Do students’ unions make a difference?

Do students' unions make a difference? Jim Dickinson has the lowdown on new research into student involvement and student outcomes
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At Wonkhe, we are real fans of the UK’s unique students’ union sector. But does it make a difference – to mental health, or other student outcomes?

Earlier this year we launched Wonkhe SUs – a subscription service designed to support SU officers and staff to represent students’ effectively. We produce policy briefings and beginner’s guides on key issues in higher education, a bespoke weekly news service for SUs featuring the latest developments, news coverage, analysis and opportunities for SUs – as well as access to training, webinars, the team at Wonkhe and a dedicated subsite.

Many of the team started their careers at Wonkhe in higher education by working in SUs and we know first hand the value that involvement in activities, representation and leadership can have. But we also had a hunch that right now, those opportunities – and the benefits that can come from them – are not evenly distributed across the student population. And given that a large group of SUs were worried about that too, we decided to work with Trendence UK on a collective research project to find out more about said benefits and their distribution. SUs and their officers shaped the questions and areas of focus.

Only the lonely

We began the process back in January 2019 with a small study on student belonging and loneliness at university (“Only the Lonely”), and this summer we expanded the study to look in more detail at student involvement in activities – the benefits for students of getting involved in terms of career, course and mental health; who is and isn’t experiencing those benefits; and what can be done about it.

The headline results are fascinating – and show that even when we control for student characteristics, there are major positive links between student wellbeing, course and career confidence and involvement.

Who’s lonely?

Almost 4 in 10 students report feeling lonely on a daily or weekly basis. Students who self-identify a disability, LGBT students and those that live with their parents/guardians are even more likely to feel lonely.

While loneliness is not synonymous with social isolation, it is linked to students’ sense of belonging and fitting in. Just over a third (35%) of the students that feel lonely on a daily basis feel that they “belong” at their university, compared to 82% of those that never feel lonely. And the lonelier students are, the more likely they are to feel unhappy and anxious and less likely to feel that the things they do in their lives are worthwhile – key mental health issues. Out of all student groups, Black/African/Caribbean ethnicity students report being the least comfortable expressing themselves on campus (49% compared to 56% of the total sample).

Students that feel that they are “part of a community of staff and students” are almost twice as likely to be lonely less than monthly or never compared to those that do not feel part of a community. As being part of a community of staff and students is a question in the National Student Survey (NSS), knowing that there is a correlation between loneliness and belonging can be used by universities and SUs to identify groups of students at risk.

Course and career

This all may influence students’ outcomes and career prospects. One in 10 (11%) of those feeling lonely on a daily basis are thinking about dropping out of their course and over a third of these (32%) think about it on a daily basis. By comparison, overall, 4% of students are thinking about dropping out and 16% think about it on a daily basis.

Students that are involved in extracurricular activities are twice as likely to report having a large group of friends and more likely to report having people to call on if they wanted to socialise or if they needed help. Those involved are also twice as likely as their counterparts to say that they feel part of a community of staff and students, and 72% of them feel they belong at their university. Students that are not involved in any kind of extra curricular activities are twice as likely as those that take part to not feel confident about their degree (11% compared to 6%). Students that feel lonely on a daily basis are more likely to be dissatisfied with the quality of their course.

Course confidence is not only influenced by how satisfied are students with their degree but also by how connected they feel to their university. 90% of those that feel they belong at their university are confident about completing their course, compared to just over half (51%) of those that do not feel they belong. And those that feel that they belong at their university are twice as likely to feel confident about their future career. A third (33%) of students that do not feel confident about completing their degree do not feel part of a community of staff and students, and these students are also three times more likely to feel lonely on a daily basis compared to those that feel confident – and have lower wellbeing scores across the board.

Taking part in wider university life has a positive impact even on those student groups that are more likely to not feel confident about completing their degree. For example – 78% of the students that self‐report having a disability, but those involved in extracurricular activities are more confident about completing their degree, compared to 66% of those that do not take part in any activities. A similar trend is apparent when we look at students from ethnic minority backgrounds and those living with their parents/guardians.

When it comes to career, sense of belonging has the most significant influence on students’ confidence. Only a third (32%) of those that do not feel that they belong at university are confident about their career, compared to 67% of those that feel that they belong. Students that do not feel confident about their future career report being less involved in university life (with 75% being involved in some kind of activity, compared to 81% of their counterparts).


Commuter students are twice as likely as their counterparts to undertake part-time work during term time (20% compared to 12%), and some 30% do not take part in any activities – double compared to non-commuter students (17%). Only half of commuter students (54%) feel that they are part of a community of staff and students (compared to 62% of their counterparts), almost 2 out of 10 commuter students (18%) have not made any true friends at university, and more commuter students report feeling lonely on a daily basis (14% compared to 11% of non-commuter students).

But the qualitative work suggests that this isn’t out of choice – meeting new people and making friends is still a key priority for them, and they mentioned both practical considerations (time constraints, difficult commute), and the fact that they don’t really know how to get more involved or they don’t feel welcomed as major reasons for non involvement.

Do SUs make a difference?

Students that are involved in extracurricular activities are twice as likely to report having a large group of friends (29% compared to 14% of those that do not take part) and more likely to report having people to call on if they wanted to socialise or if they needed help. 72% of them feel they belong at their university and are twice as likely as their counterparts to feel part of a community of staff and students.

Confidence is also linked to satisfaction with the SU. 92% of the students that are very likely to recommend their SU are confident about their degree, compared to 66% of those that are not at all likely. Similarly, those that would recommend their SU are also more likely to be confident about their career. And feeling that the SU effectively represents their academic interests has a significant link to students’ overall satisfaction with their course and university. 89% of those that feel that the SU represents students’ academic interests are satisfied with their course, compared to 57% of those that feel otherwise.

