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Innovation in student unions

  • 29 March 2023
  • By John Abell

Entrepreneurship in higher education is often achieved by analysing who is taught, what is taught and where it is taught. There is little doubt that UK universities have been innovative in these areas as they have become more competitive both nationally and globally to meet the rising demand in higher education.

An important area that has had less attention is how universities and students’ unions can be innovative and entrepreneurial in extracurricular activities and support for students. We know that progression, completion and good outcomes are influenced by so much more than the experience within the learning environment. So it is right to think how we can be innovative in these areas too.

Support means moving up a student’s hierarchy of needs from providing accommodation and catering to offering activities for belonging as well as developing networks, social capital and graduate attributes. A decline in the unit of resource and uncertainty in medium-term (and even short-term) funding means that it feels for many of us who work in these areas that every year we must work harder to provide the same levels of service (let alone improve our offer).

We are also seeing a sharp rise in demand, particularly for such important areas as wellbeing support and students’ union advice services. Students and their elected representatives quite rightly expect more in these areas and much of the sector has less money to deliver.

The cost-of-living crisis and inflation means that the costs of providing these services is increasing but we cannot simply raise our prices. Many students can no longer afford to pay and where in any university or students’ union strategic plan does it say we are aiming to make students pay more? Cross-subsidisation is also under increased scrutiny – is it right that we add a premium to a coffee sold to a poorer student to subsidise a richer student to play sport for instance? This means that many students’ unions and University student support departments are starting to see their student-facing commercial services as social enterprises – aiming to provide best value rather than be a cash cow to pay for other things.

This necessity to better support students suggests we need invention – so where are the big innovations in these areas? Beyond the National Union of Students’ purchasing consortium, I cannot think of many large-scale initiatives of students’ unions working together and collaborating on developing new income streams or reducing costs. Even the simple act of sharing staff between SUs seems to have eluded the sector (despite many conversations and opportunities).

Entrepreneurial leadership in students’ unions means encouraging people to take a chance on new ideas, investing in development and having open conversations with trustee boards about attitudes to risk. Above all it means making time to learn and collaborate. These are sector wide issues so we need to get better at solving them as a sector. So go to that conference, arrange a coffee with your counterparts in the closest universities – and encourage your colleagues to do the same.

Wouldn’t it be great if the next piece of student support EdTech (for instance) was developed from students’ unions working together to solve a problem – or even working with university departments?

To support innovation and entrepreneurship in student support services NCEE are launching a programme specifically for leaders in this area.

***Read HEPI’s history of the student movement here.***

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