Just as in student representation, over in the student activities profession SUs have moved from basic financial support, to regulatory support over issues like health and safety and risk, and into development support – helping students to build their organisations and volunteer capacity.
But the sheer pace of outputs and major events, along with the huge growth in societies in recent years might be inhibiting us from taking a step back and asking what it is we’re trying to achieve.
Where does the friendship and loneliness agenda fit in? Are we doing enough on access and participation in our activities? Is there a problematic focus on “societies” which always rely on a culture of volunteerism that some students haven’t the time to provide?
And do we have the right staffing competencies – which increasingly resemble the community and youth work profession given the challenges on campus?
These are all big questions for SU strategies, and here we look at a couple – the question of what Freshers week is for, and student led events.
Is it time to refresh Freshers week?
Alun Minifey, Head of Student Opportunities UEASU
The welcome period is fast looming but so is Varsity, the society awards, student group handovers elections and end of year balls. And it’s all too easy in a busy cycle to do what we did last year but with some tweaks. But should we be taking a bigger step back?
At UEA this year we have had just that opportunity over Freshers. For several years now we haven’t had the traditional ‘welcome week’ for students to find their way, join groups and get to know their flat mates. They have arrived on campus and done all welcome activity with nights out too, alongside their first lectures and induction. For a week that is so often classed as overwhelming, this really played into that description.
This year however we’ve persuaded the university to reintroduce a full welcome week (after some lobbying), and with it a brand-new opportunity to look and play around with our programme. 94 meetings later were looking at our first draft, starting to measure our programme against our goals and checking, have we got this right? Is the balance ok? Have we got enough tours? Let’s tell them how to use the laundrette? What’s our non-alcoholic offering?
Out of the many conversations in recent months its just got me thinking about welcome from an activities and opportunities perspective. We are so often ‘deliverers’ in the area of welcome but how can it mean more? How can we build our programmes around the impacts and not the transactions it so often feels like?
Let’s take it back to basics. This year our scoping exercises for welcome involved two groups pairing activity with a classic, Maslow’s hierarchy, alongside another group matching activity to the five pillars of belonging that the institution has developed. It reminded us that our energy is better suited to aiding transition, tackling isolation and facilitating conversations.
Once we layered the two it gave us both the foundations of a transition programme that will hopefully allow students to grow into their first term on their own terms.
Out of the above process it has given me a few activities and opportunities related thoughts when developing your own welcome programme, I thought I would share:
- Generate momentum – looking ahead to the times where people may struggle.
- Linking up – there are many professional services that are delivering activity across the university – linking up to combine resources to share the load helps.
- Set yourself the challenge of matching and bettering your night-time offering with your daytime one! Last year we piloted for the first time the daytime non-alcoholic wristband to a great success, an idea in passing that was brought to life by a brilliant staff member! The demand is there we just need to level the playing field for promotion and quality….it doesn’t need loads of money utilise what you’ve got, do what activities offices do best and make a little go a long way!
- Don’t ignore the small bits – this year we will likely launch our first laundrette social putting the person in Persil! Let’s help those first washes but also bring to life the moments that aren’t so glamourous. The jury is still out on that idea! But pick your activity wisely if you book games or inflatables, book the ones that aren’t embarrassing to take part it in or is multiplayer. Being flung 10 feet in the air on a bungee run on your first day may not be the image you were trying to portray!
- Give your promo purpose – pens are useful and so are wall planners, but last year we put board games on the back of wall planners to encourage people to play talk and get to know each other. Other elements were disposable cameras to capture those welcome memories and small flat decorations.
- Fairs not fayres – students parting with their cash to 20 different clubs and societies are dwindling and the process is now much more selective! Make sure to have as many taster sessions as possible it is these groups that are our most valued asset. And take your fairs to the next level, think about showcasing and making them an event that inspires participation does not force it or guilts it. We need to play an active role in ensuring the persuasion of membership is genuine and working with groups and briefing them fully on welcome activity is. I know we need to work harder on this. Be sure to create as many opportunities as possible with student group committees to make it clear its open to join.
- From small town to big city – we often focus on the transition of countries or from school/employment to university. As we look at the statistics that city’s often drive social isolation lets take this into consideration.
- Pots and pans and cookery shows – yes let’s do the pots and pans sale but lets also think of clever promotions/activities to link them too. Situate your activities next to popular sales like posters and plants or vintage clothes that draw a crowd. Our poster sale and disco mini golf hybrid last year went down wonderfully.
I recognise this sounds like a rallying cry, but maybe it’s time to dig out that welcome spreadsheet and sit and ponder for a minute – rather than just doing what we did last year.
Increasingly it’s events that matter
Dan Fow – Societies Development Coordinator, SU UCL
Societies up and down the country run a whole host of events both large and small and it is important that these are all recognised.
Societies across all categories have the opportunity and put on some hugely successful events – but what is important for us to remember is that numbers coming to events doesn’t denote how successful those events are. It is also about what students are learning from the process, being able to successfully run and manage an event through the comprehensive events process and cycle.
Societies across the country put on a whole host of events ranging from conferences, to bake sales, boat parties, food festivals and everything in-between.
What is really interesting is hearing about how societies think they have done putting those events and to how they think their events have been successful. Typical responses may include ‘lots of people coming long’ but others, not so much. Because their activities are so niche, if they get 10 people in a room and the students have got a lot out of it, to them this is success. Looking at the successes at National Societies Awards it is really great to see such a mix of societies all different sizes being shortlisted.
Breadth as well as depth
It is also really impressive to see the breath of activities that societies to put on, and having spoken to and worked collaboratively with different students’ unions on successful society events it is really important that we celebrate the success of society’s events in whatever ways we can.
At UCL we have seen a real growth in cultural celebration events such as Food and Culture Festivals and cross culture celebration events that societies are holding throughout the year. Whilst the numbers are important, what is equally as important in these events is that we are giving students a platform to celebrate their backgrounds and cultures – particularly prominent at UCL as ‘London’s Global University’.
The other large growth area that we are seeing is our conferences program with more conferences and high profile speakers coming to UCL year on year as well as hackathons, charity weeks and much more.
Training and development
The next big growth area for us is to make sure that we are training societies to ensure that their events are as diverse and inclusive as possible. We have noticed that more postgraduates are attending society events and students are going along to cultural events in the aim to learn more about different cultures.
We are also working with Widening Participation and other teams to better establish the needs of for example our commuting students to better understand how we can encourage society events to work for the whole student body, and find out exactly what the wants are of our students – and how it can work for them.
Overall, it is fantastic to see more and more events happening each year with more students being involved and more events taking place and students being inspired to run them.