Mike Hughes goes a few decades into his murky past to recall life as a student – and asks Chris Bateman, chief executive of York St John Students’ Union, to bring him up to date.
It would be about 1978 in Preston, and Steppenwolf was playing Born to be Wild on the pub ‘jukebox’ (with real vinyl records!). educationThat, briefly, is my entire memory of student life on the National Council for the Training of Journalists one year pre-entry course at the town’s polytechnic. It was certainly more of a social experience than an educational leap, but it was important in starting to build the post-school version of me.
At York St John University, everything is changing – from the VC to the SU. Prof Karen Stanton is now in charge with the first 175 years of history to build on and a restructure of schools and faculties, and as Chris Bateman shows me the new Students’ Union building at the city centre campus, it is clear that the way prospective young entrepreneurs are nurtured and supported is unrecognisable from my days at Livesey House – or across the road from it....
With 7,000 potential entrepreneurs to look after – a record 2,000 of them arriving for Freshers Week – and a turnover topping £1m, the days when his job as chief executive of York St John Students’ Union might just have been making sure the bitter was on and the minibus had been booked are long gone.
“The professionalisation of the role started about 20 years ago when the union started moving into commercial services because we were able to deliver things with best value for the students but also still make a bottom line surplus to plough back into the activities,” he explains.
“About five or six years ago students’ unions started to incorporate as charities because, apart from the 1994 Education Act, there was very little wording around what constituted a students’ union – apart from the fact that it had to exist.
“To be able to show that we had good governance, in 2010 we became a charity which meant a structure, a constitution, a board of trustees and much more transparency.
“It is a lot like Parliament and being the civil servant to the politicians in that we are the continuity for strategic planning purposes and support and advise officers who help the students, through nine chairs of school that we elect and who then feed into full-time sabattical officers.”
Our talk is well timed, as Chris - who has been in the role for four years after two as the Commercial Services Manager - has just got the keys to the new SU building, a conversion of a building that housed art department studios, which will be linked by a glass atrium to two former residential blocks now unrecognisable after a lot of building work. The development has cost £2.5m, which is an unimaginable multiple of what Preston Poly would think was a worthwhile investment in the Class of ’78.
“To me it is the difference between being CEO of a private limited company and being chief exec of a charity. Rather than just generate cash to pay out dividends, you are working for those 7,000 students and you can see the return right in front of you from what you deliver. The other very rewarding thing is that the members of the charity are also your market research – they will tell you what they want and you are duty bound to deliver that and keep them satisfied.
“You only need to look at our strategic plan to see that what they want is to be part of a community and to be supported throughout their education experience, whether that is an issue about staff numbers or library resources.
“If these concerns are raised the first thing we do at the SU is make sure we don’t go to the university to pass on problems, we go with solutions which I think is a sign of the mature relationship we have. We don’t lobby, we meet, discuss – sometimes criticise – and resolve because it is recognised that we are the best voice and point of interaction and are more likely to get an open, honest and transparent opinion of what the issue might be.”
He adds “Of the £1m we turn round as a charity, half comes from the university so we have a ‘critical friend’ relationship with our biggest funder, so we have to balance that one off whole, realising that the funding doesn’t mean we always have to do what the university asks,” explains Chris. “We have to be conscious of how we respond to students’ needs when they might not be the first priority of the university, so a key part of my role is relationship management, which the sabbaticals lead on in terms of the student-facing perspective and then they and I are the liaison point with senior management.”
Of course it wasn’t too many years ago that he was on the other side of that student-facing perspective - but not at YSJ. “I came to York in 2001, but to study at York University – which I now keep relatively quiet about! But as a student I used to go to the York St John student nights, so probably interacted more with these students because they were more my type of person, more down-to-earth.
“I had originally come to the city on a school trip and there was a string quartet busking in the street and I thought ‘this is the sort of place I want to live’. Then when it came to choosing universities, I settled here.
“I wasn’t that involved in union activities although I was one of the founding members of the York University Wine Society, which is now part of my history as a student. I worked hard, and had to take two or three jobs while I was there to pay my way. One of those jobs was working in clubs, so I fell into that when I left York and worked for eight years for what was then Luminar, ending up managing four venues around the North of England.
“Then I suppose it was a bit of a lifestyle choice – there comes a time when it is right to settle down and find an occupation that is more rewarding and more suited to your life.
“Part of that reward comes from a lot of personal development we are there to help with, so when we looked at our bill for design work, instead we hired some design students for a good wage and it is now all done in-house. Also, we run a licensed bar, a coffee lounge and a venue and we employ students to help run them.
