Livia Scott is Wonkhe's Community and Policy Officer

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Every year across the sector in the early bit of spring, thousands of students put their name forward hoping to become the following year’s full time, elected student leaders for their university.

Many only see the litter of leaflets, the lollipops being handed out by candidates in costumes, or the over-zealous estates jobsworth carefully removing posters from prohibited areas in the dead of night. It looks like – and in many ways is – a garish popularity contest.

But most of those standing and even more of those winning have an extraordinary passion for improving the “student experience”. This cracking video from one of the outgoing “sabbs” (from “sabbatical”, although most do it at the end) explains the role – often operating right at the nexus of students’ urgent expectations for change and the sector’s often snail pace at delivering it.

As well as writing blogs about HE policy and popping up to talk about cost of living or belonging at sector events, we both spend a good chunk of our week supporting those student leaders to be more impactful, influential and powerful when they’re talking to students.

We have both relished poring over the promises that candidates have made this year in their manifestos. They are, in a real and visceral sense, an eye-opener.

Many have strange fonts or outlandish ideas, some have policy proposals so parochial and specific that they make us wince, while others are so “big picture” or vague as to make us feel for the local SU staff trying to get an action plan out of the post-it notes.

But read them all – as we have almost done this year (some SUs seem to have abolished them, which is frustrating) and you get a real sense of what the emergent priorities of students are, and the sort of support they might need to realise their ambitions for their education.

We’ve picked some big themes out here that we think the sector ought to think carefully about, along with some examples of commitments made that students will be seeking to secure in the year ahead.

I belong to you, you belong to me, naturally

For some years now, mental health has been top of the manifesto charts – but there’s a distinct change in the asks emerging from a group of students that in the majority started their higher education in the Covid chaos of September 2020.

Significant numbers of winners talk of building community and belonging on campus – and we don’t think that because they’ve been reading Wonkhe:

Building community on and off campus. A specific emphasis needs to exist on the student community of our campus. Belonging is what students chose Manchester for, and it is the role of the SU to work alongside the university to provide students with as many opportunities as possible to get there.

Tesnime Safraou, City and Community Officer, University of Manchester SU

In fact it’s clear from our initial conversations with the winners that they really felt not experiencing that in 2020/21, and they’re finding the the assumed bounce back is slow to materialise – with lingering impacts of the pandemic and students’ ability to deliver a coherent community for each other under strain from where they’re living and the hours they’re working:

I want Postgrads to feel a part of the UCL community. I want it to be easy and flexible to socialise, to network, and to meet other students. I want postgrad experience to rival that of undergrad.

Issy Smith, Postgraduate Officer, Students’ Union UCL

Support overseas/EU students in first year accommodation adjustment period by making sure their flat is international. Evaluate student participation in diversity and support groups to see which need SU support in rebuilding to pre-pandemic levels, to allow students from all backgrounds to have access to a group they want to belong to.

Jimena Alamo, President, SU Bath

A connection is made

As well as your traditional undergrads, one noticeable trend is the volume of international PGT candidates that have stood and won this year, in some cases having only been in the country since January.

What we’re picking up is that many want to see undergraduate style induction and welcome in a sector that tends to assume that PGTs want qualifications rather than friends – and many want that organised around their course:

Study Buddy Matching: Studying can be a lonely and isolating experience, but it doesn’t have to be. I propose creating a Study Buddy Matching program that will connect students with similar academic interests and goals. Together, we can form study groups, share notes and resources, and support each other through the ups and downs of academic life.

Prachi Bhatt, Education Officer, University of Leicester SU

And plenty of others are keen that there is a recognition of their diversity:

Improve Sense of Belonging – By organizing more cultural events like Afro – Caribbean, Asian and many more. Introducing continental food and snacks on campus with student led projects. Increase Student Engagement – Improving on campus life by working towards both the campuses, organizing events according to individual schools that will help students connect to larger networks within the community, encouraging community service, volunteer work and working to create sense of community on campus.

Peer to peer mentoring – guiding students with the help of students in their regional language that will help them out with assignments and study work.

Dhruv Dev, President, Leeds Beckett SU

This isn’t just about connection to other students either. Many yearn for better contact with staff, hinting at personal tutor systems that aren’t so personal or access to the academics they expected to meet on the Open Day:

Advocate for increased accessibility to tutors to dicuss feedback on academic and foster more inclusion (in practise) on campus.

Silas Ozoya, Academic Experience Officer, Leeds Beckett SU

And some view student feedback on teaching not as a oppositional, but an essential in improving those connections:

I will promote collaboration and partnership between students, faculty and staff, as these are all key players in achieving successful learning outcomes. I will introduce a two-way feedback system that allows both students and faculty to give feedbacks on teaching sessions.

Dola Dada, President: Education, Sunderland SU

Antisocial learning space

There’s another clear trend that relates to when you’ve been down the manifesto rabbit hole for hours – that of capacity. They don’t say it out loud – but so many talk of the sheer numbers of students on their programme or at their university chasing help, opportunities or even just somewhere to sit in a sector that is growing very fast:

The Science, Engineering and Environment departments have a lot of technical courses that students often find difficult to find a placement post their course. I aim to bring in a lot more job fairs and workshops that make chances of employability a lot easier.

Adnan Sabir, Science, Engineering and Environment Officer, Salford SU

The message that students aren’t getting the academic experience they expected is loud and clear across the country – and while it manifests mainly in practical ideas here, it will translate into louder narratives later.

The library was made for the number of students decades ago, finding new study spaces with student’s viewpoints in mind are essential.

