On the committee: comparing my experience of JCR and MCR committees

During the second year of my BA, I was on the JCR committee of my college. The role that I held was called ‘academic affairs officer’, making me the person that students could come to for everything from losing their Bod card, to someone to represent them to the senior tutor during disciplinary procedures.

There were two key aspects to the role. The first was sitting on three committees: the JCR committee, the college’s academic committee, and the university-wide committee of academic representatives. The second was writing the annual academic feedback report for the senior tutor, compiling undergraduates’ experiences of college tutors. The second key aspect of the role was the most demanding, requiring me to spend all of Hilary arranging meetings with students and the first couple of weeks of the Easter vac collating the data and writing the report. It was a monumental task, which made finishing the report a relief, but it was also made rewarding through the positive outcomes of discussing it with the senior tutor.

I am now in the first year of my DPhil and am again on a student committee in my college. This time, it’s what you may term the MCR committee. My current college is one of the graduate ones, so there is no JCR. However, there is also not really an MCR. We have a single common room that is shared between the students and the fellows. So, what would be called the MCR committee in another college is for us called the SRC, the Student Representative Committee.

On the SRC, I am the arts representative, meaning that I attend SRC meetings, meetings of the Common Room Committee (the SRC plus senior college staff), and the college’s Art Committee. My role is the most flexible on the SRC. For me, the role has included running a creative writing competition for the students in my college, arranging humanities-based student talks, and arranging a trip to the Jeff Koons exhibition in the Ashmolean.

“The JCR reaction was a kneejerk one. There was a strong emotional impetus in any decision made or point raised, to the point of creating a level of tension.”

There are differences in the roles available on these two committees. Both committees have what could be considered the core members: president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, male and female welfare representatives, environment representative, social secretary, and LGBTQ representative. The JCR also had an academic affairs officer and representatives for hall and accommodation. In contrast, the SRC has an arts representative and a careers representative, which may be more fitting for a graduate college. One difference in the core members is that the social secretary on the SRC is heavily supported by the rest of the committee and runs a wide variety of events throughout the term and for freshers’ week. Naturally, this includes bops, but also a wide range of other activities. Other committee members, like the arts representative and the welfare representatives, also organise social events like a weekly brunch on Sundays. In contrast, the social secretary role in the JCR was known as ‘the entz reps’, and was usually taken by two individuals. Their hustings were heavily based around party game skills and their main role was to organise bops.

I have found that the two committees had a very different way of approaching elections. In the JCR, anyone who wanted to run for a position could do so, and had to send their manifesto to the secretary for distribution. Hustings would then be held, and then online elections would happen. There was always at least one joke candidate who ran for the same position every year and was never successful, and I’ve witnessed students who lost to other students threaten to RON everyone if there ended up being a re-election. Things are less dramatic in the SRC, perhaps because the manifestos are distributed by college staff and students have to be nominated in order to run. There are also no hustings, just the online elections.

As for coming to the end of one’s time on the committee, on the SRC it happens after serving for a year. On the JCR, there was an unspoken but palpable assumption that a student would retain their role in the following year if no one ran to replace them, to the point where we had had the same IT officer for two years – and almost three – and I had to explicitly tell the committee that I would be standing down at the end of one year so that I could concentrate on Finals, which was met with heavy opposition.

Nevertheless, despite their differences, both committees have had to deal with similar matters. The two committees have had the opposite reaction to dealing with controversial matters. The JCR reaction was a kneejerk one. There was a strong emotional impetus in any decision made or point raised, to the point of creating a level of tension with the senior college staff that prevented a productive relationship. The SRC reaction is initially emotional, but then the members take a step back to consider all of the factors present in and causing the issue before giving their response.

“The SRC is genuinely interested in the wellbeing of their students…while the majority of the JCR committee when I served on it comprised of aspiring politicians.”

From what experience I have of student committees, it seems to me that there is a greater level of diplomacy and empathy in the postgraduate environment. This may stem from the individuals on the committee rather than any maturity gained by being older and more experienced, or it may be precisely an issue of maturity. Different opinions are also more welcome on the SRC committee than they were on the JCR committee.

Our JCR president had little empathy for anyone outside of their minority group, and any view that contrasted with theirs was immediately considered to be discriminatory against that group as a whole regardless of whether it was actually offensive or was a practical suggestion on an unrelated matter. Our SRC president is much more diplomatic, regardless of whether they are dealing with other committee members, the student body, or senior college staff.

The final key part of being on a student committee is how the relationships with the college and with the rest of the student body is managed, with the committee performing the role of arbitrator. As I have already mentioned, there was tension between the JCR committee and college, to the point where college wanted to govern how that committee conducted itself and its meetings. It was also difficult to gauge whether there were any issues to raise with the college on the students’ behalf because students rarely voiced any grievances despite giving the impression that they had many.

Again, the SRC presents a contrast. It is still difficult to get students to provide feedback, but there is more of a structure for how they may do so, with meetings between them and the committee. The SRC also has a healthier relationship with the college, with solutions that are not ideal for either party but appeal as far as they can to both while remaining practical. College is also more open with the SRC about available budgets and its priorities than my college at undergraduate ever was with the JCR committee.

It can be beneficial to be part of a student committee. However, in my experience, it is more beneficial to be on a postgraduate student committee. The SRC is genuinely interested in the wellbeing of their students and how college life can be adjusted to benefit that, while the majority of the JCR committee when I served on it comprised of aspiring politicians with little to no understanding of how a university, let alone anything else, works and the compromises that are needed to actually have an impact.