“But while it is very satisfying to offer students a job for £100 or £150 a week, we will always make sure it doesn’t impact negatively on their studies. We don’t want them failing modules because they have been working four nights a week at the bar.
“This is also about professional skills and employability, with our aspiration that students’ who become highly involved with the student union will be more employable when they graduate. The journey to that is not only that we employ them, but also all the voluntary things they can get involved with. Things like sports teams and societies don’t just exist out of magic, there is a lot of background work in governance to make sure there are democratic structures in there, with chairs, vice-chairs and treasurers.
“They are all trained and equipped with the skills they need by our own staff and then they will be armed and equipped with what they should be putting on their CVs so that they are not just students with degrees, but have hands-on experience you can tangibly demonstrate.
“When we were at school (said the 33-year-old) you got the crimson folder that was your
record of achievement and references from your teachers and your GCSE certificates, well now we have the Higher Education Achievement Record.
“In order to populate your record, you can add credits or badges, through sports and society committees or through being trained course reps which we have for every year, with about 225 students volunteering to represent their peers.
“Then, of course, we lose our student staff every few years when they graduate. But that is brilliant because one of the joys of having elected officers to work with is that they are always full of ideas about positive changes to make students’ lives better. It’s not like a marketing department you might have in a private company that runs out of ideas after five years – it is constantly changing here.”
The unfair challenge this approach throws out is how valuable it is to see both sides of your ‘workforce’, on duty and off. With the campus model this is more achievable because the person looking after your office environment is also one of the providers for the spare leisure time you have.
But being able to work with those two sides of a personality can be hugely beneficial in understanding the whole person. It can be a risky place as well if the lines become blurred, but if the relationship can be managed well, then everyone wins.
It is interesting to ponder how many Yorkshire entrepreneurs have attracted investment and support because of their character ahead of their qualifications. So the awareness and skill to build personality in young people is a vital cog in the education machine, particularly if you are going to strike out on your own rather than join a workforce.
Perhaps that suggests why some of the ‘cooler’ more liberated office spaces pay off for some companies. I have seen offices that allow ping pong tables, climbing walls, hoverboards and even a meeting room that converts into a squash court, and they are full of happy and loyal staff.
The contentment level at the university has led to a silver Investors in People award which was an aim in the last strategic plan back in 2014, as part of his focus on personal development as well as academic support. The list of other ‘shiny badge’ achievements is impressive, from increasing employee engagement from 87% in 2013 to 92% in 2015, to getting the YSJ SU ranked 23rd in the UK in 2015 for student satisfaction, winning NUS Green Impact Awards from 2012 to 2015 for an ethically sound practice and doubling block grant funding from the university from £230,000 in 2011 to £483,000 in 2015.
But there is always room to learn and Chris is taking that a step further soon by going back into the classroom by taking a distance-learning Masters in Leading Innovation and Change at YSJ. “I wanted to go back to studying for a number of years because I like the concept of continual improvement and I am conscious that the world is ever-changing, so I will do everything I can to keep up with it. It’s like I am back in The Matrix, seeing the world in codes and numbers through the theories I am now starting to re-learn.
“In five years, I would like to think I would still be in the same sector, because in this job I am like a child in a sweetshop, there is so much more than just a bar, or an advice centre or a representative structure. It is all of that and what has driven me is that I just like to be involved in everything.
“But I work on a 3-5-7 rule. Three years is too short to move on because you haven’t learnt everything or built up a history. Five is when you start to think what that next step might look like and seven might be a move to something bigger.”
Outside the office, family life is the balance for Chris. He married Leanne (“Mrs Chief Exec”) in 2012 and has three-year old Harvey (“Deputy Chief Exec”) and another child on the way in November. But that isn’t quite enough, of course. As well as the Masters, Chris is also an independent member of the Audit & Governance Committee at City of York Council, and the chairman of his village’s pre-school group.
“I am very much a believer in family and work, not necessarily mixing the two, but I like them to come in once a month and remind people that we all have families and private lives. Not to blur the two, but as a gentle reminder that it is not all about work. You need to come in with your game face on when it is needed, and then go home and enjoy your other life.
“Every day is different. I can plan a day in half-hour windows, with meetings, phone calls or writing, but I can’t remember the last day it actually went to plan – and I’m the guy who sits here and tells you about the importance of planning. But if you don’t plan your time, you can’t re-plan it.”