Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home CommentColumnists Five takeaways from a meeting with the Guild CEO

Five takeaways from a meeting with the Guild CEO

The Senior Editors give their five takeaways from their meeting with the Guild CEO, a relatively unknown figure among students with quite a bit of sway.
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Written by
Guild CEO, Allison Chambers (photo from Guild ‘Meet the Team’)

With over twenty students spoken to by Exeposé claiming to not know a Guild CEO exists, we reached out to the Guild with a few questions: Why does an unelected Guild CEO in a Students’ Union exist? What is their power when it comes to Guild decision-making? And why are so many students unaware of the CEO’s existence? Following that email, the Guild invited Exeposé to their offices for a conversation with the CEO, Alison Chambers. Here are the Senior Editor’s five takeaways:

1. Elected representatives may share responsibility, but who makes the final decision in proceedings remains unclear.

The structure of the Guild has changed over the past few years. After a democracy review in 2022 that saw the abolishment of the Guild Council, what was once a second body to student trustees, its replacement is now the advisory board. The CEO explained that these branches of trustees equally divide power: elected officers, current students, and experts or lawyers. 

When it comes to representing students, the forward-facing officers (the ones we see on screens all around campus) are those who were elected into their roles. Emma de Saram is the president, Alex Stanley is the Education Officer, Rhys Wallis oversees societies and employability, Mia Robillard-Day is the officer for Communities and Equality, and Pip Shaw is the Student Living Officer. The AU is separate from the Guild and is run by the University.

Current students are made up of the board of trustees–a board of five current students (who are appointed by sitting trustees), the elected student officers, and five lay trustees.

Experts are lay trustees. These trustees are appointed by the board and the Guild Council from the local community. Senior business development specialists, EDI specialists, and experienced solicitors currently hold these positions. These branches of trustees are said to inform the way the Senior Staff enacts strategy.

Senior staff are full-time staff of the Guild: the CEO, Head of Student Engagement, Marketing, et cetera fall within this remit. There are 44 members of full-time staff within the Guild. They oversee most of student life including societies, events, representation, campaigning, and advice. The Senior Leadership Team (SLT) in particular, are said to be the mentors for the full-time officers. 

In research done by Exeposé, Chambers is paid within the scale of £67,000 to £72,000 per year. Elected representatives are paid less than a third of that at around £25,000 per year.

It is the act of “mentoring” that blurs the clarity of who is truly responsible for setting the agenda and maintaining direct student change year after year. Where many believe money equates to value, the paychecks of the elected representatives and the Guild CEO could be telling. In research done by Exeposé pulling from the annual returns report put out in July, Chambers is paid within the scale of £60,000-£70,000. Sometimes displaying more than that at £67,000 to £72,000 per year. Elected representatives are paid less than a third of that at around £25,000 per year. When asked about this, the CEO stated that these paychecks are enough to have student representatives be able to do their full-time jobs for a full year whilst in Exeter. She made an analogy: if she tries to burn down the Guild it would cause a complete collapse of the Guild system, whereas if elected representatives try to, it would not. For us, it calls the question: if elected representatives, the “face” of the Guild, try to burn down the organization, why wouldn’t the entire system collapse?

2. The Guild needs far more engagement with students which must start with total transparency.

Chambers knows that there needs to be more engagement. In impact reports on student participation, only 36% of the student population has engaged with the Guild. The largest problem that the Guild seems to grapple with is how to accurately work for all students when less than half participate. Election turnout continues to be abysmal with the last election garnering only 13 per cent of the student population, many of which voted for the perceived joke pirate candidate. 

Exeter aside, voter turnout in student unions has been low nationally. 

Chambers tells us “At the time of the elections, I noticed other student unions having super high voter turnout. So, the first thing I did was call them up and ask how they did it”. As she found out, other unions were giving a slice of pizza to each student who voted. “It’s a good idea” she continues, “but, it just doesn’t seem like a solution. I want students to care about democracy more than pizza.”

As happy as we were to be able to enter the offices, meet people, and have a look around, we acknowledge that only a few students have gotten to see the inside. Even fewer, have gotten to meet every member of staff who works behind the scenes.

The Guild has tried improving engagement through more drop-in events, open structures, and data or insight. Yet, as we see it, none of this matters unless the Guild is completely open to students on how it runs, how it makes decisions, and everyone who is within it. As happy as we were to be able to enter the offices, meet people, and have a look around, we acknowledge that only a few students have gotten to see the inside. Even fewer have gotten to meet every member of staff who works behind the scenes. As a charity, the Guild does not take Freedom of Information requests, which adds to the clouded mystique of its operations. And, recent backlash over undemocratic ways of running the AGM, has sparked even more criticism of the transparency of its operations.

3. The Guild and the University work very closely together.

They have “an excellent relationship with the University,” says Chambers. The merits of having a strong and collaborative relationship with the University are not necessarily a bad thing. It could mean larger grants that give monetary benefits to student support services. It also means having a respectful relationship that could be organised to allow for change. Alternatively, it could mean that the Guild has a reliance on appeasing the University that gives them grant money to operate. This then questions: how is the Guild accounting for student voices when they still must appease the university? 

