Rosie Hunnam is the founder of Organised Fun.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s been just over a year since lockdown kicked in. In almost all cases students’ teaching and assessment “pivoted” online – but despite valiant efforts from their SUs and universities’ professional services staff, much of the rest of student life ground to a halt.

That’s a problem. A couple of weeks ago, Westminster universities minister Michelle Donelan was out expressing concern about what students have missed out on this year:

We have discussed the missed socialising time and the university experience which is a fundamental part of university…It’s where you can also make connections and relationships and develop some soft skills”.

The framing of activity at university outside of the curriculum as merely “social” is frustrating for those working in the field of student activities and opportunities – but she’s right about the connections, relationships and soft skills.

And while it would be easy for those working in the field to say to Donelan “so why did you effectively ask universities to ban carefully risk-assessed student society activity last autumn” and to bemoan the fact that at the time of writing there’s no sign of an easing even next term, it’s important to try to understand the nature and scale of the problem so we might be able to put it right.

Learning loss

A few weeks ago the Sutton Trust published national evidence on the impact of the pandemic upon participation in student opportunities, with a particular emphasis on participation by disadvantaged students.

It found that participation in extra-curricular activities this academic year is substantially down on normal. 39 per cent of students reported taking part in volunteering, representation, student societies or sport in the autumn term, falling further since Christmas to just 30 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, more students felt their development of non-academic life skills (such as communication, motivation, confidence, resilience or leadership) has been more negatively impacted by the pandemic, compared to academic skills. And there’s a class dimension too – 44 per cent of middle-class students took part in student societies last term compared to just 33 per cent of students from a working-class background.

The evidence is helpful – but while we now know more about what students have missed out on, we may be underestimating how easy it is to fix the issue when lockdowns ease. That’s partly because there’s been less of a focus so far on the impact on the opportunities themselves – what hasn’t run, what might have been lost during the pandemic and what it would take to rebuild in time for September. This isn’t something we can leave to chance and it’s certainly not something we can wash our hands of. If we value opportunities, we need to do something significant to save them.

The landscape

Around 30,000 student run clubs, societies, collectives and groups exist for almost every type of interest and perspective on campus around the UK. But with a constantly changing student body, they’ve never been easy to maintain or keep afloat. There’s a system of support that’s developed over hundreds of years – the word “union” in “students’ union” was originally adopted because there was a feeling that support with administration, events and financial management would be better done centrally by bringing together often disparate groups into a single body.

Within all that, there has always been a “fat head” and a “long tail” of groups exhibiting at freshers fairs. For every blockbuster university football club there are countless tiny special interest societies, covering the rich diversity of countries that students come from and the passions they possess. And it’s in this long tail that so many students find both each other and invaluable opportunities to develop skills, serve others, put on events and exhibitions and shows, and gain confidence.

But there’s a problem. Student groups – especially those in that long tail – are often very difficult to sustain and maintain at the best of times, and this has not been the best of times. All year as part of our work both at Wonkhe SUs and Organised Fun, we’ve heard from the professionals that sustain these groups of fears that many of the groups have collapsed and may never return – with those who need the social mobility or mental health support the most hardest hit.

So to help determine what to do next, we surveyed students’ unions in the UK on the current state of student opportunity groups. The results are grim.

The state we’re in

We asked students’ unions across the UK to tell us about student opportunities during the pandemic – first asking how many groups had been active in the academic year 2019 to 2020, and how many of those survived last spring’s lockdown into September 2020. In our sample – covering around a third of the university sector – the number of groups declined by just over a quarter. Outside of the Russell Group, the decline hit harder – around three in ten of all groups were gone as a result of last Spring’s problems – and the qualitative feedback suggests that it’s the smaller and more specialist societies that were hit the hardest.

People we’ve talked to outside of SUs express surprise about this, but it’s worth remembering that just as we were celebrating a “pivot” online, we were cancelling an endless number of little shows, exhibitions, showcases, awards nights and trips. Committee elections were hit hard and handovers hardly happened. It’s mainly those groups that already had the critical mass – of both student members and social capital – that survived the summer.

Next, we asked how many student groups have been active this academic year – and there was a further decline. Just 57 per cent of groups active in 19/20 have been active this year, and student opportunities managers and officers predict a further decline in September, with almost exactly half of the student groups we had in 19/20 surviving into freshers fairs 2021.

In thousands of cases, these are groups it will be very difficult to recreate – inherited and handed-over knowledge about what works, how to maintain members and how to sustain a programme of activity will have left with the students heads’ it resided in.

