Time for SUs to write a new chapter on community on campus

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

I will, I promise, stop on about Scandinavia soon.

But the truth is, I don’t get heart-racing excited about much these days. And when it comes to academic communities, the way that that’s done across Denmark, Sweden and Norway deserves another few hundred words.

First the good news. As UK HE has become more and more diverse, our SUs have become better at facilitating identity and characteristics-based communities. A good LGBT+ society and/or LGBT+ officer(s) at a university in the UK will give students friendships, lobby on important issues, liaise with the careers department over LGBT+ focussed graduate employment initiatives, and facilitate peer support. It’ll also get involved where a university wants to liberate its curriculum or diversify its reading lists.

Similarly, your average SU is pretty good at facilitating interests-based communities. At most freshers fairs, there’s a dizzying array of interest and ideas to choose from that can give students – often the ones less likely to “lead” or “win” a contest to be a rep – a space to build a social network, raise funds for charities, stage events for other students, campaign on issues, get involved in politics or share a faith or passion.

SUs in the UK also have a pretty good record on getting students involved in structures to advance their interests. Sometimes that’s about encouraging students to register to vote in a local election. Sometimes it’s about attending a town hall meeting with the VC. Sometimes it’s a course rep gathering feedback on the curriculum. Sometimes that’s about participating in democratic forums. It’s all about helping students to interact across explicit, formal or institutionalised power or authority gradients in education and society.

Capitalism

Despite these success stories, there’s a problem. If you look at those success stories through the optic of social capital theory, there’s plenty of “bonding” social capital being built – where we spend time with people like ourselves – both “officially” through identity and characteristics-based communities, and unofficially through societies. There’s also a fair bit of “linking” social capital being built – where students interact with the structures that are designed to mediate their interests as a community or in the context of students within the community or country.

But when it comes to bridging social capital – where we spend time with people not like us – there’s a yawning gap. Building connections with and between those who are dissimilar to us with respect to socioeconomic and other characteristics is a crucial bit of the overall experience – it’s supposed to generate empathy, makes us more capable of thinking collectively and strategically about our experiences, reduces imposter syndrome and means that if there isn’t an identity group or a society for us, we’ll still feel included.

And in any event, social capital theory as usually described ignores another aspect that really matters in higher education – that of academic capital. What if, as well as believing that students should individually get the right teaching and support and facilities, we believed that students should build that academic experience from this capital perspective too – working with other students and academics to get into, immerse in and develop new thinking around their chosen subject area. We aren’t, if we’re honest, much cop at that in the UK. But we could be.

New chapters

At almost every institution that we visited on the Wonkhe SUs study tour, there were component SUs within the main SU. Sometimes these were called student divisions, sometimes they were framed as sections, sometimes chapters, and in some cases they were called or even actually were separate students’ unions.

Take Tekniska Högskolans Studentkår (THS), the SU at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. On first sight, this is a pretty familiar looking students’ union – save for the sauna in the SU building. Its mission is to “monitor and contribute to the development of the education and the conditions for study at the university” and to “promote good cohesion and fellowship among the students at the university”. There’s a Union Council (KF), some full-time students on sabbatical, study spaces, offices, and student associations for sport, hobbies, religions and campaigning.

But scratch a bit below that surface and you won’t be finding academic societies, and you won’t be finding a separate big push on course reps.

If you’re a new student arriving in autumn, you will see groups on campus, dancing or chanting and wearing “weird” clothes. At KTH these groups are called “Chapters” and they are connected to different subject areas. Every student on every programme belongs to a specific chapter, which you’ll recognise from their different coloured overalls.

Each chapter organises a scheme where a student will look after a group of new students and show them around the campus, the city and the diversity of the student body. They each have a welcome programme of informal activity that segues neatly with the main SU events. Every chapter has their own chapter hall, where students study together, meet friends or heat up food during their lunch break. Each chapter hosts a weekly “pub” during the week where the emphasis is on social networking rather than getting off their face.

Some organise tournaments, or careers events. Some get involved in curriculum development projects and international exchange. Some go big on causing international students to integrate with home students. All of them organise the student representation in their academic area – flexing the structures and meetings and processes around the students they have.

The Architecture chapter at KTH goes big on sustainability work – a big issue in that academic field. The chapter for students enrolled in the Vehicle Engineering program at KTH organises careers networking evenings. Some of the chapters put on student led study skills sessions for others. Some put on amazing weeks of subject based learning for other students – attracting incredible guest speakers who are more likely to come for free is it’s students asking. Some run their own harassment initiatives, or take the lead on tackling problem conduct that has cropped up in their chapter. Many run their own campaigns – linking with other chapters on student hardship, hidden course costs or student safety.

