Muffins hold the key to victory

Rebecca Attwood hears about student union campaigns that have scored notable successes

January 8, 2009

A campaign to raise the status of teaching and a bid to boost students' popularity with the local community by giving away "goodwill" muffins are just two of the diverse activities of students' unions so far this academic year, a Times Higher Education survey has found.

According to our straw poll of student union leaders, victories have included the provision of free drinking water on campus at Glasgow Caledonian University, extra revision classes for students at the University of Buckingham, and better feedback from lecturers at Heriot-Watt University.

Staff have had some surprises: Ian Jamieson, pro vice-chancellor at the University of Bath, was presented with a "negative" cheque for £178,533,800 by Bath's students' union - an estimate of the total amount of debt its students will have when they leave higher education.

At the University of Edinburgh, students have been campaigning on behalf of their lecturers for the recognition of good teaching, while Heriot-Watt's student association has been aiming to get 50 per cent of the student body volunteering.

The student union at Bournemouth University handed out free muffins while fielding questions from local residents as part of a project to raise "awareness of students in the community".

More social space for students has been a priority at the universities of Aberdeen, Bath and Buckingham.

Better feedback and more varied modes of assessment were high on many student unions' wish lists, and contact time was an issue for some.

"Too often lecturers are seen as only interested in their own research and the teaching is an afterthought, which is a dangerous attitude to have," said Duncan McKay, president of the University of Aberdeen students' association.

"Students want better access to lecturers. Lecturers do not always make it clear as to where they will be and when," said Fred Ruffle, president of Bournemouth's union.

Rob Pinfold, general secretary of the University of Manchester's union, said: "Lack of contact time, as well as poor assessment and feedback, are the main gripes of our students."

But, on the whole, student unions felt that their universities took students' views seriously.

Bath and Aberdeen universities were praised for their efforts to improve feedback, and Chester and Glasgow Caledonian universities' student representatives welcomed longer library opening hours.

Presidents were split on the Government's "student listening" initiatives. One student union said it was only paying "lip service", while another believed the changes were "largely tokenistic". But Gary Coates, Roehampton University union's president, said they were a "fantastic idea" as long as they were taken seriously.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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