Sometimes we have to get loud

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

You know what it’s like when you visit another country – at first you’re looking for similarities and differences (“Look, a foodstuff that sounds rude!”) but a couple of days in, you start to develop a deeper understanding.

On the Copenhagen day of the Wonkhe SUs European Study Tour a few of us certainly had that sensation when it became clear that what we thought of as student societies were much more focussed on purpose and projects. In the UK, a group of Chess enthusiasts might form a club, play a game and go on a pub crawl. In Denmark, you’re as likely to to see a group of students organising a Chess tournament or classes that introduce others to the game – with the SUs focussed providing the kind of support that makes events and social mixing happen.

It’s culture we saw replicated at the Copenhagen Business School students’ union, where just as we might expect there’s a Freshers fair with stalls. But there’s also a whole day Freshers’ Festival, where students from those groups organise performances, try out sessions, demonstrations, screenings, debates and talks for new students. It sounds like a way to bring the diversity of student activity to life and gets beyond the unspoken social sorting of students joining societies only to spend time with people like them.

More councilling now

A common theme that we’ve seen so far is the amalgamation of what we might call academic societies, student rep systems and careers work. At the University of Copenhagen, for example, subject councils safeguard the student interest and organise academic, social, employability and political events for students – involving themselves in everything from curriculum development to guest speaker talks and mentoring programmes. In universities that are becoming increasingly large and difficult to navigate, it’s a community focussed solution to plenty of the problems that students face.

In the UK we tend to focus on the annual full-time student officer election as the key “democratic moment” for SUs – but at CBS it’s the annual election for students to school boards that attracts turnouts of over 30 percent and over 150 candidates from across the institution. A “party list” system sees the officially recognised SU fielding candidates for the roles, and SU funding is based on the total number of SU affiliated candidates winning their positions.

Downtown at the Studenterhuset – a student charity facility that is shared by students across the city – the spirit of service is strong. “Actory” supports students to create sustainability projects that make a concrete difference in society. The Repair Café enlists students to help fix broken stuff, the Language Café sees international students helping others to broaden their conversational skills, and a regular flea market helps students save money. And their events for new students are relentlessly focussed on international and home students mixing rather than being socialised and housed in country silos.

At our visit to Studenterhuset we were lucky to spend some time with the international officer from Danske Studerendes Fællesråd, Denmark’s NUS – which devotes one of its full-time officers to international cooperation and networking. It’s an organisation impressively focussed on “influencing” – both inside and outside of the formal committee rooms – arguing that it’s students that can be the expert on students and that their contribution to policy making can be impactful and creative, especially when backed by research. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t do campaigning – 50,000 students on the streets over a student grants campaign recently is no mean feat for a country so small – but it does mean that it believes passionately in the power of having students in the room.

We are big where you are small

Over the Øresund bridge to Sweden, students’ unions lost an argument over automatic membership a few years back – which means that students must pay membership fees to their SU to benefit from services, activities and representation. At Malmö SU the “sell” features soup lunches, student breakfasts, music pubs, festmesteriet’s club evenings, unsold seats to theatre and gig performances, and quiz and bar hangouts – as well as student advocacy.

In each of the university’s four faculties an elected “student ombuds” takes up student “errands” – occasions where the rights of students to get feedback on time, or have teaching they value and understand, are breached. These are neither course reps nor advice workers – they’re the enforcers of hard won rights to a good education, who go on to produce impressive annual reports, and a reminder that while student “rights” are often negatively framed as consumerist, they can be just as important in the opposite of a marketised system.

Back in Copenhagen a slightly different version of the Ombuds idea is in action. There an independent figure appointed jointly by the SU and university is a kind of internal OIA – trusted both by students and the university to adjudicate fairly on complaints, advise on processes and cause systematic improvements off the back of complaints trends. As universities in England and Wales become increasingly defensive and secretive over complaints handing (and settlements), it’s a model that more closely resembles the idea that complaints should generate learning and change and ought to be adopted back home for any university with a student body over a certain number.

That openness was also reflected back in Malmö, which has just won the right to have course reports – compiled from student feedback – published online. They argued that it will help inform student choice and drive positive change – because the causes of positive feedback will be easier to disseminate, and negative feedback will be harder to ignore.

Malmö were also really keen to inform us that it is the current holder of the Swedish NUS’ “Student City of the Year” – an awards scheme organised by students to showcase close cooperation over housing, transport and civic engagement:

The city that receives the Student City of the Year award must be characterized by good collaboration between students, the city and the university, and it is with pride that SFS names Malmö the Student City of the Year 2021/2022. The award goes to a city that is not afraid of new challenges. A city that always has development in focus. A city that is proud of its students. A city that is prepared to do everything to make students happy – before, during, and after their education.

The City of Malmö, Malmö University, Malmö Student Union and the Odontological Student Union Malmö conduct structured work to strengthen the student city Malmö. Malmö is a student city to study, live and thrive in. The city safeguards students’ well-being and shows a well-integrated student influence in all processes.”

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