When asked if their strong partnership impacts the way they create strategies, Chambers believes it not to be the case. Yet, we are questioning this statement. 

One would think that the point of a Students’ Union is to work for the student voices that rally against University proceedings. Instead, the University gives the Guild a score on how influential the Guild has been. Enabler #1 is part of the Guild’s three-year strategy to help the organization achieve their vision. On this, the Guild says that “stakeholders will be asked to give a score and provide feedback on how effective the Guild is as a partner.” They add that “It’s important to us to measure partnership with the University as it’s a key way we influence and make change.”

The score is measured by the Guild conversing with senior management at the University. Accordingly, the Guild says that the information is made public once the data is collected.

It is unclear how long this has been a part of the Guild. More pressingly, how long the university’s score has influenced how change is made?

4. Elected representatives must be loyal to the Guild.

When the full-time officers first arrive in the office, they are often quick to critique Guild systems that often spur their initial bid to be an officer. To this, Chambers reflects: “When elected representatives first come to the Guild, I brief them on the fact that they may have come to the Guild with a vision to make a lot of different changes and voice a lot of critiques for change within our organization. But, now that they are here, I let them know that they are now the Guild. They now represent us so if they voice criticism it’s a reflection of them.”

Where student officers used to write manifestos to set out what they intended to do once they got elected, it now seems as though it acknowledges that the election doesn’t elect policy change, just new officers.

Constitutionally, the Guild officers do have a right to campaign to change Guild policy, but perhaps this is thrown under the radar, especially considering Chambers’ reflection. Indeed, manifestos used to be a large part of elections. In their manifestos, officers would explain the policy changes that they hoped to make. One anonymous source close to the Guild has noted to Exeposé that they believed that the abolishment of manifestos represents the abolishment of officers able to make policy changes. Where student officers used to write manifestos to set out what they intended to do once they got elected, it now seems as though it acknowledges that the election doesn’t elect policy change, just new officers.

The same anonymous source adds that trustees can not voice opinions on the Guild to fellow students. Instead, they must voice any disagreements with the Guild.

In the Guild’s Democratic review, which was undergone by the Democratic Society in Europe and focuses on overhauling structures to be more democratic, it writes: “The Guild works for students – therefore students will hold them to account through the Guild AGM, the Guild Student Advisory Board (which [has] replaced the Guild Council), and by engaging with a variety of opportunities to steer and scrutinise officer activity.” 

Whilst in theory scrutinising officer activity makes sense, it does not seem to be the correct approach to the system that the Guild abides by. If real change can not be made by officers, then scrutinizing their work does not seem conducive to change. The approach at play in the Democratic Review explains that instead of stating that the Guild enacts policy, its role should be to help students who want to advocate for policy change. Yet, many societies and students alike, question how supportive the Guild is in actually delivering on this. According to one anonymous student, their initiative took months to be established, and once they eventually were, they had to be largely compromised to fit in with the Guild’s structures. That’s not to mention the twenty anonymous students’ critiques of the red tape that continues to make quick, sustained, and direct change difficult to achieve.

We wonder: if full-time officers can’t create change, then what’s the point of the elections?

5. It is quite larger than we thought.

What we were most surprised about was how large the organization is. The Guild has several offices and takes up the entirety of the mysterious top floor of the Devonshire House Building. Conference rooms, smaller meeting rooms, break rooms, and an abundance of workers populate the upstairs. It is quite exceptional to have such a large organization dedicated to students. With more students being accepted to the University, Guild support services have been growing to accommodate this, which has made way for the refurbishment of the Guild spaces.

Chambers mentions that this is to shift from a 1970s framework on which Student Unions were built. The student body was significantly different in this era, meaning that this outdated structure does not align with today’s universities. More international students, mature students, estranged students, students of different ethnicities, classes, and genders, and just the sheer volume of students having skyrocketed all account for the need for more representative Student Union structures. Subsequently, the growth of the Student Guild, both in physical spaces and staffing, can be attributed to the need to accommodate the growing population of students.

Part of what the Guild has changed to work on hearing more student voices is working on a system of surveys. Ideally, a large proportion of students fill them out, and then the Union adheres to those to enact change. Part of the reason why elected representatives can’t create policy is because they are supposed to work to strengthen the ideals that students voice in the surveys.

Yet, the Guild is still internally developing what questions they should ask students. They are still responsible for structuring how these surveys ask students certain questions that students may not even be asking in the first place. The transition to Welcome Week over Freshers’ Week, which faced great disagreement among students, was possibly reflective of a small proportion of students who took the survey. Perhaps that’s why elected representatives should enact policy as they can voice concern that students are truly critiquing.

Where the Guild continues to make changes such as the recent rebrand, the changing of freshers’ week, and the complete refurbishment of facilities, we still find ourselves with the same question year after year: are these changes what we asked for?

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