Why the collapse? Little of the feedback should come as a surprise. Anything that needed to meet in person, things like non-competitive sports, have seemed impossible all year. Many student opportunities professionals report fewer first years getting involved in opportunities – with music and theatre, non competitive sports and smaller cultural and “hobby” societies particularly impacted – and a real reluctance to pay for something that may not have been running.

It turns out there are only so many Zoom quizzes and Teams’ socials that students can bear.

And while there’s a confidence that sports clubs and the professions’ academic societies (medicine, law etc) will know where to find next years members, the smaller groups may have gone for good:

We’ve lost a lot of our hobby socs and seen a drop off in numbers of our cultural socs.

Worried about clubs that aren’t traditional – mountaineering, karting, snow sports, we haven’t been able to do much for them at all.

We struggled with managing our dance groups, as it is not considered a sport and therefore was an active, physical club that wasn’t able to run throughout most of the year due to the tiers not including it. This has really impacted them, as many students are living in accommodation where you can’t dance around!

Faith & Cultural Societies quieter than usual, particularly for international students time-zone differences makes a lot of activities nonviable; worried about the impact of current international students.

Smaller academic societies seem to have been particularly quiet and cohesion amongst course cohorts is difficult. 1st year and Foundation students have obviously had very little experience of Societies and what they can do so they are a particular concern.

Political and causes groups where their campaigning or volunteering activity is challenging to convert to an online format. Fundraising groups have particularly struggled with postponements and cancellations for international expeditions, challenges and endurance events and fashion shows.

Part of the issue is the groups themselves – but part of it is the way it’s all hit some students more than others:

Medical students have been hit the hardest in terms of accessing opportunities, as they are exhausted from placements. There has been also a number of international students who have come to the UK for their course and haven’t had much of an opportunity to meet folk in person, which has led to negative feelings towards the university.

They’re just so sick of zoom karaoke, and I can’t blame them, we all are”

International student engagement a key concern with challenges like time zones. International student engagement can also be further impacted by language barriers and neuro-divergent students can also struggle in online spaces. Students who have limited access to tech in their home environments or bad internet connection.

Also concerned that the impacts of Covid will spill over into increasing the inequalities in our engagement in student opportunities. We already have a high proportion of BAME and students from low-economic backgrounds that statistically are less likely to engage.

The overall sense is that while everyone has lost out, some have lost our more than others – with potentially devastating impacts on access and participation, mental health and social mobility.

Head above water

Keeping student opportunities going requires a multitude of skills. There’s a considerable burden of administration, there’s equality, diversity and inclusion issues to consider, organisational development capacity is required (akin to high level youth work), events management smarts to deploy and impart, and the complexity of issues like free speech and risk management or initiation ceremonies where SUs play a crucially important regulatory and facilitatory role.

The teams supporting these groups don’t tend to be handsomely rewarded, and this year are working in students’ unions whose commercial income has all but collapsed – many of whose staff have been supported by the Coronavirus job retention scheme. But while furloughing staff has been possible – furloughing the activity they support has been nigh-on impossible:

There’s nobody left to run these groups. We’d usually be holding committee handover elections now but nobody’s coming forward.”

A number of them had quite significant financial outgoings, but without the income from memberships and sponsorship deals they’ve had to fold”

We’ve struggled all year with unclear guidance from government translated into our university being equally slow at responding to the national guidance around things like social distancing, whether groups can meet indoors / outdoors, return to play etc. Many of the smaller groups lave lost trust and confidence in us”

We keep being asked what we’re going to put on for students next term without any funding, space or guidelines”

Online engagement in a saturated digital market for activities.

A big challenge for sports clubs will be lack of members with first aid/coaching/referee/specific skills qualifications as they have not been able to to go ahead this year.

Another challenge will be training committee members as the current committee members will not be able to handover to them as they have not done everything they would normally do in their roles.

Lack of energy – committee members are tired and feel a bit like ‘why bother’ trying to move things online. Difficulty engaging students – have to offer added incentive to join virtual activities as students are less interested in joining online calls and streams after a full day on zoom/teams.

The message that comes through loud and clear is that we’ve taken for granted what’s needed to keep student groups going – and we’ll only turn it round if we stop making that mistake.

