What did SUs learn from the Pandemic: Part 1

Dani Bradford is Senior Research Coordinator at Herts SU


Janette Alvarado-Cruz is Director of Student Influence at University of Nottingham Students' Union


Luke Newton was Projects and Governance Manager at University of Salford Students Union


John Abell is CEO at Coventry University Students' Union


Neil Mackenzie is the Associate Director Membership at Sheffield Students' Union


Tim Hewes-Belton is Student Engagement Manager at Worcester SU

It’s not over yet – but as we gear up for the new academic year, what did we learn from the pandemic?

We asked staff and officers from SUs across the UK to share reflections and learning from sixteen months of tea-time press conferences, chaotic lockdowns, remote engagement and unhelpful guidance to see what we might learn for the future. Part 2 and Part 3 are online too.

1. They’re all activists now

Dani Bradford, Herts SU

Despite the challenges presented by distance and disconnect to building and maintaining student communities, students have been exceptionally keen to engage with us – to have their voices heard and to advocate for themselves and their peers.

Even students who have not traditionally engaged with us and are not necessarily the “activist-y” types of students have turned up in their thousands to push for better academic and pastoral support during the pandemic. Record numbers of students have attended our council meetings (at times over 300 students), we have received nearly 8000 responses to our surveys since the start of the pandemic, and our elected officers and student community organisers were instrumental in pushing the university to adapt their original safety net policy to better suit the needs of students.

Even in the middle of summer – a time of year where engagement with the SU traditionally plummets – our focus groups (and waiting lists) are being fully booked within a few hours of advertising. These students have been diverse, coming from all over the university to be heard – these are not just the already engaged student leaders that we traditionally saw engaging with our representation services.

It’s become clear that students’ lack of engagement with our representation activities pre-pandemic was not for a lack of passion about their university experience and the community they learn within. Finding ways to make sure our meetings and activities continue to talk about these issues – as well as continuing to engage these students, create spaces for their voices to be heard, and give them the tools and help them develop the skills to create meaningful change, is important.

This will be especially important given that many universities – Herts included – plan to pursue a more “blended” approach to learning even after Covid. Whilst the flexibility that this could bring to many students, and the opportunities this opens up for increased accessibility and inclusivity within the sector, is exciting and important, we must ensure that this is a collaborative journey between students and institutions that centres the student voice. Blended learning must not, for example, come at the expense of contact hours or instead of face-to-face interaction – because it is clear from research that this is not what students mean when they say they would like to retain some aspects of the last 18 months.

2. Belonging mattered more than we realised

Janette Alvarado-Cruz, University of Nottingham Students’ Union

We’ve learned that in a crisis, the sector can move with speedy gonzales-like rapidity to ensure that students receive teaching, learning and assessment online. However, in cases where provision is all online, what becomes clear is that it’s not just curriculum content but human connectedness and peer work that really make learning special – and this is what students sorely miss.

Students’ sense of belonging matters – but it needs to be considered in a nuanced way. What we’ve found is that “sense of belonging” to the academic community during the pandemic might be high, despite learning being online – whilst more social and interpersonal belonging is low. And, crucially for us, what SUs do makes a difference as students involved in SU activities correlates positively with social sense of belonging. Ethnicity adds an extra nuance, with “sense of belonging” lower for black students when compared to their white peers.

We learned that students and their representatives can, all at the same time, admire and respect the humongous efforts of staff at universities and SUs, whilst still feeling it’s not quite enough to meet their current needs. The feedback from students has been truly “critical” this year – and we’ll need to find ways to make sure that students continue to be as honest as they’ve been in ways that are helpful rather than put up barriers.

Finally, as an SU community that lost a wonderful member of staff to the pandemic, we learned that people who believe in their work and who want to do their best for students and fellow colleagues can find heroic reserves of stamina again and again – and can support each other warmly and openly, even through the saddest times.

3. “Everything in-person” was shutting some out

Luke Newton, University of Salford Students Union

Some things both in universities and SUs are really important to run face to face – but does doing so mean some participation is lost when we really need it? For example – our sports and societies committee training was moved online, and saw a much better engagement rate than before. Delivering activity face to face was clearly causing a much bigger barrier to engagement than we were aware.

Being able to just switch into an online meeting and not travel to a place seems to really help us engage with commuter demographics and other time poor groups. We will now always deliver this type of activity blended with an online aspect. Similarly our peer support service, Rafiki, had record online engagement from student volunteers – so we’re making sure that this will always be blended as a result.

