This article is more than 1 year old

What can we learn from Scandinavia and from students?

This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There’s a real risk when you return from a trip like the Wonkhe SUs study tour to Scandinavia of becoming that bore that invites you round to show you their holiday photos.

If you’ve been invited to the equivalent of the slide show, the thing is, you’re busy. You may also be a bit jealous that you didn’t go. The ideas on offer might make sense if you’ve been on a coach in the snow, but make less sense in a UK context.

And anyway – aren’t all students in Scandinavia rich, and aren’t the social and political traditions different, and isn’t there a good historical reason why there’s so much focus on education and rights? And don’t we all, in the end, favour things broadly the way they are now with some tweaks, rather than radical and unsettling change?

That’s all perfectly understandable. But there’s two things that should cause us to do all we can to learn from our international comparators – whether we’re talking about those in Scandinavia, the Baltics, or elsewhere.

First, even if the actual things that SUs and other student organisations do around Europe wouldn’t work in a UK context, they should cause us to stop and think about why it is that we’ve ended up doing the things we do in the way that we do them.

It might be because the UK way is the best way, or the only possible way. It might also be because we’re great at copying other UK SUs, and less great at learning from other countries – a problem that could be getting worse as the implications of Brexit unfold.

But it’s also because, in an HE sector famed for being slow n stale, one of the things you would want students’ unions to be able to do – in their strategies, experiments, policies, pilots and proposals – is capture the imagination and radicalism of students and deliver it in a higher education context.

It’s not so much that SUs in other countries have answers – it’s that they can provide the questions that are needed to stimulate deeper thinking, and better strategy.

As I got more and more tired in the run up to Easter, for example, I started to get really intolerant of the increasingly silly bifurcation being posited at student leaders over the form and content of their role. It has never been the case that the choice facing student reps is between protesting outside of the room (“aggressive”) and acquiescing inside the room (“passive”). The question is how the assertive and impactful student leaders we met in Scandinavia pull off being so on less money and less staff support. And so on.

Here then, alongside various blogs from the week and some detailed briefings on the three countries we visited (packed with ideas and questions and examples of interesting initiatives, services, campaigns and structures), are five of my personal takeaways from the trip.

They’re not comprehensive, and reflect what I’ve been talking about since returning – hopefully in the coming weeks there will be additional contributions on other angles from the SU officers and staff that were in Scandis too – and we’ll do our best to ease off on the photos, and ease on on the big questions.

1. Community and belonging

If anything’s a hot topic right now – post Covid and in the midst of new regulation around continuation rates – it’s belonging. And the truth is that everywhere we went in Scandinavia, we saw projects and initiatives that put much of the UK’s efforts to shame in this space.

Other than the money students get to study and the need to huddle together in cosy spaces away from the cold, there seemed to be two big things we should think about in the UK.

At almost every university we saw, there are mass, wide and deep efforts to create community that start before the first day. Thousands of students are recruited to contact small groups of students to cause conversation, develop campus orientation, show people around cities and generate both bonding social capital (“here’s someone like me”) and bridging social capital “here’s someone not like me”).

There are hundreds of (usually outdoor) events, competitions and festivals that cause students to work and play together, and display and form identities. The support – driven by colleagues, not an individualist “university service” – often continues on through the year. And not a multi club night wristband in sight.

In addition, in almost every SU we came across, students are divided into chapters, associations, divisions or sections – where what look like giant, automatic-membership academic societies combine being representative body, social body and careers body. These are mini SUs that one minute are organising the best welcome week you can imagine, and the next liaising with the department Dean over a curriculum development project. Then the following week they’re organising a mentoring scheme with local employers, and putting on a week of events to introduce other students to that academic discipline.

As the student body grows beyond the meaningful emotional conception of a single community at almost all UK universities, these kinds of community-based structures (that involve PGs and academics as much as they do UGs) are surely part of the way in which SUs can and should address the belonging question.

2. Reps – everywhere

We met plenty of sabbs along the way – but we didn’t really come across any that looked as burned out and stressed as we tend to in the UK. As ever, there will be reasons for that – some of it is about the way they’re elected (which resembles an interview process and a proposal put to a council more often than it does a mass popularity contest), some of that will be about political culture and profile, some about social media usage.

But a lot of it is about the fact that they simply have less to do.

Across the countries we visited, not only were the bulk of officers that we met only involved in the student rights, representation and advocacy organisation (with other functions like support for clubs and societies or the management of facilities hived off in different student-led legal vehicles), there were radically more student reps around. Very few sabbs in the Scandis sit on more than 3 or 4 big university committees – with a wide programme of recruitment, training, coordination (and in many cases remuneration) of “ordinary” students to take part in university committees, working groups, projects and positions. There’s no “plonk a sabb on it” here.

It means that when the “reps” at Aarhus or Oslo or Uppsala meet, we’re not talking about course reps whose only experience is gathering contextless “feedback” from students, only to be told they’re raising it with the wrong people in the wrong way. Programme level reps have been trained already by the section, or division, or chapter – this is a room full of people who’ve been being paid to take seriously a particular aspect of the student experience and work with sabbs and staff to get student feedback on it.

I’ve no doubt that it’s possible for the UK – both locally and nationally – to involve more people in the conversation about education and welfare than just the sabbs whose portfolio that matches. But it will take time, will need to be approached strategically, and will need the superhumans who occupy those roles in the UK to admit that there need to be more people involved – with all the compromises that brings.

3. Many SUs for the price of one

In students’ unions, we have an incredibly centralised system of decision making, student leadership and involvement in the UK.

