This article is more than 1 year old

Students need to see themselves in their SU

This article is more than 1 year old

For many years now, the question in the National Student Survey (NSS) on students’ unions has been a consistent low-performer.

In 2022, for example, just 53 per cent of respondents gave a positive response – some distance behind the wider student voice category on 67 per cent.

From time to time this has posed a national problem – as some in both government and think tanks have argued that SUs should be defunded as a result.

It also can pose a problem for SUs locally in discussions with their university over representativeness, funding, legitimacy or a claim for more seats on committees or more consultation.

So just as happens in the wider university sector over the wider question set, each year attempts have been made to guess, work out or surmise why that number might be so low – and then attempts have been made to either actively decide to address it, or accept that the question’s myriad faults mean it’s not useful metric.

And so the problem has long been that when you look at the top 10 or 15 performers, they appear to share no characteristics, approaches or styles. They’re about as diverse a set of SUs as you can get.

Now if you’ve been following along as we’ve been sharing initial results from our Belong project, you’ll know that we’re particularly interested in qualitative comments as a way of better understanding quantitative scores.

It’s important that we know why students might be thinking of dropping out, or why they’re not confident about the job market, as a way of ensuring that effort to improve metrics that cover those areas isn’t misdirected.

And so as part of our work with our partners at Cibyl and a group of “pioneer” SUs – where we’ve been developing Belong into a new kind of monthly student survey designed to help SUs and their universities not just know students’ opinions, but understand and learn from their lives too – we thought we’d try to find out why students are positive or negative about their SU.

Before you were born

First, a little backstory. Prior to 2016, the NSS included a general question on satisfaction with the students’ union that asked students to think about “all” of all the services it provided “including support, activities and academic representation”.

But when a review concluded that the “core” NSS should focus in on the student academic experience, the old funding council that coordinated the survey initially argued that a) SUs weren’t really about the student learning experience, and b) not all providers had one, so the question would have to go.

SUs at the time were very keen that an imperfect question in the NSS would be better than no question at all, so after endless attempts at finding a question students understood, the compromise was:

To what extent do you agree with the following statement: The students’ union (association or guild) effectively represents students’ academic interest.

That was not ideal. Cognitive testing told HEFCE that students didn’t understand the question, and later research from a consortium of SUs suggested that students thought it meant “aspects of their course they were interested in”.

Plenty of students hadn’t realised that the SU played a role in academic representation at all, viewing it instead as a building or facilitator of clubs and societies.

And the Likert scale used in the NSS meant that students were able to use “Neither Agree nor Disagree” as a way of signalling that they didn’t understand the question or know enough about the SU to make a decision.

That meant – and has meant for all the years the question ran – that Q26 has never been the question that attracted the most negative “active disagree” responses. In fact last summer the question was second from last on positivity – but only 9th for negativity:

They’ve made it even worse

Over the past couple of years a review of the NSS has been carried out by the Office for Students on behalf of the whole of the UK, and a number of changes are to be introduced.

Questions were all rephrased, some new questions (on mental health support awareness and free speech) were introduced, and some questions (like the one on community) were killed off.

For SUs, I won’t repeat the story here of how Q26 was handled, suffice to say that the new iteration fared poorly in cognitive testing and seems to suffer from many of the same issues its predecessor did.

How well does the students’ union (association or guild) represent students’ academic interests

But perhaps more importantly, given the “middle” option (“neither agree nor disagree”) has now been abolished from all questions in the survey, the big question was always going to be how that might impact the question with the biggest NAND score – Q26.

With almost 1 in 5 students ticking that box last year, as well as trying to deepen our understanding of how students feel about SUs, we’re sure many have been wondering how students would jump if forced off the fence.

Results here are from January and February, around 90 higher education providers are covered, and the sample of around 1600 has been weighted for gender and age.

Which way did they jump?

We are not claiming that the sample we have is representative of the full population that has completed the NSS this year – not least because OfS includes a much wider range of providers while limiting to final year undergraduates (we include PGs and asked all years). It’s also important to remember that the NSS is a different survey with different questions being asked prior to the SU one, and we’ve removed “does not apply to me” results here.

Nevertheless, the results are encouraging. In our sample, the question got an 81 per cent positivity score – broken down as follows:

How well does the students’ union (association or guild) represent students’ academic interests?

  • Very well 27%
  • Well 54%
  • Not very well 14%
  • Not at all well 5%

If – am I must stress this is a big if – the final result in July is anything close to that, the SU sector will be breaking out the champers to celebrate.

As is now traditional, you’d expect me to interrogate the relationship between community and belonging and SU satisfaction. And as in previous blogs, there appears to be a pretty strong correlation. 88 per cent of students who felt part of a community were positive about the SU, falling to 57 per cent for those that didn’t:

I feel part of a community of students and staff
Strongly agreeAgreeDisagreeStrongly disagree
How well does the students' union (association or guild) represent students' academic interests? Very well5421125
Not very well8102931
Not at all well331219

Some speculate that it’s activities and involvement that drives a good score even on a question about academic representation, and to that end one of the things we’re intending to do each month that our “pulse” style survey runs is ask students both about awareness of and satisfaction with the SU (as well as qualitative questions on why, of course).

