What should an SU’s relationship with its community be like?

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

I have always felt like a resident of Liverpool. I moved here when I was 18 and as I approach 30 I look back on the past decade with a feeling that if university gave me nothing else it gave me a sense of who I am.

Its streets, places, and people, have left indelible marks on me that can no more be removed than the emerging lines on my face.

It’s the place I got married, met some of my best friends, and where my wife and I bought our first home.

In my Liverpool home

As you grow up in a place your relationship to it changes. As an 18-year-old I lived in student halls situated in one of the most affluent parts of the city. I visited the local park on only a handful of occasions and my horizons went no further than local pubs.

As we moved into our first student home, and then another one, the thrill of having a place of our own was mixed with the responsibilities that come with short-term lease agreements. It was also the first time I spent any great deal of time with people who had spent their whole life in Liverpool.

Up until I became a sabbatical officer at Liverpool Guild of Students I was ignorant of the impact students had on their places. Obviously, I knew the impacts my friends and me had, for better or worse, but it was just well beyond any level of critical-reflection I had to think how tens of thousands of students might change a place.

It was largely through attending residents’ groups, bus committees, and speaking to irate councillors, that I learnt the warmth I had known from everyone who lived around us was not a universal sentiment.

Even as someone who was involved in local politics while a sabbatical officer, there seemed to be a world of difference in acting for members and engaging with local communities. And this is despite the fact that Liverpool Guild was, and still is, greatly interested in the wellbeing of its local communities.

The Guild buys local beers which supports a brewery in the area; it organises a Leave Liverpool Tidy campaign that has gone on for years; and it organises volunteering which touches people across Merseyside.

In my life

At membership services conference I heard from students’ unions who are deeply embedded in their places. They are inoculating pets, cleaning up mess, and doing their best to be good neighbours. Within the limits of the ’94 Education Act they are educating, engaging, and empowering students, to be good citizens in their local community.

They may not always receive the praise they deserve but students’ unions are doing things which few other organisations have the capacity and people to do.

Students are also of course residents in their own right. They are equally impacted by bad planning policy, crap transport, and anti-social behaviour. They are also a generation who have now lived through multiple once in a lifetime recessions, a global pandemic, and they have received no Government support of any substance.

There is a shared struggle for better places and the incoming economic calamity will touch everyone, student or not.

The idea that things always get better is untrue. Plainly, some of the activities which have gone on will now feel smaller while some of the work around volunteering in community services will feel even more important.

So the question for all of us interested in students’ unions is what a civic agenda can look like in these circumstances.

Bring on the dancing horses

In universities we’re seeing a growing civic agenda. This is partially owing to the growth of interest in the field owing to the Civic University Commission. Partially a response to the Government’s levelling up agenda. And partially, it is a resurgent and genuine commitment from universities to their places.

Unpicking this work in a students’ union context and embedding it into SU strategy will take time and intellectual energy, but my humble suggestion is there are three places to start:

  • Organising models: There is not a single community organising model which will work in all places. Owing to the incoming and acute economic difficulties, coupled with Government neglect, community groups will take an increased role in the provision of services which should be provided by the state. As a sector, there is not a definite sense of who, how, and where, students’ unions might work with community groups where their interests directly intersect with their members. Understanding allies will be an important part of the future.
  • Opportunity and need: Students’ unions put hundreds of volunteers out into local communities. Students’ unions cannot, should not, and will not, do everything but they can corral their members into volunteering where there is the most acute need. This could also be done with students’ unions working across similar geographies.
  • Student hardship: A third principle should be that this will be an era of student hardship that many in students’ unions are unused to dealing with. Reflecting on whether provision matches need and whether the university is doing all it can is likely a constructive place to start. Students cannot help others if they have no help themselves.

These are rough thoughts from conversations at membership services conference, but the challenge is very real. Things are going to be difficult for a while and if students’ unions can’t organise students to meet this changing world, then who will?

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