Clubs / Societies

Student Societies and the Problem With Controversial Invitations

Controversy is a strange thing. Simply knowing about the matter is enough to cause a reaction. Nothing needs to have occurred yet to cause offense. The implications and the possibilities can be enough.

Matters such as these that move into the wider public arena quickly draw attention. When people find out that something or someone controversial has been given a platform, opinions quickly divide. A mere invitation will cause offense, creating friction from the outset.

For student societies, that makes inviting any controversial public figure a tough job.

hot topic (photo by Enokson)

photo by Enokson – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Oxford Union, a debating society, recently came under fire for what looked like differing views in how to handle controversial invitations. Reactions surrounding invitations to Julian Assange and Nick Griffin appeared different. Assange was granted a platform, while Griffin was dismissed as not having even been properly invited. Independent student newspaper, Cherwell, quoted an Oxford Union spokesperson: “The Oxford Union does not wish to be associated with the BNP in any way whatsoever. We strongly disagree with their views.”

Assange, however, went on to speak in late January 2013. Former president of the Oxford Union, Izzy Westbury, explained to the Guardian why invitations like these are made:

“Inviting someone controversial – be it in a political sense, a religious one or, in the case of Assange, a legal one – is the best way of showing them for what they really are. When Assange is video-linked to the union, I would expect and encourage questions that challenge both his views and his actions. We should put him in an uncomfortable position – that is the condition of the invite.”

Writing for Cherwell, Alexander Rankine pointed out that such a vocal disapproval of one person and not another is contradictory:

“A Union invitation does not condone. Guests can be cross-examined. The Union is neutral. The idea of the Union adopting a political position or pursuing an agenda goes brazenly against this principle. Now it seems that the Union’s invitations are motivated by political opinions and specific agendas after all. And if that is really the case, then the Assange invitation starts to look more like a vote of support. The Union stops being neutral.”

An invitation is not an entirely neutral move unless you invite the entire population of the world on exactly the same grounds. Invitations arise due to some form of interest or controversy or debate or fame. The matter is complex, so cannot be neutral even if the intention was innocent.

What if a society was more explicit in explaining the reasoning behind an invitation as non-politically as it could? If that happened, the situation is still political, because reasons can be argued and people can disagree with the reasoning given.

Rankine handily wraps up the difficulty and the answer in a single sentence: “I always thought that the Union was meant to be a neutral debating platform.”

That term, “Neutral debating platform“. Can a debating platform ever be entirely neutral?

Debating occurs due to political matters. That’s the point of a debate. Be it a mild discussion, or an emotionally dividing battle, opinions are not all the same.

When Marine Le Pen, president of French political party Front National, spoke at the Cambridge Union, around 200 protesters gathered in opposition. One protester told The Cambridge Student:

“I don’t object to her speaking, but I think the important thing is we make it quite clear there’s opposition. The fact that you can get up and ask her a few questions afterwards is not really enough.”

The term ‘neutral debating platform’ comes into question based not only on the handing out of invitations, but also on the format of the debate.

Yet an invitation is placed in order to bring forth further debate, rather than endorse or congratulate (or, indeed, disagree or disparage) the parties involved. An opportunity for questions may not be seen as enough.

With so much to contend with, inviting a controversial figure cannot be completely neutral. Their views and actions are a necessary part of the package. It’s a big part of why their presence was requested in the first place. Those underlying reasons cannot be temporarily removed for logistical purposes.

Debating societies wouldn’t exist without some sort of controversy. That’s why an attempt to be neutral looks anything but to some. Politics may be intended only once everyone is gathered in the debating hall. However, some decisions are already political long before many realise they are political at all.

How would you handle controversial figures and controversial invitations?

8 top tips to help graduates gain employment after university

For many students, leaving university can be a very difficult time. After spending the best part of 15 years in education, moving into the working world can be a daunting experience but it doesn’t need to be…

“Preparation and forward planning is essential for any student who wants to make the best start to their graduate career,” explains Crystal Evans from graduate recruitment scheme GO Wales.

work (photo by will_hybrid)

work (photo by will_hybrid)

And I’ve got eight tips from GO Wales on getting into the world of work. Crystal says that by implementing a few simple essentials it will, “put you in a much better position when confronting the competitive job market after graduation”.

I’ve added my own comments below each tip to help you even further along the way.

