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Students’ Unions are a crucial puzzle piece for this academic year

  • 29 September 2020
  • By Eve Alcock and Michael Natzler

This blog was written by Eve Alcock, Former SU President at the University of Bath and Michael Natzler, HEPI’s Policy Officer.

You can find Eve and Michael on Twitter @EveAlcock and @Michael_Natzler .

It is plain to see that this academic year in universities will be a year like no other. Socially distanced provision, blended learning, financial pressures, COVID-safe facilities, COVID-case declarations and risk assessments, all of which could be changed or made redundant at the drop of a hat under ever-changing Government guidance and regulations. Universities are already struggling under the demands of what this year has brought, but one would be foolish to think they have to go it alone. There is a key valuable piece to the puzzle of the student experience that, if supported enough and empowered to do so, can very effectively relieve the burden of this year’s challenges.

That missing puzzle piece is students’ unions.

Forever an easy target for ill-informed clickbait reports on ‘woke culture’, or Ministerial jibes at supposed niche activism, the reality of the astounding quantity and quality of work that students’ unions (SUs) do is frequently underappreciated and under-supported. And yet there are many crucial things that SUs can do which universities cannot, which will be of paramount importance in this academic year like no other. Here are just a few of them.

Firstly, SUs are experts in intelligence gathering, and without them universities would struggle to get a full picture of student opinion at any one time. The context for data like National Student Survey (NSS) scores has fallen away and in many cases rendered their application useless. Previous NSS scores won’t tell institutions much about the barriers that students faced and are still facing in this pandemic, so what can they use now? Students’ unions have the ability to gather real-time, reactive and impactful student voice data through channels that a university cannot reach. SUs and their officers are on the same social media platforms as students, they’re in their group chats, they’re having socially distanced pints with them in SU bars. SUs are closer to students and are therefore trusted with students’ unaltered and unfiltered opinions of their student experience, and they’re likely to see trends that a university’s senior management either can’t see or don’t want to see. They are the key to authentic authentic student engagement which is vital for robust decision making. SU expertise can help draw out key issues students are facing in real-time so that universities can address them swiftly, in the same year, and to close the feedback loop.

Secondly, SUs play a crucial role in holding universities to account for their actions. Although universities are doing all they can in such unprecedented circumstances, there is no rulebook and things will inevitably go wrong. Checks and balances on a university’s actions have never been more important, not just to highlight errors and rectify mistakes, but to help improve the decision-making process. The voice of SUs will be especially important in decisions about financial cuts to ensure accountability and help mitigate their impact on the student experience and students’ lives. Right from the beginning of this pandemic, SUs were working all hours to ensure university decisions about housing contracts and no detriment policies (which ensured students’ grades did not suffer due to the pandemic) protected students. This year, where an institution’s decisions concern significant issues of health and safety of students and value for money, students can rest easy knowing SUs are holding their institutions accountable for decisions they make.

Thirdly, SUs have the ability and experience of elevating the voices of under-represented students. In the rush to alter provision to fit a new socially distanced world, minority student groups often get left behind as   universities tend to find and implement a solution that works for the majority or students, and only then worry about the rest of the students. With more disadvantaged students arriving at university than ever before, SUs are adept at spotting students who are at risk of falling through the gaps. The representation and advocacy that SUs provide not only elevate these students’ concerns and experiences to the highest echelons of the university, but they also empower those students, bringing accountability to ensure provision works for everybody.

Fourth on the list, SUs’ academic representation systems can help improve new pedagogy and blended learning models to ensure the teaching students receive is high-quality and enriching. This year more than ever, staff are facing new challenges and pedagogy will inevitably have room for improvement. Forging closer and more integrated relationships with an SU’s academic representation system will support institutions in continuous improvement, identifying what is working and what needs to change to meet student expectations. This will be crucial not just for this academic year, but for the future of our higher education sector in becoming more flexible and modern in its delivery.

