Dreaming spires' survey nightmare

State of the student unions: Oxford comes last

September 27, 2012


Credit: Report Digital
Three cheers: unions that are hubs of social activity tend to be popular


Normally a byword for academic excellence, the University of Oxford seldom finishes last in any league table. But Oxford's student union has found itself bottom of the heap as undergraduates rated their unions in the National Student Survey for the first time.

Only 39 per cent of final-year students at Oxford say they are satisfied with their student union, placing it joint last alongside Oxford Brookes University.

Its ancient rival, the University of Cambridge, also performs poorly, finishing sixth from bottom, with just 46 per cent happy with the services provided by the union.

Students at the University of Sheffield are the happiest, with its union awarded a satisfaction rating of 95 per cent.

Boasting one of the UK's largest student bars, Sheffield Students' Union is widely regarded as the hub of the campus, organising hundreds of sports and social events each year. Its website advertises activities including Bulgarian dancing classes, Marxist discussion evenings, board game sessions and the chance to help campaign against sexual harassment.

In contrast, individual colleges run many of the social activities at Oxbridge. However, the unions of both institutions have sabbatical officers, offer student advice sessions, help to coordinate volunteer activities and run political campaigns.

Other universities with well-regarded unions include Loughborough University (91 per cent satisfaction), the University of Leeds (90 per cent) and Queen's University Belfast (82 per cent). But the University of Bristol Students' Union fails to impress, with only 45 per cent saying they are satisfied by it.

Bristol is investing £26 million over the next three years to refurbish the union building, which is located several miles from most first-year accommodation - a source of frustration for many students.

Overall, unions do not come out of the survey smelling of roses. Only 66 per cent of undergraduates say they are satisfied with their unions, compared with the 85 per cent satisfaction expressed for courses.

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said the "results pose challenges and identify scope for continuous improvement".However, they may also point to the need for "better communication" of services, such as academic support or immigration advice, as many students did not realise such things were offered by unions, he said.

Universities that invest in their student unions tend to do better in the NSS, he added.

"The lesson here is that constructive partnerships between institutions and unions have a significant and positive impact on student satisfaction," he said.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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