As Vice President Union Development at the National Union of Students, I have the absolute dream job for youth and community work enthusiasts.
I get to work up close and personal with Students’ Union officers and staff, and witness the honourable and remarkable things they do every day.
For the students they represent, the community that surrounds them, and for the wider society that binds them, this is important. And I do mean honourable – Students’ Unions work the extra mile with minimal resources, pushing to provide students the tools they need to be the leaders of tomorrow, inspiring them to be an example and working to make the world that much better for future generations.
Previously I was a student officer at Middlesex University Students’ Union, and that experience has opened my eyes to the world, and the politics of social change. Things that I never would have imagined or have thought about before I got involved in my union. It is a world that really is unspoken about, and I think it is time that the world hears about it.
In my day
In the first part of my university experience, I was never really involved in anything to do with politics. I just wanted to finish my studies and get a degree. That all changed when I started getting involved as a volunteer in my SU. I sat on university committees to make sure that the quality of learning within our institution was up to standard for students, and that we were provided with the materials we needed to have the best possible experience within our classrooms.
I was able to challenge my institution and local government to reform their sexual harassment and hate crime reporting systems, as well as championing the voices of victims and survivors who’ve experienced abuse both on and off campus. I made sure that both the institution and the local community were aware that there had to be a cultural change. I uplifted the voices of the most marginalised of our student community and empowered them to showcase their talents whilst raising funds for a charitable cause.
I successfully led the work on Brexit within my Students’ Union, where we made sure that our students were informed about the implications of Brexit. I collaborated with other Students’ Unions across the country and worked with For our Future’s Sake, the youth wing of the People’s Vote campaign. Together we organised in our thousands to vocally challenge the UK government for their lack of engagement and empathy with young people and our concerns about our futures.
These sorts of journeys are important – but they don’t tend to feature in the perception that society has of students or Students’ Unions. Too many people think of bars, initiation ceremonies or “censorious snowflakes” when they read the words ‘’Students’ Union’’, and some believe students to be lazy, or apathetic. Plenty have never heard of the remarkable things that Students’ Unions contribute to the wider society.
What I have learned is that Students’ Unions have all the potential to inspire and to shape the future leaders of tomorrow. This isn’t just about the odd Labour MP – thousands of charity directors, social entrepreneurs and national campaign founders have all been involved in and/or have been an elected officer at a Students’ Union during their time at university or college. And there are some who even say that they are where they are now because their Students’ Union opened doors to them that they never knew existed.
The bars, parties and social events are only a very small part of what a Students’ Union actually does. Students’ Unions provide a platform for students to talk about societal issues they care about, support students to contribute to their local communities, and to challenge their institutions and government to break down structural barriers within society.
Students’ Unions are entering a completely new chapter and one of the biggest challenges we have faced: a global pandemic.
Through the difficulties, SUs have done great work to contribute to their local communities on shoe-string budgets.
- SU officers have supported students that don’t have the luxury to go back home and are stuck in their accommodation suffering from loneliness.
- SUs have stepped up for students who don’t have the proper equipment and materials they need to continue their studies.
- Almost every SU has had to lead on work to help students who have been exploited by landlords who take advantage of the pandemic for financial gain.
- Others have prioritised students who are disabled and high risk who aren’t able to go out and buy food and essentials for their wellbeing.
- Some have intervened when students who cannot complete their studies because they were not able to do the necessary amount of training that is fundamental to their learning and qualification.
- I’ve seen examples of SUs collaborating to develop 24 hour help and support lines for lonely and isolated students.
- Others have worked with their council and activist groups to tackle sexual and domestic violence in their city.
Their focus has shifted from what can they do to make their education system better, to what they we do to ensure our education system survives. Our reality has changed, and our conversations to fight societal oppression and improve our educational structures and system have all adapted around the pandemic crisis theme.
To deliver now, SUs now face a triple-whammy. First, they have to work harder than ever to deliver social activity that previously was often fairly organic. Second, there are more students that need help and need more of it. And representing students’ views and interests has become vital and relentless, because decisions are being taken every day with a student interest bearing.
What students’ unions can’t do is both take a huge hit to commercial income from cafes, bars, shops and advertising that they run; take a significant subvention or grant cut; do even more work than they have previously; and then help universities deliver the “usual” student experience “as soon as social distancing rules allow”.
If “something has to give”, we need to realise that students and their unions already have and will continue to do so – but there are limits.