Thoughts on Kent Union Society Management

I’ve recently been Tweeting at Kenny Budd, the current VP for Student Activities at Kent University. I suggested that some improvements could be made to the way the Union handles its societies and he proposed that I drop him an e-mail or meet up with him.

In order to keep it an open discussion I thought I would post my thoughts here to allow Kenny and others to contribute their thoughts and ideas in a written forum.

For those who don’t know me, I am an alumnus of the University of Kent. I graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor’s in microbiology and again in 2001 with a Master’s (conversion) degree in computer science.

During my time at the university I became heavily involved with the Adventure Gaming Society, a fairly unique group that facilitates the introduction of tabletop (board, card, war & roleplaying) gamers to one another and generally supports them in the hobby.

Alumni have always been welcome at the AGS and I have been an active member of the society for the last seventeen years. I’ve been honoured to serve as an unelected (officially, we do actually hold internal elections for several non-core committee positions of which mine is one) committee member for at least a decade of that time.

Along with some of the other alumni who remain members of the AGS (some of whom are now University staff) I have noticed a trend in the way societies are handled by the Union which has gradually eroded the society’s autonomy and made it difficult for the society to do its own thing without having to jump through hoops or deal with red tape.

This is not an attempt to exhaustively list the issues that have irked us over the years but hopefully the following points might inspire some others to make their own issues known so that we can begin a conversation about how it might be possible to improve matters.

Online Membership/Money

We were once able to collect our own membership fees at the Welcome Fair and hand them into the cash office at the end of the day. This had to stop a few years ago, apparently, because of theft carried out by various societies.  I believe the sports societies were mentioned in particular, where this was a particular issue due to the large size of the subs being collected.

Whilst I understand some of the issues involved it is a major nuisance to manage the membership list and subscriptions via the union’s online system.

A lot of people simply refuse to use the online membership system because of concerns over the security of the payment services that have been used and in protest at the scheme.

Whilst it has been possible for them to pay at the SU office it has nonetheless been a nightmare trying to sort out who is and is not a member and to produce our membership cards etc.

Why can’t we collect the money ourselves and maintain our own membership list? If you’re concerned about theft then you could supply sealed boxes with money slots that would enable secure collection or have people wandering around making regular collections of cash on the day to keep the funds in cash boxes low.

Online Elections

This one is particularly fresh in my mind right now. During the last term we proceeded with online elections as mandated by the SU. This followed on from the year before, in which it was mandated by the SU that a Union official must be the returning officer. Prior to that we were entrusted with the ability to hold our own elections.

First of all the election system employed by the union is deeply flawed.

In my experience people are often willing to coast along letting others do the work of keeping the society running. Unless someone is deeply passionate about the society and their role in it, they will only tend to stand for a core position when they realise that nobody at all is standing or someone they think is bad for the society is the only other candidate.

The online voting system did not let us see who was standing prior to the commencement of voting. Worse than that it didn’t let us see how many were standing.

This left us with the very real possibility that we might have had no candidates for one of our core positions, making the transition to next year very difficult indeed.

We also had no ability to elect someone at our AGM as an emergency measure due to a lack of candidates, making the future of the society a lot more vulnerable.

Finally, nobody got any results from our election. Not the current president, not the candidates, nor anybody else to the best of my knowledge. I’m sure I do not need to belabour the point as to why this is unacceptable.

The Constitution

We used to be able to form our own constitution and set our own membership fees, as long as certain ‘boilerplate’ provisions were included in respect of elections.

Now it seems that the Union pressurises each society into complying with the boilerplate constitution in toto, with variations to the constitution frowned upon if not forbidden.

I expect that this largely relates to the workload required in order to review each society’s constitution individually and because it is desirable to maintain consistency over time, but there must be a better way of handling this.

General Bureaucracy

Getting money out of the union, doing anything which isn’t ‘standard’ or generally doing what we do seems to cause trouble for our core committee members, requiring them to negotiate a degree of bureaucracy in order to be able to get things done.

I’m not particularly well versed in the issues as I am not and have never been a core committee member but I’m sure that those who are or who have been core committee members will be pleased to comment on trends in this area.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Kent Union Society Management

  1. Ironically the Union’s desire to avoid theft of subs has led to a situation where associate (non-Student) members’ subs are frequently off the record and provides society treasurers with even greater temptation to steal.

  2. This doesn’t seem to be happening for the societies (yet), but as an alumni I have been basically forced out of UKCMC (mountaineering) sports club by the Union.