Opportunity blocked

I’ve written before about the need for an access and participation agenda for student activities, and this time round the research reinforced the findings – SUs need help and investment to ensure that the benefits of participation reach all students on (and off) a campus.

This time, we asked students to tell us in their own words what their university and SU can do to support those that feel lonely and help them get involved, and not surprisingly, a lot of the comments addressed encouraging more people to take part in activities, but also creating more inclusive events and improving the support services available.

Students report that their course is a key place to find friendships – so ensuring that academic schools/departments/faculties facilitate meaningful opportunities to build friendships is key. Ensuring that there are (more) regular opportunities throughout an academic year to build friendships is also crucial, and identifying ways in which SU opportunities can be designed to reduce the level of initial commitment (be that financial, opportunity/time, and crucially emotional) also looks important.

Overall, what’s clear from this work is that there are strong links between getting involved in activities, mental health, friendship and course and career confidence. But these benefits of involvement are not evenly distributed – and students’ unions do need help, expertise and investment to ensure that the benefits on offer reach the students that really need them.

“Opportunity Blocked: how student opportunities and SUs relate to student life, belonging and outcomes” is available to download here.

Note we spotted a typo on a chart legend and amended that on Oct 28th.

We are grateful to the commissioning SUs that made the work possible: Aston Students’ Union; Christ Church Students’ Union; Coventry University Students’ Union; De Montfort Students’ Union; Derby Students’ Union; Goldsmiths Students’ Union; Hertfordshire Students’ Union; Liverpool John Moores University Students Union; Middlesex University Students’ Union; Oxford Brookes Students’ Union; Staffordshire University Students’ Union; Students’ Union UCL; Surrey Students Union; The Students’ Union at UWE; Union of UEA Students; University of Brighton Student Union; University of Exeter Students’ Guild; University of Leicester Students’ Union; University of Portsmouth Students’ Union; University of Sunderland Students’ Union; University of Sussex Students’ Union; University of Westminster Students’ Union.

2 responses to “Do students’ unions make a difference?

  1. Positive to see this article on WONKHE.

    At Greenwich Students’ Union we have 2 goals: 1) to empower of members to change the world and 2) to ensure they have a great time at Greenwich.

    Our Big Plan is enabling us to measure the impact of our services helping us to achieve positive outcomes for students at Greenwich.

    We’ve been working with our evaluation partner Icarus for 2.5 years and are developing great insight.

    – We know that 60% of students who are a active member of a GSU sports club or society recognise this has made them more employable.

    – 80% of students in groups agree that they have enjoyed their experience, made friends and feel more connected to other students at Greenwich.

    – With 60% agreeing that being a active member of a student group has had a positive impact on their mental health.

    We also measure the impact of our free and independent Advice Service on student retention. It’s staggering and in money terms (after all it’s a HEMarket now, right?) we have retained over £5m in possible lost fees in the last 18 months alone for the University! The ROI is staggering here.

    This information is extremely powerful and I’m proud of our achievements which without my lean, hardworking team would not be possible, but like any charity, it can be better and we want to help more members to improve their experiences.

    We’ve also identified that with such a high commuter base, a large percentage of students in private accommodation and a small number of student halls relative to other HEIs, that our members meet people and build community at their program level.

    We’re working with the DVC Academic on a targeted project to build academic communities at a course level. Those programmes with strong student groups are more likely to have more satisfied students.

    This is underpinned by GSU and faculty staff working in partnership to support co-curricular activities. We have seen a 5% increase since 2017 in that wonderful question 26, which although now is above sector, still has a way to go. As a former Fundraiser, if this was the only way our funding was measured I would be concerned. Our influence over the wider NSS metrics is harder to demonstrate but based on the amount work we are doing from a committee to programme level it’s having an impact.

    They challenge as we know is capacity to impact the large, disparate student population. With a large geographical spread across multi-site and multi-disciplinary it is challenging to reach the whole population at Greenwich.

    I’m sure most of us recognise this. Resources are fundamental to achieving this and I believe like any charity we must demonstrate our outcomes to our university as our major funder.

    Particularly in an environment with tightening budgets. I wasn’t working in HE sector during the ‘good old days’ that I often hear about. I wish I’d been there earlier to capitalise on the funding, opportunity and those commercial returns to be better positioned for this new regulated market. NSS, TEF, REF, KEF is all so fun!

    The block grant may look like be a large number but in relative terms is often a very small percentage of university expenditure. We also have a great deal of legal compliance, Health and safety, insurances etc costs to cover, not to mention substantial membership fees to ensure members can take part in activities. This is before we pay the staff team, which I am told everyday by my team, is not enough.

    However, like any civil society organisation we rightly must demonstrate the value for money of our services to our members and to our major funder.

    I believe there is a much greater role GSU and SUs as a whole can play in improving outcomes for students. But we need to have a sustainable SU sector, with good investment, not one having to fight their partner institutions to help them (which it can sometimes feel like), constantly justifying our worth or battling over who pays the £249 new soap dispenser invoice in an SU space.

    Yes we can be a nuisance at times. What critical friend, underpinned by a democratically elected beneficiary leadership isn’t?

    I believe that we are demonstrating at Greenwich SU that a funded, true, fair and balance partnership based on trust and underpinned by outcomes is fundamental to achieving great student outcomes.

    We make substantial impact and why wouldn’t you want as many students as possible to be able to experience it.

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