This article is more than 1 year old

Blue skies and big pictures – thinking about the future of SUs

This article is more than 1 year old

Dan Fow is London Manager at Sunderland Students' Union

At Wonkhe’s New Rules event a few weeks ago I had the chance to step away from the day to day of supporting officers rounding up this years’ work, and do a bit of blue sky thinking.

The idea of the event was to challenge participants to think a little deeper about how we want our SUs to look in the next decade.

What would we do if we no longer had elections every year? How can we get more students involved in advocacy roles beyond celebrity sabbs? How can we deliver much-needed peer support schemes in a sustainable and actually student-led way?

We might need to respond to our rapidly changing environment in ways that involve us being a little brave, and potentially acting in ways that are different to the current SU mould.

Metrics are here to stay

One of the interesting ideas that came out of the event for me was rethinking how we respond to metrics.

For instance, we all know how time-consuming thinking about metrics like the B3 numbers or NSS results can be – not least in a year where we’ve all just completely teaching Excellence Framework submissions.

The group I was in started thinking about what would happen if we supported students to take control of their learning.

In one scenario we were given, which sounded fairly familiar for a lot of us in the room, our advice service was at capacity and evidence suggested too many students only approached to voice concerns when it was too late.

From here we postulated that part of the reason for this could be that many SUs are still in the dark about the new quality conditions agreed upon, let alone students understanding how non-compliance can threaten the quality of their education and can be used as a means of change.

Quality assurance is key

As a result, we decided to remove the traditional course rep system, as part of our wider attempt to show students that we do reflect and represent their academic interests – as Question 26 still existed in this new rules world.

Rather than only having one “course rep” we began to design a new system that allowed any student who wanted to have a say in the running of their course, to be trained in the new B conditions, which would empower them to facilitate discussion on how to improve programs.

The thinking behind this was that we could move reps away from being seen as someone that can or should “fix” the problems that exist on their course.

Instead, they should be taking part in the co-creation of activities and actions that hold institutions to account and improve students’ learning experience.

Our hope was not only would it empower students and foster further transparency between students and staff, but it could prevent issues from escalating into academic appeals and thus create more casework for advice services with unhappy outcomes likely for the students.

SUs as experts and partners

One of the underlying principals we wanted in our strategy was that students’ unions are the experts in the room, and should be treated as such when it comes to solving deep-rooted problems like student loneliness and lack of belonging.

We didn’t want to be seen solely as “that place students have fun outside of learning” but as a vital part in improving student wellbeing, academic attainment, and sense of community.

In our discussions, one thing was clear from the officers and staff involved, was that students want all the “fun stuff” that allows them to build confidence and make friends for more than just one big week in the beginning.

So, while we may have been somewhat motivated by the fact that a rule we’d gotten half an hour earlier was that we were not longer allowed to trade with students or staff and therefore weren’t allowed a nightclub to make revenue anymore, we decided to scrap the big fresher week bash.

Instead, we decided to go European and mimic the offer at VU Amsterdam that sees “family” inductions as an essential bit of welcome week, in the hope that students would be able to form more connections and develop support networks that would prevent them from dropping out, thus helping us improve our retention rate and keep the university happy.

More peer support

In our fantasy world we had lots of students eager to be mentors, planning the getting to know you games, the campus tour, takes you on a night out in the city, helps explain involvement opportunities and the SU – as well as checking in with you and hosting study sessions every week.

Additionally, with our minds on accessibility and breaking down barriers, we considered the chance to have specific days designed for first-in-family students, international students, and other intersectional identities.

Although we didn’t have long enough to design the funding structures and exact features of this plan, I think the principles of it are something that a lot of us can take into account as we start to plan welcome week. Particularly for those of us with multiple campuses and sometimes smaller budgets on one than the other, we wanted to think of a simple, adaptable model that we helped students meet other students, form connections, as well as introduce them to the SU and all of the things we offer.

Money, money, money

One of the other takeaways from the event was discussions around block grants and how universities will be inevitably getting tighter with spend over the next few years which will, naturally have an impact on students’ unions – particularly those that don’t have any commercial income streams.

So ensuring we are linking funding requests back to things the universities are prioritising – like retention rates, access and participation, or wellbeing, and demonstrating why the SU is a key player in improving things – will be crucial.

More creatively though, an idea we began to explore was what could we do if we did not have commercial outputs to substitute income. For many of us, especially on smaller satellite campuses, this can be the case – so considering how we could improve collaboration with local businesses, as well as supporting student-led social enterprise opportunities was an exciting one.

My big takeaway was that this is a really exciting time to be working in SUs, and it’s good to be reminded of that as we’re often too busy to think about the “bigger picture”.

As we reach the end of the academic year for many, as well as reflecting on what we do well already, I think now is a perfect time to start innovating and rethinking how we do what we do not for our memories but for the modern student populations we serve.

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