Number five is SUs’ ability to give impartial, independent advice to students who are struggling. When the reality of the new odd student life hits and they start wondering whether to drop out because the experience wasn’t what they thought it would be, lonely in a flat of people they do not connect with, or experiencing online harassment and bullying in their blended learning model or simply unable to afford the costs incurred by attending a UK higher education institution because of the disappearance of part-time jobs, SU advice centres will be there time and time again supporting students. Independent of the institution, free and confidential, access to impartial advice for students has never been more needed as SU advice centres can prioritise student wellbeing without worrying about drop-out rates or financial implications of students’ decisions. In the same way, like every good union, SUs inform students of their rights; a particularly important element in unprecedented circumstances. Student rights are a complex cacophony of rules and regulations from the Competitions and Markets Authority and the Office for Students, to Student Finance England (SFE) and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. As students begin to question their value for money, or decide to move home because of lockdown measures, SUs will be front and centre informing students of their rights and how to act on them just as they were in March when the pandemic hit. 

The sixth thing that SUs can do far better than universities is create community, something that will be simultaneously more difficult and more important to achieve this year. Whether it is the peer-to-peer nature of student-led societies, in a lecture hall with classmates or in a sports team, connection with others is vital in ensuring both the wellbeing and progress of students not to mention building and bridging social capital. These communities are also fundamental in creating opportunities for students to develop skills to support their employability, not least because actual paid part-time work opportunities will be few and far between this year. The role of these communities in employability outcomes complements the current Government’s focus on university as a route to work.

SUs are the great enabler of these communities, providing support for activities on campus, fostering and encouraging the creation of more opportunities in a way that is accessible to a diverse student body, allowing students to develop experiences to boost their employability and creating an environment where students feel like they belong. That’s four birds with one stone.

Where SUs are prevented from, or not supported in, fulfilling this crucial role, students will organise off-campus in unregulated and unmitigated spaces. This runs the risk of a heightened spread of Covid and more students self-isolating in halls corridors and damaging the experience of more students at university. With the right support, SUs are best placed, as peer-to-peer organisations, to support students to make good decisions about gathering safely and to provide opportunities for students to interact and have a fulfilling university experience in a different way than in previous years.

And finally, SUs can help broker university-community relations this year as tensions rise over community transmission. SUs are not there to fight the battles of the university, or make excuses for their decisions, but they are perfectly placed to provide the counter-narrative to the stereotypical anti-student narrative that exists in university towns. SUs themselves coordinate volunteering within local communities, supporting students innovating in ways of helping people. When the pandemic hit in March, students organised local support groups to provide help to the vulnerable in their university towns coordinated through SUs. Equipped with the knowledge that they were the lowest risk, students delivered shopping to the elderly, befriended the lonely and drove front line workers to work. In a year when community relations might be tenser than in previous years, students’ unions can provide a positive picture of the work of universities if they do run into difficulties with local lockdowns or controversies.  

So, amid so much change and uncertainty, with many of the major and recognisable features of university disappeared – teaching in person, long days in the library working and chatting, meeting people at events, societies and going on nights out – the role of the students’ union is only emboldened and redoubled. With the right support, SUs can help to fill a lot of gaps emerging in the student experience. Their unique positioning can support universities in making sure all the work they’re putting in is translating into a safe, enriching and high-quality university experience; an outcome that matters to students, matters to universities and matters to government.

Policy Recommendations:

  1. Student voice will be more important than ever this year with old data on students being less relevant. Institutions should take advantage of the opportunity to reap the benefits of real-time qualitative data facilitated by SUs.
  2. Support SUs both financially and in terms of resource to deliver a rich array of COVID-safe organised and regulated events driven by student demand to avoid unregulated gatherings as far as possible.
  3. Amplification of comms on positive student stories and work being done by SUs can help mitigate university-community tensions over community transmission.
  4. Strengthen the relationship between the University and an SU’s academic representation system and integrate student engagement more thoroughly through decision-making processes to maximise high-quality academic provision and pedagogy.

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