I’ve been thinking recently about how academic societies and representation systems work here in the UK, and more specifically how we might make these things make more sense to students.
Specifically, I’ve been reflecting on my own experience as an undergraduate student. I remember attending freshers’ fair and feeling quite overwhelmed by the number of clubs and societies on offer – they spanned three separate sports halls! I felt a real sense of panic that I didn’t really have any proper interests.
I wasn’t particularly sporty – didn’t really fancy spending a chunk of my small student loan on trying out a new sport that I knew I wouldn’t be a dab hand at. I didn’t have any special interests that neatly fitted into a society either. Ditto when it came to political societies.
I walked around the fair with my new flatmates, watching them sign up for dance, pottery, or one of the many cultural societies – and feeling fairly baffled as to which one I was supposed to join.
Was there something wrong with me that I didn’t have an extracurricular hobby, or at least not one that extended beyond rewatching my favourite sitcoms?
Society by subject
My saving grace came a few days later, when outside of my mandatory first-year History lecture, the History Society stood with invitations to their first social of the year later that week.
From there, everyone started asking each other if they were going, and the course group chat was full of details of where to meet and where the pre-social social was. From there, I got a chance to put some names to faces I’d seen in lecture halls, and gained some common ground to facilitate conversations with my peers while we waited to go into seminar rooms.
I actually did meet people who came to be some of my closest friends on my course and through an academic society, but even if I hadn’t meet friends for life, the important thing was that I made connections, built some confidence and started to feel like a “History student”, and maybe even “a historian” – and that was just as important.
Here and now
Last week, staff members in our Wonkhe SUs chat were talking about innovative ways of doing academic societies, so I caught up with two of the SUs doing interesting things when it comes to improving academic communities.
This year at UCLan SU they’ve been piloting a new project where a dedicated member of staff works with a selection of schools identified as having low engagement with the union, and their course more widely.
Charlotte, the project lead, works closely with academic staff and students to identify barriers to engagement. Central to this work is acknowledging the hyper-diverse student population at UCLan, and looking specifically at the makeup of particular programs in order to better support their overall sense of belonging.
Underpinning this work, the SU was conscious from recent research they had completed that students in some schools tended to go first to other students, then personal tutors and their lecturers, as people who they trust to give advice or information from, and there was much less of an understanding about what the SU does.
One school Charlotte has worked particularly closely with this year is the School of Nursing. The course is made up of over eighty per cent women, and typically have a fairly proportion of mature students, as we know, have different needs to those of your “typical” eighteen-year-old undergraduate.
For instance, they are much more likely to have additional caring responsibilities, commute to campus, and live in non-student accommodation.
It’s a known fact across the sector that healthcare students, like student nurses, have different needs because of the expectations and demands of their course. Student nurses, as Charlotte discovered, often do not feel part of the rest of the university community, a common theme for students on placement as this year’s Student Academic Experience Survey highlighted.
Much of their time is not spent on campus, over half of their contact time is spent on placement. Many said that they go weeks on end without spending time with other students, making the sense of community and solidarity amongst classmates even more important – but more difficult to deliver following a traditional SU model.
A helping hand
In particular, there are additional barriers to not only joining in but finding the spare time to commit to running events, being on a society committee, and filling out risk assessments.
Theories around equality over equity are important here – some academic societies will need more help from the SU to take on some of the administrative burdens and to understand the types of students they are supporting, so they can ensure events are bespoke so students aren’t spending precious time organising things that their coursemates don’t want to, or can’t, attend.
Additionally, the SU is also evaluating the formation of these societies. For instance, is it always essential to elect a committee for academic groups, especially when students are short on time and may be unable to commit themselves to a position for a full year.
Rather than the immediate response is “yes but you need to have X number of members”, or “you need to fill in this form by X date” and if you don’t we cannot help you, instead UCLan SU is asking students what they want to do – is it running coffee mornings, increasing academic representation, or having a say in the way their course is run, and giving them the space and tools they need to do that?
Easy ways in
Another easy way for SUs to garner the trust of these students and raise the profile of the academic societies is to utilise national dates that are relevant to that course.
For Nursing, UCLan used international nursing day, or the anniversary of the formation of the NHS as an opportunity to celebrate their students and offer free food and social events.
One of the most important things for these “disengaged” courses was a mistrust of the SU and the university because they felt ignored – and the more the SU could do to reverse that, the better.
Linking it together
The feedback I often get from staff in charge of course rep training or student voice as a whole is that students often don’t know who their “rep” is. Sometimes this is a case of lack of clarity or visibility online or on campus. Part of this is also that reps often cover multiple courses or programs, making it difficult to reach all students.
Much of it though, seems to come down to the fact that our systems have developed, often by happenstance, in a way that is complex and not clear to students how the different parts interact.
Westminster SU staff that I talked to recalled focus groups they had conducted with students, in which students shared their concerns about the quality of teaching, the way their course was organised, and their wider academic experience.
When facilitator and Academic Communities Coordinator at WSU, Saadah Osman, asked the students if they had raised these concerns with their course or program reps, the majority said no, and most had little idea what or who their rep was.
Saadah’s role was also developed to build a greater sense of belonging amongst students on courses that had low satisfaction rates and was identified as having low engagement. Like at UCLan, Saadah found that many students wanted to get involved but were struggling to find the time both for the heroics of formal representation, and found it hard to come to additional, non-timetabled social events – as most only spent time on campus for scheduled teaching time in order to cut down on travel costs.
Again, a program-specific approach was needed. For instance, some courses like Law were especially interested in employability-related events, such as career advice, networking events, and interacting with peers that way.
But this differed depending on the program stage, for instance, first-year students preferred primarily social events, whereas final-year and postgraduate students wanted things that would support them after graduation. In this sense, academic buy-in was crucial.
When academic staff promoted the societies or helped facilitate events after a lecture, students felt it gave the event more legitimacy and importance – as well as being more likely to attend because they were already on campus. Student-led activities and SU independence are important, but we should not overlook the power of working with academic schools in a joined-up way.
Most interestingly, though, is the way that the SU is investigating the way these two systems, intended to empower students, interact, or don’t interact more crucially.
Firstly, the SU staffer in charge of course rep training and development is working with, rather than in parallel, to Saadah in order to move closer to a more European-like system.
The aim is to involve more students who do less each – a peer-to-peer support network, cushioned by the SU, that looks at everything from academic queries to coffee mornings and nights out but ultimately improves academic confidence and students’ overall belonging too.
There’s lots more to say about the detail of both these pilot projects and the hard work behind them, and there are definitely other ways to improve academic communities – this is not a one size fits all approach.
Equally, new projects need time, money, and resources that are often scarce.
Of course the history of student activities capacity in the UK doesn’t really help. It has tended over the years to focus much more on risk management than community development – and the separate professions of student activities and student voice has often meant structures and processes that should work neatly together but don’t.
Importantly, these SUs were, and are, willing to take a leap of faith to better support their students, even if it meant going against the grain of usual SU approaches – and the more SUs willing to be brave and do the same, the more opportunities we give students to make friends, form connections and grow during their time with us.