Congratulations on becoming a student rep and welcome to the Student Academic Representatives network!
After reading this essential guide, you should be able to know what student representation looks like, how to do it, and who to look for to help you do it. You will also have a better idea of how to lead, enact change, and work with different people at Cambridge.
Roles and Structures of Representation
As a Student Academic Representative at Cambridge you will aim to improve students’ education by representing to the Faculty and University what students want to see improved or changed. The issues on which you represent students may include examination timetabling, student feedback, the design of the curriculum, changes to admissions or Tripos structure, welfare and facilities, and food quality at the site you study and work on.
That said, different Reps have slightly different roles:
Faculty Reps – As the Faculty Rep, you sit on Faculty Board meetings and convey the student voice on the committee. Since the Faculty Board is the highest level of discussions in a Faculty, it is important to communicate with student reps on the Staff-Student Joint Committee or the Staff-Student Consultative Forum (they have different names in different Faculties) and other Reps to see how you can work together as an agenda item moves up through the committees, ending up on the Agenda of the Faculty Board meetings. Usually, there is at the very least one undergraduate rep and one postgraduate rep on each Faculty Board.
School Reps – As a School Rep, you sit on the Council of your School, which is responsible for the financial and strategic leadership of the particular School (Technology, Biological Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Physical Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Arts and Humanities). The Council meets twice a term and is the main decision making body of the School. Most of the Schools also have an Undergraduate Education Committee or equivalent, and a Graduate Committee, to which the UG and PG reps may be invited.
Other types of Reps – Depending on your faculty, you might be a Rep for your department or year, and you might sit on the Student-Staff Joint Committee, the Student-Staff Consultative Forum, or the Learning and Teaching Committee. Regardless, the skills you will need and learn are the same as any other Reps.
The following diagram explains the University’s committee structure in more detail using examples of committees at different levels.
- Make sure you know all the other Reps covering the same constituency as you
- Exchange ideas and coordinate your plans for the year
Being a Successful Rep: The Crash Course
Make yourself known
The first step towards being an effective rep is making sure that the students you represent know who you are and how to approach you. Tell your electorate what you are doing, and actively ask them for their feedback, their comments and ideas.
- Introduce yourself via email or an email list, or the course facebook group.
- Approach your course administrator and ask if they can include your role and contact details in important emails.
- Ask lecturers for a few minutes at the start of a lecture to introduce yourself and any other reps.
- Organise a social event in your Faculty.
Build your networks
A strong network of both other reps and Faculty staff will make your role much easier.
- Make use of CUSU’s training and networking events for reps and use the Student Academic Representatives Facebook group to find out what reps are doing in your own Faculty or School and across the University.
- Meet or stay in close contact with all the year, course, department and faculty reps who represent similar or the same students as you, as well as your School rep. Work together!
- Many committees are followed by informal conversation over coffee and tea - use this time to talk to academics and staff to find your allies and build a rapport with other committee members who may well offer you support.
Do your research
University committees like facts and numbers so try to find out as much as you can about any issue that is brought to you. For example, how widely is an issue felt across the student body? What are possible solutions? Is the University already aware of it?
- Ask for views and feedback via email, a faculty notice board or your course Facebook group. If you don’t have a Facebook group consider making one.
- Run your own survey.
- Organise an open meeting.
- Get in touch with the CUSU Education Officer who will be able to provide you with lots of helpful statistics from national and uni-wide surveys, plus minutes and background information from the University’s senior Education Committees.
Make a strong case
Once you have identified and looked into an issue, you can use your committee(s) and staff networks to bring it to the University’s attention and influence its decision making.
- Make sure to always draw attention to your research and consultation to back up your arguments.
- Emphasise the fact that you are representing a whole constituency and not just yourself. Avoid using phrases like “In my view” or “As far as I know” and instead show that students agree with you using your data.
- Read the committees section of this guide which will give you more information on how committees work and how to use them effectively.
Close the feedback loop
An important part of effectively representing students is to make sure they know about what you’re doing. If you’ve helped make a change based on students’ input, let them know about it and remain in a constant feedback loop with the students you represent.
- Send a termly update to your students letting them know what you have been up to, what is happening within their course or faculty, and reminding them that you’re available.
- If a student consultation has had a direct effect, let the participants know! For example, if you consulted students via a Facebook group, update them on the outcome of their comments.
- Let the CUSU Education Officer know about any wins and plans. We will include them in our weekly uni-wide bulletin, highlight them in our rep newsletter and celebrate them throughout the year.
- Send an email to students to introduce yourself.
- Save the date for the CUSU Rep training and networking.
- Join the Facebook group.
- Take a look at the Resources section.
Why are committees important?
Cambridge’s unique non-hierarchical governance structure means that no one person has enough power to make any sweeping change. Decisions are made at committee meetings, which then feed up to other committees. This means that change, when won, is usually slow, small, and careful. But this also means that what people say and do at committee meetings is hugely significant, and that you are in a unique position to affect change as a student. Think about Faculty Board, Council of the School, and other Committee meetings in terms of three stages: Before, During, and After.
Before the meeting
Make sure you’re prepared. You will be sent an agenda and the papers for the meeting to read over. Think about how their contents might affect the students you represent. Seek feedback from fellow students and do your research so you can present a strong case.
Beyond commenting on agenda points and representing the student voice in discussions, you can also present papers to the committee. Papers are proposals presented to a committee for approval or acknowledgement. See our How to Write A Paper guide before submitting your own.
