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Tao Warburton

President of Bucks Students’ Union, 2019-20

Tao Warburton led the Sabbatical team at Bucks Students’ Union 2019-20, representing over 8,500 students across the University and making their voice heard.

During her tenure, Bucks Student Union came third in the 2019-20 NSS survey, and was nominated for the What Uni Student Choice awards for best supporting students and helping them to enjoy student life whilst at university.

What do being true to yourself, stepping out of your comfort zone and getting stuck in all have in common?

Tao Warburton. Tao is the former President at Bucks New University, leading the Students’ Union (SU) to being shortlisted for the What Uni Student Choice Awards. Earlier this year, Tao talked to Louise about what it’s like to step into a university leadership role, how Bucks is (successfully) always looking to do more for students and what stepping out of your comfort zone can do for your confidence.

You don’t have to be confident to be a student leader; you just have to be engaged.”

Louise It’s lovely to meet you Tao. Could you tell me about your life before becoming SU President at Bucks New University?

Tao Sure, so I’m from Manchester born and bred. Growing up I was really into sports, music and hanging out with people, which is why I think I like this job so much because I’m around people all the time. I love to read too. My mum always had a book in her hand when we were on holiday so I guess this rubbed off on me. And before I became President I studied Criminology, which was definitely different to what I expected but it was really interesting and I enjoyed it.

Louise How did you come to run for President of the Student Union?

Tao It was actually the previous Sabbatical team that suggested I go for it. The last President said to me, ‘I’m going to be surprised if you don’t run for something’, so that got my mind ticking. Then I read about it, did my research and here I am today.

Louise How did you feel starting the role and adjusting to a leadership position?

When I’d be in meetings with the Vice Chancellor and others and they would turn to me and say, ‘What’s your opinion on the situation?’ I’d think ‘Oh jeez what do I think?’.”

Tao I’ve always been an outgoing person and I was captain of my school’s hockey team as well as at university, so the leadership side came quite naturally, but it definitely felt daunting at the start. There was a lot of lingo that I didn’t understand so I couldn’t fully give my opinion. And when I’d be in meetings with the Vice Chancellor and others and they would turn to me and say, ‘What’s your opinion on the situation?’ I’d think ‘Oh jeez what do I think?’. But this is one of the best things about being President, because you realise you don’t need to be nervous because of a job title, and they’re just nice, normal people and they actually listen to what you have to say.

Louise Have you learnt more about yourself being President?

Tao I realised I can be very critical of myself. One of the hardest things for me is public speaking and I’ve had to give quite a few speeches and do presentations at open days and stuff, which I’m fine with now, but at the start I kept on messing up and when this happened I would dwell on it and that would make it worse. But it’s not the role or speaking that’s the hard part, I think it’s me being critical about what I can do better. But I love new challenges and although this job has made me feel so out of my comfort zone it’s definitely made me more confident.

Louise Thanks for sharing that Tao, it’s really honest. Thinking about your time as President, what’s been your driver?

What can I do that’s different?

Tao We’ve had Presidents that have been really good, so stepping into those shoes I was like, ‘What can I do that’s different?’. For me, I think it’s about supporting each student that comes into my office. It’s just being that person to listen to them because I feel like if you’re listened to, and when someone feels like they’ve said what’s on their mind and now it’s out there, they don’t have to worry about it as much anymore. And then I have the power to either take that up to the Vice Chancellor or to keep it confidential if they want. I’m also quite stubborn, so I’m also really driven by getting stuff done.

Louise This year, Bucks was shortlisted for the What Uni Student Choice award for Supporting Students. What’s your secret to being shortlisted?

Tao It’s down to our community, not just at the SU but across the university. We’re a small uni, and people aren’t just numbers but we really know each other. When people come into the office and see another student or someone they know, that makes a difference.

We’re also always thinking of what we can do for students, more than we do already. We put on a lot of events, and no one has to pay for joining clubs or societies. This year we’ve also set up a Leadership Academy to help student develop skills and feel ready for work and leadership roles. For example, one student wants to start their own creative advertising business, and the Academy is helping them go on a finance course to prepare them for this. We’re always trying to be innovative, and do things no one else is doing. We set up the Academy ourselves, and the University love it.

Louise That’s fantastic. Is there a lot of trust between the SU and the University that means these types of things can flourish?

Tao Definitely, the trust between the SU and University is what makes it so good because it gives us freedom to do what we can for students.

Louise How did this relationship come about?

We also have a mutual aim with the University; we want students to have a good experience, so when we need to talk to people about an issue they make time for us.”

Tao Having the same people and faces definitely helps, like the CEO, and people in comms and HR. They’ve been here quite a long time and that’s really helped build trust. I also think the different personalities and interests that each Sabb officer has helped, we all get on well because we have things in common but we’re good in our different areas, and we do a good job.

We also have a mutual aim with the University; we want students to have a good experience, so when we need to talk to people about an issue they make time for us. And I think it’s also in how you speak to people too, so that it’s just having normal conversations, being yourself and not trying to do things that you think someone else wants.

Louise If you were a Vice-Chancellor, what would you focus on?

Tao Oh, I’ve got a couple of ideas. Making sure students feel satisfied, such as feeling that they get value for money. Sometimes I think that messages from the top get lost on the way down too, so I’d also want to bring everyone together and say something along the lines of ‘we’re here to do X  job’ and encourage everyone to think of new and innovative ways to teach, because I feel that Powerpoint isn’t as effective as an informal conversation or other ways of teaching.

Louise You’ve got quite a clear vision! I wonder if you have any advice then for people in working in universities, like Heads of School?

Tao That’s difficult because I haven’t experienced what they go through. But I think that the more personable you are the more students will turn up.

Louise You’re coming to the end of your term now as President of the SU, and I wonder if you have any words of wisdom for the incoming President?

Tao Do research and make sure you have a plan of action, because I didn’t and I got a little bit overwhelmed at the start. When I first started I had an idea of how things would happen and to what extent we’d be able to change things, but this definitely shifted. The things I wanted to do I’ve done, but not as quickly as I’d like. There’s lots of emails and meetings, and I didn’t really realise that was going to happen and everything costs money. But if you have a plan then you’re set.  

Other things that help are having a good handover. At Bucks we have a month to hand over but I know some SU’s only have a week or two for this. Also, linking up with other SU Presidents and Vice Presidents helps. We met quite a few at the Lead and Change event run by the NUS and I still talk to a few people from there.

Louise Finally, I’d love to know why you think student leadership matters?

Tao If we didn’t have student leaders then universities would go about their daily lives very business-like, and it would be very impersonal. We wouldn’t have student unions, and without students speaking up things would never change for the better. You don’t have to be confident to be a student leader; you just have to be engaged.

With thanks to Tao for sharing what it’s like to be a Student President, the good parts, the best bits and the and pain points too.

To find out more about Bucks Students’ Union, Tao, their awards, and the new incoming Sabbatical team for 2020-21, take a look at their Students’ Union website.