In this interview, we talk to Charlotte Britton-Stevens, Union Development Project Manager at NUS Charity. She has held many roles within NUS and the wider student movement, and was a student officer at Swansea University. Currently, she leads the SFC-funded Developing College Students’ Associations project, run by NUS and sparqs.
1. You have worked for a number of years in the student movement. What got you involved in it in the first place?
I saw an all-student email about an opportunity to run to be a Welfare Officer when studying at Swansea University. At the time I was volunteering for Childline and was a part of a mentoring scheme and so I thought it would be a good fit. I don’t think I realised it was an election for a good two weeks, but my best friend dragged me through the campaigning period, literally pushing me up to groups of people so I could talk about my manifesto. I lost to the incumbent officer, but after realising what a machine the SU was and how much it did for people, I was hooked! I ran for a volunteer position as the Community Officer, got a job in the SU bar, and re-ran the next year and won.
2. In that time, how has the student movement, and in particular students’ unions, changed?
I’ve been around a while! I think for me, the professionalisation of SUs and SAs has been a big one. We’ve seen such a growth in things like strategic plans, a meaningful focus on governance and officers and staff really stepping up. The running of an SA seems like a much more complicated thing. I was a Development Consultant at the start of the DCSA project too – so many of the College SAs are unrecognisable from 2015 in how much they’ve developed and grown, and how they’ve managed to do so much with the resources they have.
A lot of the issues that student officers are tackling seem similar, because it’s a long-term chipping away at the problems, for example fees and funding, course quality, mental health, housing and accommodation. I think the best thing I’ve seen is the growth of the liberation movement over the years. I have done so much learning thanks to student officers who have led the way in anti-racism and fascism.
3. Specifically thinking about the Developing College Students’ Associations project, what is the importance of SAs to Scotland’s college sector at the moment?
Student representation has never been more crucial after a tumultuous few years of the pandemic and all the impacts it’s had and continues to have on students, in terms of their learning but also their wellbeing.
It’s so important to figure out the ‘new normal’ together, to make sure it works for a new generation going forward who have experienced several different ways of learning. SAs are best placed to be that voice, to work in partnership, but also be that critical friend, supporting colleges to be better and to evolve in the way students need them to, that management might not be aware of.
I think, in addition to that, we saw so many ways in which SAs stepped up to support their students’ wellbeing during the pandemic, checking in with them, providing spaces to express their feelings and providing a serious amount of practical support too. SAs are so crucial to student retention – providing advice and guidance and communities where students can feel they belong.
The Mental Health Foundation Scotland’s recent Thriving Learners survey was pretty dire reading on the topic of student mental health, but I was heartened to see that the research said that more than half of those who were part of a student group said membership helped them engage with student life and make friends, and over a third said student groups helped them manage during the pandemic.
4. As you’ve said, during the pandemic we’ve seen both the challenges to effective representation but also the value of SAs in speaking for students and working with their colleges. What lessons should we draw from the past year or so for the future of students’ associations?
I think the most interesting thing I’ve seen is how online elections and campaigning changed the demographics of officer candidates in the last few years. Students have had some of the barriers to participation taken away, and could campaign differently, from their home in a lot of cases.
It’s thrown up some different cohorts of student officers which I think has allowed a lot of new ideas to come through – and has allowed a lot more engagement in national issues where travel would take too much time or be too expensive. I’ve seen a real enthusiasm to network across Scotland, but also the UK, which I love, as sharing practice is so important when you’re trying to be efficient with your resources.
I am eager to see how we can harness some of the accessibility that online provision has created to get less engaged groups involved, most importantly because I have seen more engagement with disabled students this last couple of years and I worry a return to the pre-pandemic status quo would replace those barriers.
Thanks to Charlotte for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.
This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.