Committee Secretaries are possibly your most important allies: they know everyone and usually have a good sense of how a discussion will go. Most Secretaries will be happy to meet with you before committee sessions to go through the agenda and provide background information. Definitely get in touch with the Secretary before submitting a paper or raising an important issue. They can give you an overview of whether it has been discussed before and what the outcome was.
During the meeting
Sit where the Chair can see you so that you can easily indicate when you want to speak. Voice your agreement and offer support, as well as raise constructive criticism or demand student involvement. Your opinions and judgments are as valid as any other members’ of the Committee, so if you have something important to say, speak confidently.
Take note of who else is on the committee, what they are saying and how they might be useful to seek advice and support from in the future.
After the meeting
Introduce yourself to people you might want to work with in the future. Take good notes, keeping in mind that information will be handed over to a new Rep. Debrief the meeting with other reps or with other people in the know. Close the feedback loop by informing students about outcomes or decisions.
- Put all the dates for committee meetings into your calendar.
- Introduce yourself to the Secretary and arrange an introductory briefing, if possible.
How To Get Involved: Events and Responsibilities
Throughout the year, there are lots of opportunities for you to get involved in projects and events. Some of these are compulsory, others just provide extra opportunities to contribute, make your voice heard and have fun.
Student Reps Training - October & November
This essential introductory training will teach you all you need to know about being a student rep and allow you to meet the reps you will be working with throughout the year. Don’t miss it!
University Committees - throughout the year
Committees will usually take place at least once a term and last between one to three hours.
CUSU Council - every other Monday throughout term time
Council is CUSU’s governing body where student representatives from JCRs, autonomous campaigns and Faculties decide on CUSU’s policy and aims. One rep per Faculty has a vote at Council - use it! You can also propose motions to Council, for example if you want formal CUSU support or funding for a campaign, or mandate CUSU to lobby the University on a certain issue. Contact the CUSU Education Officer for more information.
CUSU Conference - January
A free training and development conference available to all affiliated J/MCR committees, autonomous campaigns and Student Reps, and a great opportunity to meet other student volunteers.
Alternative Prospectus and Access - throughout the year
The Cambridge Alternative Prospectus, written by current students, provides potential applicants with an inside view of Cambridge life. You can help by contributing to the prospectus’ subject pages. CUSU is also always looking for new ‘CambTweeters’ - current students who run anonymous Twitter accounts about their day-to-day life at Cambridge. Contact Eireann, the CUSU Access Officer, for more information.
Student Led Teaching Awards - May
CUSU’s Student Led Teaching Awards exist to celebrate excellent teaching, supervision and student support throughout the University. Reps can help by advertising the awards to their courses and faculties. You can also apply to be a part of the STLA judging panel which is chosen in January. Get in touch with the CUSU Education Officer if you’re interested!
Handover - June to September
All Reps are asked to put together a short handover document for their successors, covering helpful tips and ongoing projects.
CUSU Garden Party - June
Our May Week Garden Party celebrates student volunteers, and of course you’re invited!
- Put important dates into your calendar.
- Keep your eyes open for more opportunities!
Which issues may come up?
Teaching and Learning – Course content and structure. Teaching methods. Making handouts or lecture notes available online. Access to readings or software. Issues concerning placements. Training for using specific programmes or software.
Assessment and feedback – Lack of prompt/detailed feedback on work. Inconsistent feedback. Lack of guidance on exams. Proposed changes to marking.
Supervisions (PG and UG) – Contact hours with a supervisor. Quality of supervisions. Method of supervision arrangements.
Resources – Teaching areas or library/IT provision. Study skills provision. Lack of information about referencing and avoiding plagiarism. Access to facilities after hours.
Welfare – Common room provision. Food quality and prices at the site of Faculty. Hidden costs for mandatory study abroad programmes or field trips. Accommodating disability or religious observance.
Equality and diversity – How well are minority ethnic groups, women, and people with disabilities represented in your Faculty? Are their needs considered or discussed?
Working with CUSU
CUSU is working on several projects this year which affect students across Faculties and courses. We will probably ask you for information or help in order to better understand situations in different Faculties, and always really appreciate your input.
Our priorites this year include:
- Accessible Teaching
- Diverse curricula
- the Gender Attainment Gap
- Feedback on Assessed Work
- Study Skills Provision
- Access and Widening Participation
If you are particularly interested in any of the above, or want to propose a different priority for CUSU to work on, please get in touch with the Education Officer.
Know your boundaries
Throughout the year, students may approach you with personal or welfare issues. You can certainly think about how individual problems with mental health or unmanageable workload, for example, may point towards wider issues within your department. However, you should not attempt to support students through personal crises. CUSU and the University provide a number of professional and qualified services which you can point students towards:
Students’ Unions’ Advice Service
Contact for: non-directive and impartial advice on all aspects of work and life at Cambridge
University Counseling Service
Contact for: mental health support
Disability Resource Centre
Contact for: support and information for disabled students, help with diagnoses
- Think about which issues might be relevant to your role and your constituent students, and how you might address them.
CUSU Education Officer
17 Mill Ln, CB2 1RX
Faculty and Course Administrators
Your main staff contacts. Will be in touch with you after elections.
Student Unions' Advice Service (SUAS)
Your network of Student Reps
Student Academic Representatives on Facebook
Join the mailing list
Have a great year!
Enjoy your role, make a difference, and always ask for help if you need it :)