Building back higher

The staff and student officers that work in this area are an optimistic bunch. They don’t think that all is lost and nothing can be done to save things – but they do think that governments, university leaders and wider communities of staff in our sector could all help to rescue some of the position in time for September:

We’d need a one off cash injection I think, to help rebuild groups next term. We ought to be able to make a big offer to students who’ll be here in September – we’ll help you build a viable student group this summer ready for Freshers’ week. But we can’t do that on fumes”

I’d like to see government step in with some modest rebuilding funding in this area. The benefits to mental health and student skills development – especially for students in access and participation categories – would be huge for a pretty modest investment”

A lot of what we spend in a year is determined by the income made from commercial activity and sponsorship. We need the university to recognise that rather than just implementing their 15% straight line cut – which is more like 40% for us when you add in the loss of income”

Society start up grants and a big one summer event designed to help students recreate this activity”

There needs to be some clarity on what will be allowed next term now. I’d like to see DfE and others working with our community directly to understand how good we are at risk management so we can get some pragmatism into the third term”

Potentially funding for groups to be able to purchase things they may need to ensure their events are safe. Recognition of the work student groups and societies have put into providing an experience for students during this difficult time”

The university should help us remove fees for things like academic societies”

Incentive funding for ‘give it a go’ funding to help fund free activities for students to engage and increase interest in societies. Open spaces for societies to run activity outside if there are still restrictions in place or even rooms in the university if indoor activity can happen again.

We need more money. To fund activity groups, to aid them with recruitment, to enter them in local leagues/competitions/events (in line with roadmap), to keep activities low cost/free for students, to train their incoming committees, to provide new training opportunities (mental health, refereeing, volunteer etc.), to provide kit and equipment for the new year.

Many of the solutions we were offered were interesting, bold and creative:

We need support from our university to run two freshers weeks this year. One for returning students – where as well as getting to know each other, the campus and the chance to take part in optional classes, we’ll support them to set up new societies and student groups. Then the week after – the usual one. We’ll need the time, the space and yes, a bit of money.

We need some resource to proactively reach out to international, cultural and faith student leaders to build a cultural calendar for the 21-22 academic year and provide the staff and financial resource to directly support these events as a means to facilitate the integration of these communities into the city after 12 months of lockdown, Brexit and sparse support from the university.

Students do all of this in their spare time, and not only does that mean those that don’t need to work end up taking all the plum committee spots, it means that activities don’t gear around commuters or carers. I want to see the university commit to helping to give bursaries to those prepared to start and run a new society next year – a tiny investment for a massive benefit.

I’d ask for a nationwide campaign on the benefits of leading a student group, creating ones that you have a passion for or just taking part in one that you enjoy.

We need to get beyond administration and risk assessment – I’d like to see a temporary team of staff specifically to support the development and establishment of societies and student communities through dedicated workshops that help students to navigate the challenges, grow their community and establish a sustainable structure and offering.

We’re going to need a big festival in June that allows us to help students to develop activities and events for next year from the ground up – where university staff, graduates and local partners can work with our students and where WP and EDI considerations can be built in from the ground up”

I’d like UK HE to commit to every student in the whole country getting automatic membership of a student led academic society for their subject that would combine social activity, co curricular activity, talks, trips and careers work. Networking those together nationally with the tech we’re all now used to would hugely enhance student voice in that discipline too”

And crucially, not all of the solutions are about money:

There should be a call out to every graduate, the local community and every member of uni staff – you’ll help us create and build new student groups over the summer that students can take off your hands and run with in September”

There’s a huge opportunity to tie this to access and participation work, but we need proper engagement between those teams and our teams.”

OfS should say that this is an access and participation issue, because it is. And then it should ask to see collaboration on it as an A&P issue between SUs, sports, chaplaincies and volunteering.

We need space. Students aren’t going to want to organise anything unless there’s space to do it in”

Clarity over the rules will be key – if all restrictions genuinely stop then I can see us having a great Freshers with students having a huge appetite for involvement which should give real momentum to the year.

On a local level, being able to creatively use outdoor space on the campus will also be vital, something our Institution has been historically reluctant to do. We also need support from the University to entice this years 1st years to come back early and enjoy the Freshers they missed last year. If we can do that, we could well bounce back strongly.

I’d like there to be a huge event pre-Freshers where we give returning students and those graduating this year the skills to rebuild the campus community in September. Without it the local nightclubs will fleece students with their foam parties like they always do, and we’ll get the blame”

In the interview with Michelle Donelan we referenced above, she said that universities are looking at how the loss to the student experience can be “built back”, adding that “students unions have played a fantastic role organising events online, but it’s never quite the same”.

She’s right. That’s why it’s now incumbent on ministers and university managers to give those that manage these activities the support, funding, tools and space they need to build back our student communities. A small investment now will pay huge dividends in the long run.

Student opportunities add so much more value to students’ lives than just socialising – although even that is valuable to mental health. They are too important to leave to chance. Within our post-Covid recovery work and beyond, the sustainability of student opportunities across our sector should be a priority for everyone.

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