As with other aspects, there are historical reasons for this. Some of it is about the introduction of CEOs and charity boards needing a central oversight on a single strategy. Some of it is about students these days being time poor and a tendency for us to focus on “outcomes” over things like deliberation or involvement. Some of it is about quite rigid, by historical standards, demarcations between what staff and students can and can’t “do”.

Some of it is about how popular the “mutual” tradition of organising is across Europe – when compared to a dominant, centuries-old UK “charity” model that at its deep core assumes that beneficiaries are to be cared for and looked after, but not involved or allowed to run and lead.

But whatever the reasons, if there’s a pendulum that has been swinging towards centralised, board “led” control, maybe it all needs to swing back – at least a bit. Because unless we do, not only are we potentially missing out on the ideas and passion of thousands of students who might have ideas for welcome week, thoughts on how to ensure that students know their rights, or ideas for driving diversity – we might also be causing students to miss out on working alongside out talented careers staff to learn the ropes, run the things and build their CV.

It may not be that SUs in the UK will rush to “demerge”, breaking up into student rep councils and legally separate advice centres or properly subsidiary commercial endeavours and outlets. But why don’t we form a student-led board for all the services that an SU runs? Why doesn’t every manager in an SU have a shadow student manager that can contribute to, and front out, decisions? And why do we insist on square-peg, round-holing everything most SUs do into a single strategic framework, planning regime, budgeting process and brand?

In the end – if we don’t give more of the union “back” to students – don’t we lose the only USP that SUs really have? And why is it that we strain every sinew to get 20 percent of students to vote in a popularity contest (not a legitimacy marker that’s even a faint concern in Scandinavia) but exclude as many as possible from working out how to run a cafe for their own student community?

4. Making education better

Across the three countries that we visited, we did see plenty of student organisations that mentioned being the ”voice” of students. But much more often we heard about people trying to make education and the wider study environment better. The focus almost everywhere, wasn’t on voice being important in and of itself – it was on the way in which voice and advocacy could improve their education. Too often in the UK we frame individual rights as individualist. In the Scandids, universal individual rights are framed as a way to guarantee collective consciousness and action.

Everywhere we went, we saw examples of SU explaining rights to students, helping students to enforce their rights and agreeing policies on everything from student safety to disrimination, from contact hours to the training of their teachers. None of the systems we saw were heavily marketised – quite the opposite – but all accepted that if a student wasn’t getting their feedback on time, it was for SUs to chase that up and get those students’ their marks back. And even where we saw individual advocacy services – these were focussed on intervening ahead of the crisis moments that UK advice centres tend to specialise in. A focus on educational health, rather than A&E, if you will.

Yet again, we do have to consider the context. In Sweden a whole suite of student rights have been there in law for decades. In Norway it’s now mandatory that every university has its own version of the OIA. When there’s more money about, it’s easier to demand that academics and professional services staff do things with certainty and consistency. And when you have a tradition of democratic decision making that is much more focussed on the formative discussion than it is on voting and “winning”, and strategy that’s much more about students than the SU charity, there’s just been a longer history of SUs arguing for the sort of stuff we saw.

But it shouldn’t be impossible to replicate some of the things we came across. Experiments with models of “ombuds”, more vividly positioning ourselves as the experts on the student experience, policy development processes that combine numbers and stats with “lived experience” – these are almost certainly within our grasp, with actual improvements to the student experience to boot, if we choose to put them into strategies in the next few years.

5. Going (off) clubbing

Finally, a real “scratch the surface” moment. As we noted in the Day One blog, while we saw lots of what looked like traditional clubs and societies, when we scratched the surface two things became apparent. One was that all three countries are simply less worried about risk and risk assessment. And the other was that their activities and opportunities efforts all seem to be more about purpose.

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. And when we asked about risk assessment forms or training for clubs and socs, all the feedback was that they’re focussed on helping students to make things happen – not stopping them.

Again, again, again – context is king here. When this article on Scandinavian festivals says that “overly intoxicated people are a rare sight” (which it says is both to the price of alcohol and to the “vibe”) it tells us something more generally about a culture which is focussed on chilling with friends, not “drunkenly raving around”. And deeper held beliefs about “organisations for everything” in Denmark, enjoying nature in Norway or citizens just tending to be more sensible in Sweden will all have an impact.

But in truth when we read about Gen Z and its relationship with alcohol, its yearning for friendship and its need to have “achieved” something, the idea that over time our support for student ops might morph towards making events, projects or festivals happen – rather than the staid misery of the risk-assessed society pub crawl – is surely something worth pursuing.

There have to be opportunities for SUs to shake up university careers work with student-led case competitions, networking events, mentoring schemes and fairs. And surely there’s scope for more for students to learn from being at work with their university or union – and to be creative and imaginative while they’re there.

And the rest

There’s more of course. I could go on for a long time about the inspiring city-wide student representative structures we saw, the deep desire to build bonds between home and international students, some of the work on housing and tenants’ rights or the sheer number of microwaves that we saw around campus.

But ultimately the question for me is this. Much of what we do in SU helps students to fit into a pre-existing world – someone else’s definition of what an SU should do, or how a student should behave if they’ve been discriminated against, or the way in which elections should be run. Lots of that is driven by university and SU staff perceptions of their own experience. And despite surface appearances, SUs in the UK are a lot more similar than they make out.

British exceptionalism or the Education Act 1994 aside, there’s room to not just improve what we already do in the way that we already do it – but also to not just serve students but to help them change strategies and structures that go on to have a deeper impact on education and wider society. If Parliamentarians are shouty and pointless, do we ignore them, train people to be like them or help people to create a new kind of politics? That’s just one of many versions of the ultimate question for SU strategies in the next decade.

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