Eight top tips to help secure employment after university

1. Get out there

Work experience is crucial when applying for jobs because it shows a non-academic interest in your industry sector. Being in the working environment that you strive to succeed in allows you to see what it’s really like. Many graduate jobs go to those who have completed relevant sector specific work experience.

[Martin’s note: You can even ‘get out there’ as you stay on campus… Jobs are often available within uni or your students’ union that can get you useful experience.]

2. Know what you’re doing

Taking an active interest in your career sector will help you stand out as knowledgeable and enthusiastic at the interview stage. Graduate jobs go beyond the skills you learn at university, so a thorough understanding of your industry will help you come across as keen, as well as dedicated.

[Martin’s note: To show your growing understanding, get blogging about the industry and build a portfolio of content that you can refer to at any time with ease. When you know your stuff, it’s valuable to show what you know!]

3. Keep your CV fresh

Your CV is like the window display inside a shop – it brings people in. A good CV must look professional and needs to be well tailored to the job that you’re applying for. Make sure your CV is up-to-date, demonstrates the skills and experience you can bring to a company, is accurate and spell checked.

[Martin’s note: Use LinkedIn so you can keep a living CV online. When you need to update, just add the new information. That way, you’re visible and you don’t have to start each CV from scratch. Job applications need tailoring, but that doesn’t mean you have to write a new CV every time. Also, LinkedIn lets you connect and network, as well as give and receive recommendations. Bonus!]

4. Go and get involved

Taking part in extracurricular activities will help you stand out from the rest. Participating in clubs, socials and sports at university will build your confidence and teach you team building skills that will ultimately impress an employer.

[Martin’s note: Just don’t get involved in too many societies and clubs. Aim for a managable amount that you can do really well, rather than loads of different activities that you hardly engage with.]

5. Network with others

Social networking sites present excellent opportunities for securing a graduate job; enabling you to communicate directly with people who work in the industries you’re interested in.  Following the appropriate professionals on social media sites like Twitter and Linkedin will help you to network in your industry; talk to professionals via social networks and don’t be afraid to seek advice from them.

[Martin’s note: Online networking is a big deal right now, and it’s easier than ever. Also, take your social shine to the next level and meet up with your online contacts. Attend seminars, conferences, and tweetups (put simply, meet with people you follow on Twitter!). Join industry groups online and check out what events they’re holding near you. Face to face encounters can be more memorable and more rewarding than online alone.]

6. Fail to prepare: prepare to fail

Turning up to an interview unprepared will waste all the work you’ve put in to getting to that stage.  Research the company beforehand to demonstrate that you have a clear understanding of what they do. Make sure you look professional and remain confident throughout.

[Martin’s note: Even after you have prepared, don’t be scared of failure. Every interview is an experience. You may have prepared extensively and still get thrown a curveball when you’re there. Far from knocking your confidence, let each failure boost you up for success further down the line. See the next tip for more on this…]

7. Don’t give up

Finding the perfect job takes time and a lot of effort. The graduate job market is very competitive and only 50 per cent of students find work in their preferred industry straight after university. Staying positive and realising that every failure has taught you something new will help you progress.  Finding relevant part-time work or volunteering will keep your industry knowledge up-to-date and you will also learn new skills along the way.

[Martin’s note: It’s also important to start early. Build up your strengths (both new and old) and tailor yourself as soon as you can. Don’t wait until you graduate!]

8. Use your resources

GO Wales works to help students and graduates secure work placements and quality work experience opportunities. Work Placements not only give you the chance to develop your knowledge and skills in a real work environment; you will also be paid a minimum of £250 per week. 65 per cent of their graduates secure long-term employment as a result of work placement schemes.

[Martin’s note: While GO Wales is aimed at students in Wales or graduates who are looking to develop their career in Wales, don’t stop if you’re not in that neck of the woods. Seek out other services either in your area or nationally. A good place to start is with your own uni careers services. Don’t be shy; they exist for you to make the most of them.]

Now go back to the first point. Time to get out there and be awesome!

99 UK Students’ Unions on Twitter

Back in 2009, I compiled a list of all the students’ unions I could find on Twitter. I found just over 60. Twitter had already made quite a mark.

With the increasing popularity of Twitter, even more SUs have come on board. There have been a couple of name changes since then too.

My original list remains pretty popular, even though it was never updated.

Until now, that is…

I’ve checked the list for changes and additions to make sure it’s as relevant as possible today. There are now 99 SU accounts out there.

