Sunday, June 17, 2007

Organising biology students

One of my main desires for my year on the executive of the University of Manchester Students' Union is to motivate life sciences students to participate in everything ranging from societies through the student newspaper to academic course representation. While life sciences is the smallest faculty (around 1 700 undergraduates, compared to the 15 000 undergraduates in the humanities), that should never mean that life sciences students should not take part. Students involved in the union are almost entirely humanities students, and the few students from different faculties who are involved are often involved due to joining social/liberation groups or religious groups (e.g. LGBT or the Islamic society). It is a credit to these groups and societies that they are able to encourage their members to take an active role in the political process, and they do significant work to inform and educate those (myself included) who are not as intimately aware of the problems minority students face.

Unfortunately, the involvement of biology students is by and large just for this reason. Few life sciences students attend general meetings and the two positions reserved for life sciences students in our most recent elections were both uncontested. I believe the answer to why there is lack of participation is clear - a failure to communicate the relevancy and importance of the students' union. It is slightly ironic considering the huge role biology is increasingly playing in the public sphere, with genetic modification, stem cells and conservation in particular being critical issues where informed biologists should take part in shaping the public debate. I see three pillars which need to be addressed: general meetings, academic representation, and the life sciences society.

The first impression many get of the union is the general meeting: a rather intimidating event which can leave many frustrated at the lack of ownership they feel. If general meetings are to be useful they must work on a principle where any student is able to stand up and contribute. Technically they are able to do so, but arguing politics in front of a huge partisan audience does not lead to good decision-making. The way general meetings are run has to be reviewed and if there is no satisfactory way to run them ensuring a participatory atmosphere they must be scrapped.

Another pillar which needs reviewing is the committee structure of academic representation. Course representatives either do not attend, they do not contribute to the meeting, or they believe (normally incorrectly) their own personal experience is the experience of everyone on their course. Not attending, without a good reason, is letting down the students on the course. It is not just students who are disappointed by this, but the academic staff who value student feedback. Cutbacks driven by University administration at Gilbert HQ mean that the number of academics who are here for the students are dwindling - students must take advantage while they can. Lack of participation from representatives, and representatives who participate without consulting their peers are also hurting the important work they should be doing. They may give false impressions which can exacerbate the problem. Good training at the outset so course representatives are aware of how fundamental the union is to their work will help.

The final pillar, and the one with most potential, is the faculty of life sciences society. At the moment it is purely a social society, which organises a few events each year. While this is no bad thing, as the society is based around a common degree, it can and should take a more unified approach to university life - ideally, the society should be a mini-union. There are many good projects run by students within the faculty, such as the peer-assisted study scheme, the social events, life sciences sports teams, and the academic representation. All four, to different extents, have not grabbed the awareness and interest of life sciences students. Organising these into a single holistic umbrella will encourage fuller participation, the services provided will be better, and will be for the benefit of all.

In conclusion, there are three main issues which need to be tackled in order for life sciences students to take ownership of their union and their university. The initial impression life sciences get of the union is the general meeting, which is frequently hostile and intimidating. This has a knock-on effect leading to apathy in union involvement from life sciences students. The second is the academic representation structure. Many course representatives are not sufficiently informed and do not communicate with their peers, which is to the detriment of both students and academics alike. The third issue is the life sciences society. It has not reached its potential as a society with 1 700 potential members with a wide range of interests. Hosting events is not enough.

The fortunate thing is, all three pillars can be changed.

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