‘The best and worst job in the world’

Jonathan Holmes, liberation officer at Lincoln SU from 2010 to 11, gives his perspective and advice to the candidates running in the elections.

“Welcome to the best job in the world, and the worst job in the world”.

That’s the first thing I remember from my SU training going and it was right. Throughout the next ten months I went on a steep learning curve – and whilst I was only a part time officer I really got to see what goes on in the office.


Jonathan Holmes spent a year as liberation officer of Lincoln SU. Photo: Jamie Freshwater
As this year’s election kicks off once again and I find myself leaving university, I feel I should impart some wisdom that I learnt during my time in the SU. It really is a job like no other. The hours are long, but the staff are wonderful and you do have some really fun experiences.

I was glad that I could leave the office whenever I wanted as my time there was voluntary. But for many sabbatical officers, the job consumes their life completely – if they are motivated enough to make serious change. You keep working until projects are finished, which means putting in the hours and keeping your commitment.

The president has a difficult juggling act. As well as being the public face of the university, you represent the entire student body to the vice-chancellor, the board of governors, the board of trustees, the media, the police, the local council – and on top of that you have your own priorities as well.

Looking at a lot of the manifestos, I believe that a lot of candidates have failed to see the bigger picture, or consider budgetary restrictions. Promising longer library opening hours is great, but that’s not likely without cutting back on other services.

Promise communication all you want, but the unfortunate truth is that the vast population of students are largely uninterested with what the union is up to. They use sporting facilities, the library or the Engine Shed without realising that the union has a say in all of them. Then the president has to deal with an inbox full of emails each day meaning that it’s hard to leave your desk to communicate with students – unless you have a meeting with a university official.

One of the most important things I learned is that you cannot please everybody all of the time. Already some candidates haven’t responded well to criticism when talking to me – and fair enough.

But as president, imagine that criticism on a scale multiplied by a few thousand. Your face will be on every flyer, every prospectus and every wall chart given out at freshers’ week. Everyone will know who you are, and most will have an opinion on you. Why? Because you are the public figure. You are seen to be in charge. You speak to the media. You cannot spend time trying to make everyone happy, because the realistic truth is that it is impossible.

Change in the SU happens rather slowly. A lot of my time there was spent hearing “Let’s start a conversation about X”, and this would run for six weeks resulting some small outcome. Officers have to be realistic in what they can achieve, and this is something learnt the hard way.

When I was there, most staff had too much work and large projects took a long time as people were booked up for months in advance. It’s very easy once you get in a routine to lose sight of your manifesto and simply “keep things running”, answering the flow of emails, making sure regular events happen as they should and more.

The union performs a vital role in the university system, whatever that role may be. The pressure to perform and the stress will be immense – but those candidates who are embarking on this journey now and the eventual winners will have an amazing experience.

You will change people’s lives, meet new friends and learn a lot about yourself. From the big things like organising Engine Shed events and seeing thousands of people turn up, right down to being thanked for lobbying for better chairs in the Riseholme Bar – this is the sort of thing that being an officer is all about.

It’s very easy for us as students to criticise that change isn’t happening, but I believe that unless you see what really goes on in that office then it’s hard to say anything at all – because the job really is a thankless one, and requires a lot of personal sacrifice.

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