Opportunity blocked: the value of SUs

At Wonkhe, we are real fans of the UK’s unique Students’ Union sector.

Earlier this year we launched Wonkhe SUs – a subscription service designed to support SU officers and staff to represent students’ effectively. We produce policy briefings and beginner’s guides on key issues in higher education, a bespoke weekly news service for SUs featuring the latest developments, news coverage, analysis and opportunities for SUs – as well as access to training, webinars, the team at Wonkhe and a dedicated subsite.

Many of the team started their careers at Wonkhe in higher education by working in SUs and we know first hand the value that involvement in activities, representation and leadership can have. But we also had a hunch that right now, those opportunities – and the benefits that can come from them – are not evenly distributed across the student population. And given that our subscriber SUs were worried about that too, we decided to work with Trendence UK to find out more about said benefits and their distribution.

We began the process back in January 2019 with a small study on student belonging and loneliness at university (“Only the Lonely”), and in summer 2019 we expanded the study to look in more detail at student involvement in activities – the benefits for students of getting involved in terms of career, course and mental health; who is and isn’t experiencing those benefits; and what can be done about it.

The headline results are fascinating – and show that even when we control for student characteristics, there are major positive links between student wellbeing, course and career confidence and involvement. It’s also clear that a students’ course is a key place to find friendships – so ensuring that academic schools/departments/faculties facilitate meaningful opportunities to build friendships is key.

It’s also clear that SUs and universities should identify ways in which opportunities can be designed to reduce the level of initial commitment – be that financial, opportunity/time, and crucially emotional – and that “entry” points to involvement should exist year-round, rather than “loaded” into a busy Freshers’ period.

Above all, it’s clear that investment in SUs – especially targeted on social capital, friendship and diversifying the sorts of students involved in activities – could bring huge benefits to students and institutions. We’re enormously grateful to the student officers and staff in SUs that helped design the work and are looking forward to working with subscriber SUs to make the most of the findings.

Key findings

  1. 13% of students do not think that they have any “true friends” at university. Mature students, those that live at home with their parents/guardians and those that self-identify are disability are the most likely to report not having any friends.
  2. Almost a third (28%) of those that are not confident about their degree do not consider themselves to have any true friends at university.
  3. Almost 8 out of 10 students (79%) are involved in some kind of extra-curricular activity while at university. However, the level of participation varies significantly depending on students’ profile. Those who live at home with their parents/guardians, postgraduate students and Black/African/Caribbean students are less likely to be involved.
  4. Regardless of background, students’ main reasons for partaking in extra-curricular activities is to meet new people, make friends and have fun. Only a third (32%) say that they want to get involved to improve their CV.
  5. Almost half of the school students surveyed (47%) are expecting their SU to be an important part of their university life. However, 35% of current university students say that the SU is an important part of their university life, and recent graduates are even less positive, with 29% feeling the same.
  6. 83% of those that are very likely to recommend their SU feel that it represents their academic interests compared to only 7% of those that would not recommend their SU.
  7. Only half of the respondents (51%) feel they are involved in the decision making at their SU and even fewer (38%) believe that they can hold their elected student representatives to account.
  8. Overall, 82% of students feel confident about completing their degree, 10% are neutral and 7% do not feel confident. Students from minority ethnic groups, those that live with their parents/guardians and those that self-report having a disability (in particular mental health difficulties) are more likely to report feeling less confident about completing their degree.
  9. Students that are not involved in any kind of activities are twice as likely as those that take part to not feel confident about their degree (11% compared to 6%).  Students that  feel lonely on a daily basis are more likely to be dissatisfied with the quality of their course.
  10. Partaking in university life has a positive impact even on those student groups that are more likely to not feel confident about completing their degree. 78% of the students that self‐report having a disability, but are involved in extracurricular activities are more confident about completing their degree, compared to 66% of those that do not take part in any activities. A similar trend is apparent when we look at students from ethnic minority backgrounds and those living with their parents/guardians.

The findings in full

Opportunity blocked: how lonely are students?

Opportunity blocked: getting involved

Opportunity blocked: students’ unions

Opportunity blocked: commuters and London

Opportunity blocked: student confidence and outcomes

Leave a Reply