In this sample it is true that awareness of and satisfaction with activities and opportunities offered via the SU and societies has a strong correlation with the NSS question. But that’s not the whole story:

When we look at the relationship between the NSS question and the four factors above, the pearson correlation scores shake out like this:

  • Activities awareness 0.35
  • Activities satisfaction 0.36
  • Voice satisfaction 0.38
  • Voice awareness 0.53

That’s right – the runaway winner is students being aware of the things the SU does to represent students’ views and concerns, even if they’re not satisfied with what the SU says on behalf of students.

And again here, when we look at correlations with the community question, it’s representation awareness that comes out strongest.

What is representation?

When we dive into the qualitative comments, it’s unsurprising that of those positive about the SU in that NSS, we get a mixture of views, many of which relate to communications channels and a breadth of activities and participation.

But when we filter and analyse the questions for (academic) representation and voice, two things become apparent. The first is that students really appreciate being obviously and actively consulted and listened to:

  • Really listens to students and always provides opportunities for voices to be heard and opinions to be considered
  • The SU has been helpful in plenty ways especially as an international student they always listen to our worries
  • They are really good listeners so much supportive and very friendly so that any student can comfortably contact them anytime while they are available or students can reach them out by writings as well.
  • The SU does a good job at voicing out the students concerns through different media and offers a lot of activities and opportunities for students to do throughout the year.

The second is that while students obviously like “wins”, it’s seeing and hearing themselves and their issues represented that really matters:

  • Because they’re open and honest about improvements which is refreshing, as usually those in power tell us they’ll do things to help change for the better but it usually ends up being a massive lie, so the students union usually keep their promises.
  • I think the SU does a good job at raising important issues and at trying to protect students’ best interests.
  • I believe the student union is doing a fairly good job keeping in touch with what the students need and want
  • I know what they strive to do and am aware of some successes. I’m not sure how much senior management allow what students want to be considered
  • The SU are always act as an interface between the university and the students, and just recently, during the strike, the SU had information pasted across campus, trying to calm students regarding their course work, highly commendable

This is interesting because research into effective political communication stresses that citizens favour messaging as follows:

  1. There being opportunities to be heard
  2. Evidence that we have been heard
  3. Synthesis and demonstrating understanding (reflecting back experiences and stories)
  4. Acting to represent the issues and concerns to others
  5. Communicating back the results of that representation

Research also shows that politicians and representatives tend to believe that they should focus on 4 and 5 (talking a lot about themselves, what they are doing and what they are achieving) which appears to be less effective at building affinity and loyalty than demonstrating that citizens have been heard and understood.

Who are you talking about?

When interrogating the negative comments, it’s hard to overestimate the way in which personal negative experiences – often about being ignored or sidelined when approaching the SU or its officers – cloud students’ responses to the wider question.

But again it is clear that talking about the SU itself and its officers generates much more negativity than talking about students and their issues:

  • The SU has been near on useless when it comes to student issues. Throughout three years, I have not once seen the SU actually represent something that students actually cared about. They are too focused on their PR, rather than helping students with tough issues.
  • They do not communicate their views to the whole university and keep it in a limited group.
  • I once sought for help related to academic issues and mental health issues from SU, however, nobody responded to me at all.
  • i don’t see representation of student views and concerns
  • SU in our university is very limited all they do is promote themselves, I never saw them working with students and helping student, though few exceptions are there.
  • it has not been clear as it could’ve been where they stand with things in students interests.

And the importance of being seen to be separate from the university – even where that may cause some friction – can’t be overstated either:

  • The SU was just a puppet of the university’s board. Absolutely no use to the students
  • It seems overly influenced by the desires of the university’s governing board and unwilling to enact change which the board does not like
  • They vrepresent the university to us not us to the university

As the project continues, there will be further opportunities to analyse the responses, and look in detail at particular characteristics of students. But one thing to note here is that for international students in particular, being “represented” by seeing oneself and one’s issues communicated back appears to be particularly important:

  • There is less focus on promoting international students’ views and opinions, and the SU tend to promote and focus on promoting opportunities for local students. Not even one member from the SU is international therefore, 1 out of 20 events are mostly targeted only towards local students.
  • The SU has been helpful in plenty ways especially as an international student they always listen to our worries
  • Never interacted in any way with the Student Union
  • SU is great because students get to know each other. As there are very international students so SU is a good platform to unite every student

What to do with the narrow funnel?

Overall, the findings here could be powerful both in relation to communicating with students and in terms of democratic reform. On the former, we’ve discussed before the way in which the content of social media posts and webpages can tend toward discussing the SU, its officers and their actions and wins rather than students and their issues.

And on the latter, it’s clear that while democratic structures – both elections and other types of structures – ought to be able to prioritise issues facing students, if the scaffolding results in students not feeling represented at all, there’s almost certainly a problem.

Some argue that boosting voter turnout is the way to make SUs more representative. But while voting might prioritise action on cost of living over mental health in a given year, if it’s possible for a nursing student or a Nigerian student (or a Nigerian nursing student) to never see or hear someone talking about placements, immigration and so on, then something has gone wrong.

30,000 students voting for a single set of 5 officers are always going to be disappointed if they’re searching for themselves. What’s clear is that hyper-diverse student communities need SU structures that develop more far leaders that look like them, look like they’re listening and are capable of acting.

You can find out more about Belong and how your SU can get involved in our launch brochure here.

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