The vibe in the room shifted, and we all looked at each other. It’s not often that you find yourself in the basement of an Estonian fraternity, surrounded by SU officers and staff from across the UK, and a 6’2” Estonian wearing a suit, fraternity sachet and hat. He also had a sword he used to call from quorum in meetings.
The feminist in me was deeply offended. As soon as we found out that the room in question was one where the fraternity members were locked in for 72 hours to do secret activities and then were able to write their names on a wall, we were somewhat grateful to not be allowed in. It also featured an orange cowboy hat, a red phone, a notepad, a half-full bottle of vodka (as the optimist Estonians see it), and a set of chains. There was a bed in the corner.
This was only one of several surreal experiences I went through during my week in Latvia, Estonia, and Finland.
In my role as president of the Students’ Union, I oversee the strategy of the organisation alongside our Chief Executive Officer, Ryan Bird. This responsibility gave us the perfect excuse to join WonkHE Su’s trip to the Baltics and Finland from the 8th to the 12th of January. The purpose of the trip was to visit several students’ unions, the national union of students, different local and national organisations that deal with the student experience, as well as a few rogue visits like the previously described one in a basement in Tartu.
The reason I come to seemingly brag about my antics in the Baltics (rhyme intended), is that I thought it’d be useful to give our community a chance to understand why it is beneficial that we spend our SU budget on sending me on such a rogue and intense adventure (I saw 3 countries, and over a dozen SUs and National Union of students in 6 days).
So here are my major 4 takeaways from the trip:
- We are not as good at student representation in the UK as we think we are… Somewhere along the way, SUs became very professionalised and filled with permanent, professional staff. Though our particular staff are excellent, this realisation did make me ask myself what the definition of student-led is, and how can we empower our students to feel ownership of their union.
- If we want to better represent students, we might have to revisit our systems. Things like SUmmit (which you can read about on our SU website) are a step in the right direction, but it is still a minor dip into a massive lake of possibilities. In these countries, SUs have councils (which work in an essentially parliamentary fashion) with higher levels of student participation – some of them with over 150 members. These are the spaces in which SU policy is made and debated. I think we must look more into these sorts of initiatives.
- We need to do more around housing. Getting the university to commit to writing a civil housing strategy was a massive win for us, but it’s not enough. Prices continue to rise, quality continues to decrease, and we have more and more students in our uni as well as Bath Spa which increases competition for the same properties. It is time for our SU to investigate how we actively and permanently have people working on improving the housing experience for all our students.
- It is time we talk about what community building means. Belong at Bath sounds lovely, and as an SU we’ve supported the university in promoting this, but how can we better encourage students’ sense of belonging to our community? One of my favourite ideas from the trip is the boiler suits students are given according to their department in their first year, which they then fill up with badges for attending different events and completing different challenges (wearing these suits to student parties is quite common, and the badges are very colourful, humorous, and designed by students themselves). There is also a question about how we begin to plan all-student events. A big part of belonging in these Nordic countries is achieved by attending city celebrations and wearing your group colours with pride. Why aren’t we doing the same in the streets of our historic city?
These are only broad, initial thoughts, which I sincerely hope to turn into tangible actions and plans during this second half of my year in office. I expect the task to be as daunting as getting into a frozen lake in Western Finland was. If I survived that, I could presumably survive the difficult path of trying to change an institution from the inside. Wish me luck and hold me accountable to these reflections!