Can student societies survive the pandemic?

Jack Harvey is a Student Voice Rep Coordinator at Coventry University Students' Union (CUSU)

Some graduates will tell you that they spent more time in the company of a student society than on their studies.

Some will say that they gained more skills and insight from their societies than their degree. In fact, it was a stroke of luck that, by doing the right degree at the right time, they fell in with some great people and had the chance to have so much fun in their free time.

Who in the class of 2021 would say the same? This academic year, student societies have had to adjust to a wave of restrictions on gatherings and activities on campus. Whereas many societies used to meet in classrooms in the evenings, report the weekly news, bring in speakers to debate current affairs or run events and shows for the community, now almost all societies seem stuck online.

Some societies have transitioned comfortably. I’ve heard about charming murder mysteries and enjoyable, original quizzes. For others, the new reality is a tedious, depressing alternative to all the things students were told that university life was all about.

Forget what the older students told you about that time when so-and-so the controversial speaker came to campus, or the sports tournament that was settled in the final minute; university life is on hold and no one knows when it will come back.

We live in a society

Students’ union staff have worked hard to offer the best advice to hundreds of student clubs and societies. At times, things can feel pointless, as the rules seem to change just as the latest guidance is finished and released. Just when student groups are welcomed back to campus for socially-distanced gatherings of six, a higher power asks them to go back to their rooms; just when students are getting comfortable at sanitised tables in student bars and restaurants, they are told to push off and go back to takeaways.

If you know your student societies, you know just how different and exciting they are, the variety of interests they serve and the causes they promote. Nowadays the activities of most societies are unforgivably similar, not to mention dreary: strictly online socials, drinking in your room on a Zoom call with the rest of the group.

When you go along to these, as I have, you get the sense that the organisers are treating these sessions as warm-ups to an unexpectedly-delayed main event, like parents distracting children while waiting for the entertainer to arrive at the birthday party. Society committees want these sessions to be ways of passing the time until the pandemic ends.

Even if a vaccine is ready by the spring, it seems safe to treat this academic year as a write-off for what we tend to call “student life”. This will have serious consequences for the future of student societies. If the pandemic remains for another year, I worry that many of our campuses’ most brilliant, vibrant and dynamic societies, those with history and heritage, are going to collapse.

Knowledge is power

While I mean no disrespect to SU colleagues who work hard to provide the best training to the committees of societies every year, much of the know-how needed to keep student societies thriving comes from within those groups. It exists in the skills, experiences and ideas of the committees and the general membership.

For example, all societies need to know how to attract new members. Freshers’ Fair is often the biggest opportunity for societies to bring in “new blood,” but many societies continue to recruit throughout the year. The SU can tell you about the ways you can book a stall and welcome new members, but only practical experience can really tell you how to make posters, take up a presence and win over curious first-years.

Many societies need specialist knowledge to thrive. For a student newspaper, it’s the knowledge of journalistic technique, how to put together a publication, how to use the publishing software, how to submit an FOI request and so on; for a performance society, it’s the knowledge of techniques, schedules and routines, being on good terms with the instructors, who often volunteer their time, knowing how to book the right rooms to accommodate your sessions and so on.

This sort of knowledge can’t be covered in an SU briefing. You could try to meet everyone’s needs, but it would take all year to put together a briefing that works for each individual society. Again, this sort of knowledge tends to be in the possession of the experienced society members and passed on through practical experience and advice.

An outgoing committee can be confident in a society’s future when the new generation has seen the society in action, how it works and what you need to do to keep it going. Without the chance to learn on the job, all new members can do is listen to the committee members reminisce about what the society used to do.

The longer this goes on, the less members can learn about what the society is meant to do and how it works. If the pandemic is with us for another year, some societies will stop functioning properly, as their committees will not know enough about what they are meant to do.

Soul power

The best student society has its own character, history and flavour. It doesn’t just go beyond the basic description of a society that your SU has prepared – it moves so quickly and freely that SU staff struggle to keep up. It has its own traits and habits, shaped by dynamic individuals and famous antics, that set it aside from others. Your local Philosophy Society might call it the “thisness,” while others would say it’s the society’s soul.

At the moment, so many student groups are confined to the online world. While members from past years can remember fondly what happened when they used to meet, newer members will struggle to get a sense of what the society is all about. Those charismatic characters who could inspire the new team are constrained and deflated.

If the pandemic continues into another academic year, many distinctive, colourful student groups will wither. When they finally resume their activities, the new committees will not be able to articulate as easily what the society is all about. Whether it’s down to a lack of members, a loss of enthusiasm or a reduced budget, many societies will call it quits.

Manual labour

If you are a final-year student and you care about the future of your student group, one that may have taught you more skills and ideas than some modules on your degree, you need to do something to ensure that your group will keep going despite the pandemic.

My advice to current society committees is to keep a written record of how your society works. Maybe it’s just my love of handbooks, but written advice and instructions in the form of a manual go a long way to helping new committee members settle in and get a feel of what’s meant to happen, especially if your society needs specialist knowledge and skills to be successful. You could cross your fingers that advice will come from outgoing committees, but if this pandemic continues for a long time, we will have a succession of committees whose only experience of the society are innumerable Zoom quizzes.

Handovers remain just as important as they were pre-pandemic. These are often the moments where old committees share their finest wisdom, their tips and tricks and ideas of how to get the best out of the group and its members. Following a bog-standard template written by your SU just won’t do: only you know how your society really works.

Finally, be optimistic. Your newest members may roll their eyes as the outgoing committee witters on about the good old days. But sometimes these rambles are needed so new members have a vision of what good fun these societies can be in the post-pandemic future. If there are no good days for new members to imagine, your society will come out of the pandemic bland, bleak and adrift. Stay positive: with the announcement of a new vaccine that’s 90% effective, your next social might be on campus after all.

One response to “Can student societies survive the pandemic?

  1. Great article; I feel so sorry for this year’s committee members – they’ll be trying their hardest to keep the ‘feel’ of their groups alive, but their options are very limited.
    It’s going to be interesting/depressing to see how things look when the next peak of committee elections come round, it’s hard to know how many people will be engaged enough to run for roles – this will partly depend on the form of restrictions in place next term – and if face-to-face activities can resume in some form, if there are enough students around on campus wanting to engage with them after such a long break.
    There’s a fair chance that many will just peter out, and while some might re-start in the future, a lot of the ‘corporate memory’ mentioned in the article will have been lost – it usually takes new societies a couple of years to find their feet, regardless of how good their committee and SU support may be.
    Regardless, an awful lot of students will have missed out on all the advantages that being in a good group brings.

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