Student elections: why should you stand?

Jemma Smith, Editor
October, 2023

Becoming a students' union officer allows you to bring about the change you'd like to see in your institution. It also looks impressive on your CV. Learn more about running in a student election

Participating in an extra-curricular activity while at university has substantial career benefits; yet graduate employers often look for something more. Assuming a more active role within the students' union, or its numerous societies and sports clubs, is a good idea.

There are many elected roles available, with some requiring greater involvement than others. While societies and sports clubs host voluntary elected positions to run alongside your studies, the students' union offers numerous paid, full-time sabbatical roles - such as president, vice-president, education officer and welfare officer- that can be held for one or two years.

Learn more about the importance of extra-curricular activities.

'I decided to run for election as I had been the men's rep on our students' council for two years and had developed a passion for student voice and welfare,' says Joe Bigland, VP welfare officer at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) Students' Union (SU).

'Additionally, the democratic processes in the union showed me the influence that officers and student reps can have and I built a manifesto that I thought could harness that influence and help students.'

If you're considering running in a student election, Joe highlights some of the reasons you should give it a go:

  • It's a great way to give back to a union that has looked after your interests at university.
  • It's a rewarding job as you get to see a change you've implemented and think 'I did that'.
  • You get the opportunity to create change in huge institutions for years to come and make life better for future students.

Here are a few things you should bear in mind before kicking off your campaign…

The advantages of standing in a student election

First and foremost, elected students have the ability to drive change. By leading campaigns or organising events, you can steer the direction of your society, sports club or wider university, and advance the causes that you and your peers believe in.

Involvement extends to wider university matters for those in more senior roles. Sabbatical officers sit on major committees with the vice-chancellor and the senior team - providing an invaluable insight into the higher education sector. You really get to understand what the university does and see how it works from the inside 

Taking a more active role also allows you to interact with students from a variety of  backgrounds and this can result in strong, long-lasting friendships. You'll work with a diverse range of people, including academics, university senior management, university staff, union staff, the wider community and importantly, the eclectic make-up of students.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of becoming involved in your students' union is boosting your employability. The experience you'll gain will look great on your CV and you'll be able to use relevant examples from your time in office to back up skills in your cover letter and at interview. Tasks such as managing budgets and running effective meetings develop qualities such as drive, leadership, influencing, multitasking, organising, communication and negotiating. Having to make decisions that may be unpopular with your peers also enhances resilience.

'The biggest advantage is the experience you get on the job,' agrees Joe. 'Not many people can say that they became a trustee of a large charity and a company director while taking a gap year or having recently graduated.

In the three months I've spent in this job, I've gained professional experience in public speaking, events planning, policy review, problem solving and presentation,' adds Joe.

The disadvantages

There are, however, some drawbacks; most notably the fact that increased involvement results in increased time pressures. For the more demanding roles you must be willing to sacrifice much of your time, which may impact upon your studies or social life. Discover how to balance work and study.

Joe highlights the demands of the job. 'I won't sugar coat it, there can be quite a few challenges. The stress is a big factor, going from being a student to having strategic input in an entire organisation can be pretty daunting.

At UCLan, SU officers have to attend student casework meetings, things like student complaints and academic misconduct, which means that we sit on panels that decide whether or not students get expelled for breaking the rules. That can be hard to do, especially as we were students ourselves not too long ago.

It's also easy for your social life to revolve around the SU. The issues that you face day-to-day can dominate conversations outside of work, and all of these factors result in you thinking about the SU 24/7. All officers have to protect their free time and ensure they have some time away.'

How to win a student election

The best way to win a student election is to follow the advice of previous successful candidates. But remember that the more demanding roles will require greater preparation.

  • Believe that you're the best person for the job - Have confidence in yourself and truly believe in what you stand for if you want people to vote for you. If you don't believe you can win, nobody else will.
  • Organise your manifesto - Know in advance what your campaign will focus on. This involves combining your personal beliefs with those of your peers. Figure out your 'brand' and capitalise on your unique selling points. Keep the message simple and recruit a good support team.
  • Practice public speaking - You'll be doing plenty of this before and during your tenure, so it's important to hone your communication abilities. Take up every opportunity to practice speaking in front of an audience - be this through course assignments, work presentations or hobbies.
  • Be visible - If you want to win an election you need to be recognisable to student voters. You won't win by just printing your face on a few posters. Get out and about on campus - chat to students face-to-face.
  • Don't over promise - Be realistic and honest throughout your campaign and don't make promises you can't keep. If you need a bit of guidance on what's plausible speak to current union officers.

With that in mind, in Joe's experience it's all about how much you care. 'If students can see how driven you are to improve their experience, then they'll vote for you.

I also think it's important to not just do social media campaigns, sometimes in-person canvassing can be very effective. It depends on the culture and layout of your university, but make sure you consider all options to figure out what might work best.'

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