Of the 21 indicators of the Student Experience Survey, the rating of the students’ union is significant, because it is an institution from which many other elements of the student experience flow. If a students’ union is in a shabby building, with few amenities and under-trained staff, this is likely to have a negative impact on the perceived quality of that university’s social life, community atmosphere and level of support for students. If the union is struggling to make ends meet, higher prices in its bar or shop will be less attractive to cash-strapped students and it may be unable to contribute financially to extracurricular activities.
Conversely, a strong students’ union can give a real sense of community and belonging to students who see it as a place to turn to for guidance and assistance from their peers - as well as a social centre where they can hang out, develop new skills and enjoy themselves.
There appears to be a clear correlation between students’ ratings relating to social life and how highly they rate their students’ union: Sheffield, Leeds, Loughborough and Cardiff universities are among the top five in both sets of results.
However, Iain Kennedy, president of Dundee University Students’ Association, says: “I don’t believe the perception that students only want their union to be a good nightclub rings true any more. Students face a lot of pressure and they look to the union for advice and support.”
Abdi Suleiman, president of the survey’s top-scoring students’ union at Sheffield University concurs, enumerating his union’s various committees, representing the interests of all sections of the student community as well as its advice centre with dedicated financial, housing, immigration and academic staff.
“Whenever there is a disciplinary hearing at the university, the SU provides representation,” he says, “and we have good reps. Our sabbatical officers get good training.”
Effective management and training is therefore essential for successful students’ unions today. Suleiman also considers the union’s political role of great importance, arguing that as a result of changes affecting students’ unions in the Education Act 1994, the state of politics on campus is not what it once was.
Nevertheless, Suleiman is proud to report that Sheffield students were the best represented at the 2012 NUS Educate, Employ, Empower rally in protest at the tuition fees increase. The fact that Sheffield students’ union’s former general manager Paul Blomfield is now a Labour MP demonstrates how far management and lobbying skills learned at Sheffield University’s union can take someone. Suleiman considers that the £2.5 million annual subvention the students’ union receives from the university demonstrates how much the university values the activities of a students’ union, which boasts 72% participation rates, with 17% of students serving on its committees.
Harry Newman, president of Cardiff University students’ union, concurs, stressing that research it carries out annually shows that students want the union to be “a powerful and efficient lobbying organisation, which provides opportunities to have fun and develop”.
Loughborough’s students’ union president, Ellie Read, also puts representation at the top of her list of what students want from their union, ahead of social life and a space where they can meet with like- minded people, and training and employment opportunities.
Satisfactory funding is a key success factor and this usually comes from the university. Sheffield students’ union’s level of university funding compares very favourably with that of other unions. Cardiff University is also its union’s primary income source, while at Loughborough Ellie Read confirms “the block grant gives obvious financial benefits that allow us to deliver our huge range of opportunities and support services.” Yet the “unseen value” of staff collaboration and mutually beneficial projects is “just as critical an element in the success of our union”, she says.
Despite a place in the top five students’ unions, Dundee’s annual grant from the university was only around 10 per cent of its £5.56 million turnover last year, so the union has to be largely self funding and commercially savvy, with commercial activities accounting for fully £4.9 million of the remainder.
In fact, the success of the Dundee union is quite remarkable, given that it also has to provide for students on three campuses. Sheffield’s Abdi Suleiman admits that his students’ union’s imposing building is superbly well situated, between the student accommodation and the academic department buildings in the city on a major thoroughfare. Together with single campus universities such as Loughborough, Sheffield is at a locational advantage. As Cardiff’s Harry Newman comments ruefully, “It is much easier for campus universities to engage with their members, so we have to work harder.” But hard work seems to pay off and the best students’ unions in the country are a mixture of campus and city universities, with the more physically challenged compensating in other ways.
Loughborough’s Ellie Read mentions the competitive spirit engendered by Loughborough’s hall system which, she says, has enabled the union to “reach our incredible targets, such as raising £1.4 million for rag and volunteering 20,000 hours of student time to the local community”. This engagement with the community is also important to Dundee’s students’ union, which encourages communal harmony by running a “get to know your neighbour” campaign, where students are encouraged to meet and get together over a cuppa with their city neighbours.
At the union itself, Loughborough has an open-door policy encouraging students to socialise, meet and get involved in decision-making “from helping paint a new colour scheme to deciding on strategic direction” in order to “nurture a feeling of belonging and community”.
Dundee and Sheffield report their pride in diversity, regularly hosting events where students can get a glimpse of other cultures. Leeds union affairs officer Antony Haddley emphasises the different expectations of undergraduates and postgraduates, from those “fixed on having an amazing fresher’s week filled with nights out and others [who] want a quieter evening or…support with childcare and accommodation”. The union has to cater for all of them.
However, lest it appear that students’ unions are becoming overly concerned with the serious side of life, Suleiman reports that Sheffield’s 0 societies include everything from Dobby’s Soc for Harry Potter fans to card-playing societies and that, among political and campaign organisations there is still time for numerous sport clubs, with varsity matches against Sheffield Hallam University a regular feature of the calendar. At Leeds, Haddley reports that the summer ball entertains 5,000 students.
The fact that Oxbridge does less well in the students’ union ratings than in other areas deserves, perhaps, a few words of explanation. The fact is that the collegiate structure of Oxford and Cambridge universities means that the students’ union finds itself in competition with college JCRs and MCRs, where the allegiance of most students lies and around which their social life usually revolves.
Elsewhere, top-ranked students’ unions play a central role in student life and help to make it as varied, life-enhancing, forward-looking and problem-free as possible. Some began over a century ago as debating societies, some as social societies and some were simply committees that met every couple of weeks with the aim of representing students more fully in the governance of their particular universities.
Today, these organisations are increasingly professional, with paid officers and a wealth of expertise that can cope with health and safety regulations for new sports clubs or organising Disclosure and Barring Service (formerly Criminal Records Bureau) checks for volunteering activities as well as running commercially successful entertainment venues and organising events catering to thousands.
It is true to say that the best students’ unions are successfully meeting the challenges of the 21st century and significantly underpin today’s “student experience” in myriad previously unimagined ways.