Students in Percy Gee Atrium (photo: University of Leicester)

Napier, Cranfield and Buckingham told me that they don’t currently have official Students’ Union/Association Twitter accounts. If I’ve missed any other SUs off the list, please let me know. Otherwise, I hope the list is useful.

If you want to follow all the SUs in a convenient Twitter List, I’ve put all the accounts together on the UK Students’ Unions list for you.

99 104
Students’ Unions on Twitter
(last checked January 2012)

Anglia Ruskin
Bath Spa!/bathspasu
Birmingham City
Bucks New Uni!/buckssu
Canterbury Christ Church
Central Lancashire
De Montfort
East Anglia (UEA)!/UnionUEA
East London!/uelunion
Edge Hill
Goldsmiths (Uni of London)
Leeds Met
Liverpool Hope!/LiverpoolHopeSU
Liverpool John Moores
London Met!/londonmetsu
London South Bank!/LSBU_SU
Manchester Metropolitan!/manmetunion
Nottingham Trent
Oxford Brookes!/oxfordbrookessu
Queen Mary (London)!/QMSU
Robert Gordon!/rguunion
Sheffield Hallam
Sheffield Hallam (Officers)
Southampton Solent!/solentsu
St Andrews
University Campus Suffolk
University College London (UCL)!/UCLU
West London!/wlsu
West of England (Bristol)
York St John!/ysjsu

Sheffield SU (photo by Design & Photography)

Sheffield SU (photo: Design & Photography)

Clubs & Societies: Don’t Think ‘Employability’, Think ‘Achievements’

What do clubs and societies mean to you?

After Stanley Lee’s guest post, I started thinking about the reasons for joining up to societies and how different people use what’s available to them.

The key word that came to my mind was:


What you achieve could be the most important element linking the extra-curricular activities you undertake and your future potential to an employer.

However, your main purpose for joining anything shouldn’t be in order to impress an employer.  If it fits your career interests and potential future, by all means jump in.  But there’s little point in signing up to wow.  Nobody will be wowed.

For Carl Andrew, not all clubs express a symbol of achievement in the first place:

“Serving as president of the Fifa Appreciation Society, the Free Hugs Society (does pretty much what it says on the tin) or the Comic Books Society is not going to look very impressive on your CV. Employers are far more likely to look for students who have instead been president of their university’s politics, history or debating society.”

I disagree.  Serving as a president may appear more prestigious in a debating society over a Free Hugs society.  But a Free Hugs president isn’t in a worse position in highlighting what they achieved in the position.

photo by Jesslee Cuizon

photo by Jesslee Cuizon

For instance, a Free Hugs president could start an initiative for members to give away hugs at big Fresher events, or set up a ‘friending’ scheme to help International students and those suffering from homesickness.  These ideas could have brought forward an increase in student retention and student satisfaction at their university.

Unlikely examples? Maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, these are the types of achievement to shout about.  By highlighting the strengths of your presidency and what you accomplished, employers won’t care about the name of your society.

Andrew also mentions how students use societies to boost employability:

“This can also be harmful for the societies when students join them, or seek positions within them, purely to boost their employability. Last year, I turned away a student from the Just Vote campaign I was organising (to encourage voting in the general election) when he mentioned that his CV was the only reason he was planning to come on board.”

Andrew makes a great point and I understand why he was unwilling to take the student on board.  While that may sound unfair to the student, I doubt a half-hearted attempt at looking better on paper would help in the long run.  A minimal boost is possible, but an eye-opening interest on paper would only come about if that student could explain their achievements in a society or campaign.

When I was at uni, there was no English society.  Some of us (students and academics) wanted to do something about that.  So we set the society up.  That’s an achievement.

We arranged book sales so students who’d finished with their books could sell them on cheaply to new students.  Everyone wins. That’s an achievement.

Students upped the game the following year by beginning an arts magazine with poetry and short stories.  That’s an achievement.

Being a member of a society is not enough if you can’t focus on the successes.  Say that you were a member of your English Society and an employer may shrug their shoulders.  Tell them you were a founder, that you helped students save money, that you organised events, that the society thrived…these are achievements.

I’m not suggesting any of us were heroes.  Achievements aren’t a sign that you’re amazing or you did everything yourself.  Achievements are signs of how much you care, of how you brought something to life, and of what you did to improve a situation.

When you next consider joining a club, society, campaign or cause, don’t think of it simply in terms for employability or personal gain.  Instead, consider what you can give back while you move things forward.  The more you achieve to benefit the society and its causes, the more you’re likely to benefit yourself.