Friday 20 June 2008

The Role of a Union in ministerial training College?

Below is a text a emailed to all students of the Queen's Foundation today.

Student representation in the Queen’s Foundation Community

"You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10: 42 – 45

The purpose of this paper is to begin to explore the way stakeholders in community life work together and how this might change as the college grows. While there is much good to say about communication at Queen’s, there have been issues arising from life together this year that could have been resolved with greater transparency and co-operation.

What is being proposed here is not radical but in line with the practice of most academic institutions in the UK and around the world. It is possible that when the Queen’s community was smaller these formal processes were thought unnecessary. As the college expands and diversifies it would be a shame if we lost sight of one another.

Students and residence at Queen’s rarely stay long but bring a wealth of experience from sectors of work and the voluntary sector that can add to this debate and help us see more clearly. While there are many models of involvement there are two conflicting approaches: communication and participation. A communication-oriented approach assumes that decisions are made and then communicated by staff; any communication by students is in response to decisions made. A participation approach assumes that students and other residents have an invaluable contribution to decision-making and should be an integral part of the process. In other words, in a participatory approach the student-resident body is organised, represented, and recognised in the community.

Any proposal to develop the way student representation works needs to create a shift from a communication approach to active and responsible participation. Decisions arise out of mutuality.

To create accountable platforms for this a formal and constitutive guild is needed. A guild is an ancient European institution, pre-dating unionism and formed the basis of most extra-family support networks in medieval towns. Guilds are formed over a common interest, usually a trade. The primary purpose of a guild is pastoral: to allow members to work together for the betterment of all.

A Queen’s Guild would need to:

  1. Provide a platform for solving problems together
  2. Allow a few students to put proposals to the student body
  3. Include both students affiliated to universities and others to participate
  4. Be inclusive of all non-staff residents
  5. Recognise and respect the role staff members of the community play in decision making
  6. Support students legally if necessary
  7. Be a formational experience for ministerial students

Please notice that offering discounts in cinemas is not a need in the above list. It feels great to have discounts, and the NUS offer these to members. However, an individual may join the NUS and make back her NUS fees in just a few a couple of films or train tickets.

In order to form a guild we will need:

  1. A written constitution (including a decision making policy values)
  2. A list of members and officer roles
  3. A means of fairly electing representatives

It is then up to the guild to:

  1. Consult with staff and governors on how Guild patterns fit with college patterns
  2. Create transparency on the use of the Common Room account as a guild account
  3. Decide who goes to the Staff-student forum
  4. Run its own decision making procedures according to shared values
  5. Hold student-led meetings

Potential means of support:

It is possible that the student guild would want to buy in legal and professional support. Neither the NUS or Amicus would be hugely expensive per head but it is up to us to decide if they offer good value.

  1. The National Union of Students (NUS
  2. Amicus
  3. Curriculum and administrative staff at Queen’s Foundation
  4. Other?

The National Union of Students

The NUS membership may cost up to £600 collectively and offers the following benefits:

  1. Training for student officers
  2. Support in campaigning on some national issues
  3. Consultancy on commercial services
  4. Discount cards
  5. Advice on how to negotiate local discounts for members
  6. A constitutional blue print and help in ‘setting up’ after we pay them


Amicus membership is £10 per year for full time students and around £3 per year for part-time (latter figure unconfirmed) offers the following benefits:

  1. An outside consultant who is a Methodist minister who trained at Queen’s

  2. Help in forming a constitutional relationship before we sign up and after
  3. Legal representation in tribunals and industrial disputes
  4. Continuity for life as Amicus members
  5. A union with a branch dedicated to the specialist needs of Church workers

Queen’s Foundation is a unique and changing place with domestic and international students and staff and other residents. The pattern of the week is complex and does not lend itself easily to communication and accountability. The Governors of Queen’s Foundation will be making decisions over the next few years that will shape the future of Queen’s for decades to come; a guild would be vital to making sure that those decisions take into account the breadth of stakeholder views and values.

What next?

Students will be polled to find out if there is a mandate for change. After which a working party that consults widely will be needed to set up the next step. Because this is all happening so late in the year it is too late for September when students will be asked to informally choose people to be sample ‘representatives’ on the Staff-Student forum and elect people to co-ordinate other responsibilities. While the members chosen for the Staff-student forum are often referred to as ‘representatives’ they are technically a sample of student opinion since there is no transparent means of communication between ‘representatives’ and the wider student-resident body.

Most colleges elect officers to their guild in December. This gives students a chance to get to know one another and how the community works together. It is entirely possible that we could do this in December 2008.