Students’ Union – Interview with a Societies Officer

In the latest part of the Students’ Union feature, I wanted to find out more about what constitutes a big part of a first year student’s introduction to university life: Fresher’s Fayre and all those clubs and societies.

The University of Nottingham is home to one of the largest Freshers events, the biggest RAG proceedings in the UK and some top-class clubs and societies. For example, the student radio station, URN, has won more Student Radio Awards than any other, including a win in 2006 for Station of the Year.

The Students’ Union at Nottingham plays a huge part in the success of all this. It’s what a university SU is all about. So what’s the deal? How do societies and events come to fruition? Best speak to someone who really knows. To find out more, I spoke to Nottingham’s Societies Officer, Matt Leventhall:

Matt Leventhall

– With 174 societies to choose from at Nottingham, there must be a massive push in Fresher’s Week to join clubs and societies. Do you have any tips to Freshers before they simply end up joining everything, panic a bit, then end up participating in nothing?

“At our Students’ Union we have a document called The Guide, which is basically the student’s bible. It’s got everything about the Students’ Union in it, including the societies listing. Every first year gets The Guide delivered to their room upon arrival. So my advice to them would be to have a look at the societies listing in The Guide and pin-point the societies you might wish to join. You don’t want to spend a ridiculous amount of money joining everything. It’s normally about £2-3 to join each society at Fresher’s Fayre. But at the same time, don’t be too closed, because there are so many societies that students probably won’t expect to be there, so have an open mind when going to Fresher’s Fayre. Take a look, join what interests you and get involved!”

– Say a new student spots a gap and wants to begin something new themselves. What’s involved (and how simple is it) in starting a new society?

“For students, it’s easy to get the ball rolling. All a student needs to do is to come and visit us and request a ‘starting a society’ pack. They need 25 people who are interested to sign a petition. They can get a pack via e-mail too, although it’s always great if they can come to see us face to face so we can have a chat and make sure they can get all the help they need.

“The pack contains some template constitutions, to get the students started. Once they have completed the information for their own society, it comes back to the Students’ Union. For the Students’ Union itself, things get a bit more difficult. The new group proposals go to the Societies Executive committee. This is so they can check through everything and make sure the society would be fully inclusive, totally democratic, not overlapping with any current societies and so on. This is quite a detailed process, which needs to be carefully thought over and agreed.

“Another thing to note is a scheme we have called STARS, which stands for Student Training and Activities Reward Scheme. It was formed because we wanted to guarantee that all clubs and societies provide at least a minimum service to their members and also that we wanted to award the amount of work that was being put in by students to make these things happen. The scheme has three levels, bronze, silver and gold. The bronze level recognises things such as full inclusion and being open to anyone with a disability, and is compulsory. The silver and gold levels are for when further elements of training and development take place to elevate standards and abilities within the societies.”

– It sounds like you’ve got a lot of running around to do to make all this work.

“I’m very busy looking at all these things and chairing committees, but I see my workload as strategic rather than operational. I look at the issues and problems to do with societies and how they can be resolved effectively.”

– Are there limits to the number of members in a society or club?

“That’s not something I’ve ever heard of, no. If any society gains a very large number of members, we would look to expand it and think about how much money was being put into the running of it. It’s all abount making the societies bigger, better, and more successful.”

– On your blog, you mention a proposition to create a Chair of Societies Council. What is this?

“When I first came into the position of Societies Officer, I identified a problem. Of the societies that were gaining affiliation, it generally happened because they had better or more confident public speakers. For example, if someone speaking was very shy, or if someone struggled with the speech because English wasn’t their first language, they would be far less likely to achieve affiliation.

“This was clearly not a democratic process.

“The unfair process needed to change so that a totally impartial person could read out speeches for all parties, for and against. In doing this, we achieve a more democratic result. This is what the Chair of Societies Council would focus on.”

– Are there any issues surrounding Students’ Unions that need to be looked into more deeply?

“One of the big issues this year for our Students’ Union is to address communication. We want to make it clear to all students of what the SU can do for them. Many students think that the SU is responsible for little more than arranging big parties and events [Martin’s Note: I THINK THIS IS THE CASE FOR MANY SUs AROUND THE UK]. What we need to do is make a bigger impact on students. For instance, we found that in previous years the SU logo wasn’t on everything that we did. We’re changing that now. We’ll be making a much bigger show right from Day 1 so that students are fully aware of what the SU does and how it can help represent students throughout their time at uni. It’s not yet publicised enough that the Students’ Union can actively help represent students on specific student matters.”

And there you have it. While every Union is going to differ slightly in the way they handle things, you get the general idea of the kind of processes involved. There’s a lot more going on than you might at first imagine.

If you are specifically interested in the Nottingham Students’ Union, these links will provide you with more information:

University of Nottingham Students’ Union Homepage

Students’ Union Executive: Personal Blogs [All blogs are together, but a box at the top allows you to choose one particular officer’s blog if you wish]