Since the election last July of the hard-Left Malia Bouattia as president of the National Union of Students, the body, which claims to represent 7 million students, has been riven by dissent.
Dissatisfaction with some of Bouattia’s flagship policies and accusations of anti-Semitism have resulted in fellow NUS executive members “plotting” to oust her from her post. Meanwhile, a number of individual students’ unions have sought to disaffiliate from the national organisation.
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Student Experience Survey 2017: the shape of things to come in higher education
Of course, the deepening fissure between students and their foremost representatives did not begin with Bouattia: voter turnout in NUS elections has sunk as low as 18 per cent in recent years and has opened the door to a generation of more radical activists.
Yet the distaste felt by many students for the posturing of the national leadership is not directed at their own university unions: the organisations that do the unglamorous graft of making campuses safer, cheaper and more liveable for their inhabitants.
Our results this year reveal that, across UK universities, students give their unions an average score of 5.3 out of 7, which is a solid vote of confidence when compared with the relative apathy towards national student politics. Of these, the University of Sheffield’s Students’ Union is the most highly rated in the country, receiving a mark of 6.7 out of 7 – one of the highest for any category in the survey.
Its president, Dom Trendall, agrees that national student representation no longer addresses the needs of its students: “I don’t support Malia. My personal opinion is that the NUS has been ineffective and that her comments pertaining to anti-Semitism have been unacceptable.”
So what is Sheffield’s formula for making its students happy? “We love the town: we have the Peak District on our doorstep, and you don’t have to worry about cost of living as much as elsewhere,” Trendall says. “But above all, I think it’s the spirit of inclusion which singles us out as a students’ union and community.”
Trendall, a Labour activist and former politics student, was himself voted in on a platform of widening access in terms of gender and ethnic minorities, mature and foreign students, and people with irregular qualifications. So while Trendall is frustrated with the NUS leadership, he doesn’t see a dichotomy between being political and caring about students.
“We are proud to be an explicitly political organisation,” he says. “We make no apologies for that. But instead of talking, we want to take action. I think that’s why we do better than comparable institutions.”
A night out at the Sheffield union is a perfect example of how it looks after its students. The union puts on three nights of entertainment a week, including the Pop Tarts event, which sells out its 1,900 capacity every week. “Clubbing can be quite exclusive and intimidating, but we prioritise making it safe and welcoming,” says Michael Kind, the union’s development officer.
“Recently we introduced ‘time out’ space. This is a new thing – a place run by volunteers, which exists for students in the club. There are mindfulness colouring books and bottles of water. More than anything, especially if you look at the link between drinking and panic attacks, students often just need a quiet place to go to.”
The union’s uncompromising commitment to welfare and inclusion has led to other commendable measures. “First, we have a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment. A bouncer will kick you out the second anyone’s reported for anything,” Kind says.
“We also have a women’s minibus service which takes people home from a club straight to their door for £1.50, and a safe taxis scheme, where, if they don’t have money, students can get in a licensed taxi for free and pay later. And as a result of our lobbying, all student buses in Sheffield now include CCTV,” he adds.
Such policies rely on good relations between the union and local club owners, cab companies and bus operators. Such is its success in recent years that Sheffield’s union has even persuaded one bus company to lower its fees for students. “A big part of what we do is to work with our community: we feel very integrated with the city,” says Trendall.
That said, there are occasions where the union has sought to sidestep certain sectors of the local economy altogether. One of the incumbent sabbatical team’s flagship policies, for example, has been the establishment of its own letting agency.
“We’re setting up our own agency so students get a fair deal,” explains Trendall. “This will also guarantee quality of housing.”
The union recently launched Prioritise Our Mental Health, a campaign to get students to think more carefully about their state of mind. Anna Mullaney, the welfare officer who set it up, denies that it has anything to do with “Generation Snowflake” – the charge that today’s youth are so emotionally vulnerable that they can’t cope with life’s basic challenges.
“I don’t accept the idea that our generation is just simply less able to cope with the context around us,” she says. “We live and breathe in the context of a complex and constant mental health crisis.”
So the union is sharing tips on how to cope better with stress and anxiety and promoting a gentler approach to mental health. Instead of being encouraged to just “take a ‘man-up pill’”, says Mullaney, students will be offered practical guidance for keeping well.
Whether from the university or the union itself, funding is the foundation stone of such initiatives and, ostensibly, the finances look in good shape. The union employs almost a thousand people, runs 350 societies and its premises recently received a £20 million renovation.
As of 2016, students have also been able to enjoy an £81 million state-of-the-art study hub called The Diamond, the university’s single largest investment in teaching and learning – an indicator of the healthy state of affairs between the union and the university.
Ali Day, the union’s education officer, acknow-ledges: “We are very lucky to benefit from [the university’s] advice and financial support.”
She believes the relationship is elastic enough to withstand the pressure imposed by concerns about the teaching excellence framework – a new system that considers grades, dropout rates and progression to skilled employment, and then allows universities to charge more than £9,000 a year on certain courses. The union believes it will lead to the “marketisation of education and rising tuition fees”, so last year, it announced it was boycotting the completion of the first component: student satisfaction surveys.
The subsequent campaign has seen a 3,000-strong petition presented to the university’s senior leadership and active attempts by the union to dissuade students from responding to it. “We’re promoting that people boycott it, rather than just not promoting it,” Day explains. “We want to send a message that this is wrong, that it will create barriers to education.”
The fear that the TEF will ultimately limit access to less well-off students comes back to the union’s foremost policy of inclusion. Whether it’s “quiet spaces in clubs” or rather louder political campaigns, Sheffield’s union is committed to combining principle with action.