Most command significant support from faculty, school or department based staff – many of whom have budget to spare and alumni keen to donate time, expertise and cash. All have high levels of student involvement in their democracy. And most SUs support a chapter for PhD students too – as well as supplying student representation from PhD students into the university and promoting the rights of PhD students, at KTH next week the PhD chapter will welcome Resolution Games, a world leading video games firm, to run an afternoon of interesting presentations and discussions, some VR gaming, and an after-work mingle with Resolution employees.

Like all the others, the KTH Chemistry chapter looks after its own education board. It evaluates courses, appoints students to union council and course rep roles (and trains them), intervenes at faculty board meetings, and gets involved in both the the hiring and promoting of teachers. And if students have problems with premises or personal injuries, or need basic advice about treatment from other students or academic misconduct – it’s done via the chapter.

“School play syndrome” is strong here. You know the old theory – when the central SU organises something it’s like a broadway musical – everyone moans and most of them fail. But when students organise stuff for each other, it can be a bit ropey but it’s like a school play – everyone loves it because of the emotional ties.

Why are we like this?

There are lots of reasons why we’ve not really got there with a system like that in the UK. Part of it is our obsession with electing everything – which does mean that enthusiastic students who want to help with the running of their course or serving other students are asked to take part in a public process where they might lose, and if they win they often end up doing something they didn’t want to do anyway.

Part of it is about the two separate staff support professions that we’ve built up in the UK – one around voluntary clubs and socs, and one around voice – so no wonder our rep systems are separate from our academic societies. Some of it is a historical lack of focus on careers and business engagement – and the gatekeeping of it by careers departments.

Some of it is a mistaken belief that students these days need stuff done for them and to them rather than encouraging them to do stuff for each other. The big drive to cause SUs to think as charities rather than mutuals in the UK encourages this – and while we do have to think about barriers to involvement and bursaries, we also have to admit that our KPIs are often about service satisfaction rather than social capital and community.

Would an approach like this work? I’m not sure. You can never underestimate how easy it is to snap back to what we did last year and to the assumptions built into current jobs roles and bylaws. But I do know this.

Increasingly, we have a community and belonging problem in the UK. Proximity theory means that you’re more likely to find friends on your course than anywhere else – but if you don’t, that therefore hits harder – as we saw in the pandemic. If we’re worried about belonging, no centrally run scheme will ever match support groups of enthusiastic student leaders – who might not want to stand in the celebrity sabbatical contest – to stage an amazing, inclusive welcome week for their faculty or department.

Meet the pilot

I also know that everywhere I go, I meet PVCs and faculty deans who are crying out for student structures to talk to between raw rep and stressed sabb. I meet people committed to student voice crying out for capacity to engage with somewhere in the middle – who go around the SU and handpick if it’s not there.

And I often see students’ unions who are utterly dominated by one or two identity groups or one or two types of club or society. Assuming that the election of some faculty based sabbs will address that is like looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The answer is surely building the community, reciprocity and social capital on the ground – who will then determine the right council or sabbatical structures all on their own.

If that sounds complicated, or overwhelming, I guess my other plea would be to please avoid the constitutional review that nails this in theory, fails this in practice and then snaps back to a model designed for the Russell Group in the 90s when the QAA was more important. My plea would be – try a pilot.

Next week, with that Domino’s pizza code and that bit of budget you have left, you could take one academic area where you know you have issues. Get as many course reps as you can find in that room. Add in the fledgling academic societies that are knocking about that area. Top up with the enthusiastic student staff that you know from there, and see if any friendly academics or professional services staff will join in.

Tell them they’ve got a few hours to design their own automatic membership mini SU for that academic area. No rules. No pre-existing structures. What would welcome look like? How would they do student representation? How would they address careers and employability? Are there campaigns they’d go for, or events they would stage, or lectures they’d put on? What would they do about the current access and participation stats? How would they involve students in curriculum change? What positions would they need? And how could a central support service like you get out of the way and into a role that gave them power? And then try to do all you can to pilot that approach over the next year.

It might fall flat, and they might not get it. This all might be the snowblindess of the Scandis getting in the way and we might be too far down a different route in the UK to change course. But it might – just might – cause a whole new generation of students at a level lower than the hallowed sabbatical centre to build their own manageable and powerful academic communities that strengthen student belonging, academic confidence and their skills and employability.

That would be good for them, good for you and great for the university.

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