cannot change as we are bound by the contract.
So what is your schedule like?
In my role, especially last term, 51% of my time was spent with students, whether that be one-to-ones, training sessions, talking to them about issues that kind of stuff.
34% of my time was spent in Union meetings so that’s kind of internal meetings, looking to make changes internally or to keep things ticking over. So that also included my time spent in board meetings such as the Reporting and Finance Committee, which is a sub-board of the Trustee board.
In general, my role is very student focused so I only spend 3% of my time in University meetings and then another 2% of my time is spent meeting with external bodies, such as Clubs in town or different businesses who are looking to get involved in societies or even traveling to other cities to do similar things there as well.
Finally, 9% of my time is spent representing the Union, things like giving talks on open days and giving talks to students about the Union and what it is doing.
So what are you most proud of that you’ve done so far?
Tackling the storage issue is a definite one. It was an issue that cropped up every year but nothing was ever really done to sort it out. When I came in, the storage rooms were such a mess that only 20 societies were able to store their stuff in the two rooms in the Portland Building.
So we said, let’s strip back the storage space we’ve got and recreate it so that more societies can benefit. This project is still ongoing but by the time we are done, about 60 societies should be able to store their stuff in there. After that, we will be tackling the storage facility in the Trent Building.
“Instead of the Society Executive members working with all 209 societies, they will only work with about 40 or so each”
I am also quite pleased about the reform made to Societies Executive because I am hoping that that is going to make a big difference next year in terms of work with societies.
Currently it is full of very operational roles – for example there are events coordinators and finance coordinators – whereas we have members of staff that do that here. Obviously it is their profession so they are going to be better at it than the average student coming in for a one year job.
So we are looking to change it to make these roles more representational in the way that we are as an Office Team now. Instead of the Society Executive members working with all 209 societies, they will only work with about 40 or so each.
This means that they will have the chance to meet with societies that currently I don’t have the chance to meet. That is almost complete which I am really quite pleased about.
“We recognise as a Union that one of the biggest things that we needed to work on was to communicate the changes that we have made to students”
I also kind of created a new introduction to SU training. I’ve only done it once but I kind of feel like it was more informative than what we used to do. We recognise as a Union that one of the biggest things that we needed to work on was to communicate the changes that we have made to students.
So that’s what I tried to incorporate into this session – making it more interactive, kind of introducing people to the different aspects of the Union that they might not know about, whilst also explaining how the structure of the Union works.
So far the feedback has been good. In light of that, we are looking to try and fit into all society training sessions as ultimately, it can be moulded for various different audiences.
Last semester, we also introduced a new financial system for TEC, URN is now able play in University public spaces and we have included more information in the room bookings menu, following feedback from society committees.
How have you resolved the issue of competitive society funding?
The grant application system was changed for the first time this year to make it lot clearer as to what societies are spending their money on.
To a certain extent that was a learning process in terms of how we allocate grants and as such, we have now recognised that we need to split our grouping of societies slightly differently and work more with the competitive societies to ensure that they are sustainable and achieving everything that they want to achieve.
“We are not able to throw money left, right and centre”
However, we have made it very clear to them that we are not able to throw money left, right and centre as well as the fact that we are not favouring competitive societies over other groups.
What we do have, however, is staff in place who can work with them to achieve their goals.That’s not necessarily financial support, that’s support in gaining sponsorship or fundraising as well as how to budget effectively so that they are using their money in the best possible way and ultimately, making money.
What is the difference between the Sports Budget and the Activities Budget?
There is a slight difference. Sports Clubs do get more than societies do but considering everything that goes on in a sports club, they need that money. So for example, a sports club will have to play home and away games with transport requirements.
“If we had given every society the grant that they applied for, we would have been something like 600% over our budget”
They just need to spend a lot more money to meet their aims and objectives, and that is reflected in their higher membership fees.I just want to point out that if we had given every society the grant that they applied for, we would have been something like 600% over our budget and that’s just not possible, we would send the Union bankrupt.
During an Impact interview last year, you said that the SU is “over-professionalised with an inflexible focus on finance”? How far do you agree with that statement now?
“On reflection, it’s just a bit of a stupid quote really”
That quote was essentially based on how my experience was during my time was as a student, which was essentially bang in the middle of the huge changes that have gone on within the SU in the last two-three years.
On reflection, it’s just a bit of a stupid quote really – we strive to be professional in the job that we do. So from what I can see now, I wouldn’t say that there is an inflexible focus on finance. I think that groups that do struggle financially, we now work with them to plan to help them resolve those issues rather than stamping a foot on them.
So I feel like the service that these groups get that are in financial trouble, what we provide now is very different to what I experienced as a student and I do think that we have changed for the better.
“We now get monthly records of every group’s finances and how they are changing on a monthly basis and if there are trends that we don’t like the look of, we can tackle them”
We are now able to catch financial struggles at an earlier stage, rather than as in the past, waiting until it’s too late and letting it kick off. We now get monthly records of every group’s finances and how they are changing on a monthly basis.
If there are trends that we don’t like the look of, we can tackle them before it becomes too late to turn it around as easily – so we are not adding excessive stress onto a student or student group.
I think that’s one thing that has changed considerably within the Union in that we are a lot more pro-active in the way that we work now rather than just reacting to problems.
(Will wants to remind everyone that tickets for Societies Ball 2014 are now available online.)
Image: Magda and Toby
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