Students unions are all the same. Or are they?

Olly Norman is Student Activities Coordinator at Reading University Students'​ Union

The thing about students’ unions is that they are all unique. Whilst this may seem pretty obvious, until recently it did not seem this way to me.

I was a sabbatical officer at Loughborough Students Union (LSU) and I loved every single minute of it. LSU is a behemoth on campus, you simply can’t escape it. It does the usual – managing societies and sports clubs, holding annual elections etc, but there was so much more that LSU offered that I presumed was the norm elsewhere.

I’m talking costumes and themes during the annual elections, radio stations and TV channels directly and semi-independently involved in the reporting of the elections, a dedicated volunteering sabb, and a few more.

This is not to say that SUs not doing these things are in any way worse, but as a sabb I presumed this was the norm. Whilst this is partially down to ignorance on my side, I do think that not being in the NUS and therefore not being privy to the knowledge base that provides was crucial. LSU left in my first year as a student for reasons into which I won’t dive into but I didn’t realise what this takes away from you as an officer.

I loved my time at LSU but what I came to realise toward the Christmas of my term in office was that whilst I did indeed love LSU, it was SUs generally that I loved more. I began to fully grasp how important a functioning SU is to time students have at university.

We had three nightclubs, we had their student activities, we were linked with their hall of residence, we provided academic support, we had study spaces, coffee shops. All of this played a huge role in the lives of students, it definitely did in mine, and how could a student body and an SU function without all these vital cogs of student life?

I was wrong

In my head, SUs were a physical place with a bar, a shop, and a hub of organised student activities. This is what an SU is and that is what it does. Should I have known differently at the time? Yes. Whilst we were taken on visits to other SUs like Royal Holloway and Leeds, I didn’t really take in what was different about them – instead I drew on the similarities and looked how we at LSU could improve on things we had in common. An ignorant mindset that was snuffed out quickly.

In the April of my sabbatical year I left. I had completed what I wanted to complete and achieved what I wanted to achieve. I had been offered a role as a Student Engagement Coordinator at Oxford SU and I took it. I wanted to stay in the student movement and continue driving it forward, being able to do this in a new city with a university as globally prestigious as Oxford was incredibly exciting. Plus, I wanted to forge a career for myself in HE and this was the natural next step, that or re-election but I wanted to run the elections not run in them.

I was told that Oxford would be very different to what I had previously experienced and whilst I did take that on board, I was not ready for how different.

I arrived for my first day of work and the SU was two floors, with one being a lovely open plan office with fantastic views out over the gorgeous grounds of Worcester College, and the other full of sofas and chairs, as well as meeting rooms and a radio studio. It was very different to what I had been used to. As were my first few weeks in the job.

A world of difference

I experienced a fortnightly student council which was well attended and had fierce debate. I was focusing on governance work, student led and staff supported campaigns, working with officers with a complete focus on either welfare or academia, nothing really on student activities, at least not in the traditional sense.

This move did me an absolute world of good. I was moving away from being a sabbatical officer to a staff member, but I was doing it when technically I had four months left of my term in office. The transition is, I believe, not one that is extremely challenging. There are individual challenges of course: learning to work with officers rather than being one; interacting with students differently; coming to terms with being solely a paid employee rather than a hybrid of employee/elected representative, just to name a few. I firmly believe that if you are passionate about the student movement and buy into the strategic goals of your organisation then the transition is not that hard.

However what I quickly came to realise is how wrong I was with my previous assumptions. Oxford, like all small and specialist student unions, is unique and different and that is nothing but a good thing. Student engagement does not have to mean societies and sports clubs – it can and often does mean that, but it does not have to.

Learning and development

Oxford taught me so much about other ways in which you engage students: active and strong campaigns for the betterment of the student body; huge pushes on the major access issues that face not just Oxford students but students across the country; mental health issues around exams; frequent and well attended student democracy. I had been so naïve in thinking there was one correct way to do things and I have come to view the student movement differently as a result.

The point I am trying to make is this: if you are working at a large commercial based student union, especially if you are a sabbatical officer, go and see how the smaller ones do things. They will often have the most creative and genius ways of engaging with their student bodies, it will only benefit you in the long run. Each SU is great precisely because it’s unique. It shapes itself towards the needs of its members, there is now way something like LSU would work at Oxford.

One of the best things about SUs is how different they are. They are all unique and if that seems obvious to you now, look again – I promise you you’ll see something new.

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