    I can understand some of the decisions they have made; priority space on trips and on transport should be given to students as alumni are likely more able to take care of themselves, for example. However, one week I turned up at the Sports Centre and was told by the reception staff I wasn’t allowed in because I wasn’t a student. No warning had been given that this change was coming.

    The Union’s stance on sports clubs now appears to be “This is a student club, for student people!”. The UKCMC committee were more than happy for alumni to be members (it’s quite useful in a sport like climbing to have people who know what they’re doing around!), but when they asked the Union they were told it’s a change of rules and non-students were now not allowed to use Kent facilities as part of a club.

    Of course, I had paid to join the club, and had paid to join the Sports Centre. I could also rent the wall to use outside of club time. However, coming in as part of the club and being an active club member? No chance.

    What the hell?

        1. Given that mostly we use rooms on campus WITH students, I think it would be pretty hard for them to enforce a ban of that ilk in any case. Hopefully they wouldn’t even try, but I’m concerned about the precedent set by the Mountaineering situation.

    1. I agree that the ousting of associate members from activities such as that (where there is no particular financial benefit to the associate member and where the society is actively harmed by the exclusion of experienced alumni) is absolutely shocking and doesn’t seem to be doing anyone any good.

  3. Looking at the items in reverse order (and noting I was on the core committee off this society as a student, and have been non-core ever since graduating in 2003)…

    It’s worth noting that the ‘General Bureaucracy’ element has always been present for interacting with the Union, and while it always feels like it’s harder than it needs to be (either due to new, arbitrary procedures or overworked/poorly trained staff) I can see that there are good reasons why this might be more complex than some believe – there are things that slow down procedures in order to maintain a certain level of protection of societies in terms of avoiding fraud, ensuring safety and various other legal caveats.

    The Constitution is a point that frustrates me no end. Every couple of years the Union demands we supply them with a copy of our constitution. We are often told that we can just get previous constitutions signed off with boilerplate amendments, but the Union invariably then inform us that they have no record of us ever having had a constitution before. I think in the last decade I’ve seen at least 5 of them be sent to the Union, only to have it missing the year after (often much earlier in the year). And then the Union declare that our funds are frozen because we haven’t provided a Constitution.

    To be honest, I can see how a new society should have a few bureaucratic hoops to get through before getting access to funds, but if they are going to have a boilerplate Constitution then the Union should at least state that they will assume societies are abiding by it unless an alternative is provided. Even if the Union loses our customised documents, that at least lets a society keep functioning and getting funding while the bureaucracy is sorted out.

    The online elections I don’t think are a bad idea. It gives people an opportunity to vote when they might not be able to attend an AGM. However, the implementation and compulsory nature of them was a farce. Richard has highlighted some very important points. In addition, the approach also removes the chance for voters to meet the candidates in an AGM capacity. A much better approach would be to allow for an online voting system that is completely managed by the current committee (following training, and overseen by the Union of course) which could remain open until the date of an AGM, and then to allow in person voting at the AGM in addition… with the results being available immediately (potentially before the AGM itself was over).

    If this approach is too much to administer, an entirely offline system would be preferable to the online mess that’s in place at the moment.

    As far as membership fees go, there is the potential when collecting money at the Welcome Fayre for a *lot* of cash to be under one tent, so it makes sense to avoid collecting funds there. Having an online system in place to allow members the option to sign up and pay online is a good idea, if security concerns and problems logging in can be resolved (and some headway has been made on this front) with some consideration for non-student members. However, societies also would benefit from being allowed to collect funds themselves, even if it is banned during the Fayres and focussed on the ‘first meeting’ that every society invariably hosts early in the year. When we used to collect subs in person, our paid membership was regularly 70-100 people before the Fayre was over – we were one of the largest societies on campus. These days I think we’re lucky to hit 30 or 40 in the first term. The level of interest hasn’t dropped – the only real change is how money is collected (and the venue of the Fayre, but that’s another debate entirely).

    The AGS has existed for something like 35 (maybe 40 – we have some records from the 70s) years now – we’ve seen the Union try all sorts of approaches to managing societies, and now more than ever it feels like the societies need to consider trickery and loopholes to manage the Union to actually do things. No one in the AGS seriously believes that this should be the way things happen – but if the Union want societies to trust in their methods and work with them fully, they need to be willing to approach things in a way that helps the societies, rather than the way they think will help the societies.

  4. I would just like a simple one or two click process – rather than a 2 hour mess around with the union systems, which happened last time, apparently i already had a disabled ID and the system could not create another ID when I already had one. I think my name is now something stupid according to the union…. sigh, then as I signed up in term 3 – i’m pretty sure less than 1% of my membership actually went back into the society.

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