Internally, in the first wave we moved all staff not on furlough to a 9 day fortnight working pattern (with no alteration to pay) as a recognition of the additional stress and need for down time away from work. We found that we were still able to meet all deadlines and didn’t lose productivity whilst maintaining staff wellbeing.

Since then we’ve moved back to normal working but found many staff wanted to keep that working pattern so now they work 45 minutes extra per day so have a 3 day weekend twice a month. We should all think carefully about the patterns that maximise the health and wellbeing of our staff and volunteers – doing so will serve our students better.

4. More trust mustn’t mean overwork

John Abell, Coventry University Students’ Union

I learnt that our students are even more incredible than I ever gave them credit for. The way our student leaders were resilient and adapted their society activity to work online was genuinely impressive. They didn’t just survive but they thrived.

I have also learnt that we should never go back to how we did things before. We should continue to provide an online element to as much of our activity as possible, so all students whether they are international, commuters, care-givers or just can’t be on campus. They can still join in and feel a part of our community.

It is great as an SU sector that we have moved to a high-trust culture with our staff. What is worrying is that high trust is often thought to mean trusting staff to work hard enough – but it turns out that given the opportunity staff will work too hard, and this is something managers will need to monitor and act on in the years ahead.

5. Every officer is an education officer now

Neil MacKenzie, Sheffield SU

Every officer really is an education officer at an SU. The uniting factor of every single one of our members is that they have come to university to get an education. When the first lockdown was announced we assigned each of our officers to one of our faculties and linked them up with student staff working with academic reps. We have continued this practice, and will continue this practice beyond the pandemic. It grounds every officer in core academic and everyday concerns of students, ensures that all officers understand the complexities of institutional decision making and politics and emphasises that all officers should be involved in the discussion about the future of university learning and teaching, not just Education Officers.

It’s also clear that we have to do something about the state of the private rental market in the UK. It is overpriced, under-regulated and often exploitative. While much of the focus of the sector was on rebates and rent strikes in halls of residence there was, with a few exceptions, silence in the private rental market and no intervention from the government. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise given the context inaction, but it did throw it into stark relief. rents have been rising, even as supply has outstripped demand, with a likely numbers crunch in the coming years they could grow out of control. Rent is the single biggest up front cost to students, and given that over 50% of money provided through student loans will not be paid back to the Treasury, it represents an enormous use of public money. The nature of the ownership of this deeply dysfunctional market is such that it essentially represents a huge transfer of wealth from young to old (either in paying mortgages on second properties and dividends to investors). There are models of cooperative, mutual or even student union owned housing provision around the world, as we reassess how we provide education we have to consider how we provide homes for our students.

6. We still need to close that digital divide

Tim Hewes-Belton, Worcester SU

When Covid hit, the willingness, hard work and flexibility of SU staff shone through and it was all hands on deck. One of the important things we should take from it is that staff within SUs really are very adaptable and flexible – and many of them can really put their hands to anything and work across departments. This enabled us to continue to do most of the things we normally do virtually, kept students involved and freed up other members of the team to develop our online offer, as the admin etc was covered. It increases that sense even further that an SU can enable staff to get a range of experiences within one organisation.

The pandemic also demonstrated for us the power the officers and SU do have. We were repeatedly asked to sign off on university decisions, agree to joint statements etc which at times became uncomfortable – and sometimes we needed to diplomatically push back. Nevertheless it put the SU firmly at the centre as a fundamental part of university life, and we had a genuine impact on many (if not all) of the important decisions.

We also learnt to be more assertive in our opinions when it really mattered. We saw an increased, albeit relative, increase in politicisation of our student body which showed that when students feel something really impacts them they do speak out and they do want to get involved. This allowed us to collate a raft of evidence that would have been more difficult for us here at Worcester in the past and further strengthened our arguments when lobbying the university. We were more assertive in publishing what we were asking from the university with regards to the student safety net for example. Maintaining constructive dialogue with the university was key in terms of maintaining that relationship but being more assertive also allowed students to see we were proactively working on their behalf.

The pandemic exposed a significant digital divide amongst the student body, particularly with regard to international students from developing countries, many of which had no access to laptops or devices they could complete work on when the pandemic hit. This was particularly challenging to overcome given the cultural and language barriers and the lack of technology access meant communication was difficult. While the university had funds available, it was often difficult to get this message to the students most in need. SUs must not let up on pushing for funding to close these gaps if “blended” university and SU activity is to continue into the future.

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