Amber Snary, Education Officer, SU Bath

All the things I could do

The cost of living crisis looms large, as you’d expect. Frustratingly, few set their sights on politicians or policy makers – maybe a general election will change some of that. But plenty tap into that sense we saw in the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience survey that it’s harming students’ ability to be, and do, their best:

At my heart are the cost-of-living crisis, the accommodation issues for home and international students, academic sanctions faced by many international students due to prolonged fee processing time from home countries or other unintentional circumstances, welfare concerns, and likely risk to equality of opportunity while studying.

Stella Ibifunmilola, President, The Union MMU

There’s also extensive material suggesting that students are outraged by how expensive campus life can be – often having expected student life to be much cheaper. And while they might in the past have pushed for profits to go back into services, now they just need prices to come down:

Some rooms on campus saw their prices increase more than £1,000 in just 3 years! The University needs to be pressured to reverse course and expand rent caps across campus (little #RentRant anyone?).

Pierrick Roger, President, University of York SU

I led the successful £2 meal deal campaign alongside amazing student activists. I was determined to get affordable food on campus and empowered students to have a voice in pushing the University to open this new outlet. The university is run for profit, but I’m outspoken on the fact this model doesn’t serve students. As Guild President, I will focus on student campaigns and making these visible changes to students lives (and bank balances!).

Emma De Sarem, President, Exeter Guild of Students

A huge number call for the price of participation to be lowered:

I wish to lower the financial barrier to participation in sports and promote more free active sessions on campus.

Savannah Dodsworth, Sport Officer, The Union MMU

And while many want more support, plenty of international students just wish they could work longer hours – with improvements to their working conditions too:

Ensure fair and equitable treatment of international students in the workplace. Reduce the risk of students falling into debt or depending on unsustainable sources of income. Ensure our students can earn fairly while they learn, helping more students to stay and thrive in higher education.

Anuj Baral, President, Greenwich SU

If you don’t eat yer meat, you can’t have any pudding

There’s a lot – and this is outside of the traditional realm of Education Officer manifestos too – about education:

Assessment timings and weightings review. Increase feedback options and representation in all modules. Transition support for students leaving university. Greater prominence of sustainability within all degrees. Collaboratively support students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Rebecca Would, VP Education and Democracy, Southampton University SU

Some are keen for students’ extra curricular efforts to go rewarded:

Pilot an SU Skills module. Want to dedicate more time to your club, volunteer group,

or society, but your timetable is full? Student leaders develop invaluable skills- let’s recognise that with a credit-bearing module.

Mary McHarg, Union Affairs Officer, Students Union UCL

Others want their circumstances and issues are taken into account:

Policies regarding extenuating circumstances (ECs) are changing every year. I intend to collaborate with the VP Education, to ensure ECs applications are reviewed regularly so students aren’t waiting until summer for outcomes. I aim to lobby the university for the automatic extension length to be increased. Students should also be provided with transparency about academic misconduct and their academic rights.

Hannah Hockin, President, Royal Holloway SU

Many call for better and more rewarding placements:

Our subjects are broad, but our goals are unique, I’d like to work with the university to provide placements that harness our talents. Finding a placement that allows to develop into the outside world and still express ourselves is important, so that we leave our mark in our next steps. Including, funding these and reducing the boundaries, so the sky is the limit. I’m willing to be proactive to see an improvement. Every student deserves the same opportunities, regardless of circumstances. Impossible isn’t a scientific term, and I will do my best to make sure of that.

Antonette Mapesa, Faculty of Arts & Sciences President, Edge Hill SU

While others want more support to avoid academic misconduct:

I want to work with staff to restructure departmental style guides to ensure they are

easier to understand and utilise, and create compulsory referencing workshops for all courses. This will ensure students are confident in correctly referencing in their essays.

Sophie Jordan, Education Officer, Reading SU

What’s especially notable is the number of candidates calling for more diversity in their provision – sometimes on assessment, sometimes in what they study – in a sector slowly reducing the choices on offer as pressure on staff-student ratios grows:

CHOOSE YOUR OWN TIMETABLE! Take charge of your own schedule! Plan out your week according to your preference, and create a much-needed work life balance. Increased convenience for students who work and study simultaneously

Akanksha Kumar, SU Officer, City SU

Back to basics

One thing that has surprised us is the extent to which many of the promises feel like basics not being delivered. Anyone with OfS’ B Conditions or the UK Quality Code in mind might regard some of the material as worthy of submission of a notification:

Standardise all assessment feedback within the university as too many lecturers give poor feedback which doesn’t help us improve. Standardise assessment deadlines from faculty to faculty. Work with department and faculty reps to ensure your voice is heard in the university.

Jack Sanderson, VP Education, Chester SU

More advanced and clear notice of changes or cancellations to lectures, drop-ins, seminars, practicals and exams in addition to clear notice if marks are delayed With explicit reasons behind them. Ensuring timetables for exams, lectures and seminars are released earlier and in the same place.

Nyah Lowe, President, Bangor SU

And others know there’s a policy, but experience lots of variation in its implementation:

Lecture recording policies vary by department. We need to keep pushing the university to finally implement a new lecture recording policy, whereby the majority of lectures are recorded and available to students throughout the semester.

Jura Neverauskaite, Postgraduate Officer, The SU Bath

Industrial action also dominates many of the promises. If you’re someone hoping for support for your end of the dispute, there’s a notable lack of “picking sides” – but a raft of concerns about the impact that disruption is having on students, and more calls for compensation even than saw during Covid.

In fact you get a clear sense sometimes that students don’t want to know why each side has its position – but feel caught in the middle and ignored by each of their divorced parents:

Another pledge of mine is to acknowledge the effects that striking has on students. This is an issue which we have been faced with heavily this year, and is something I am keen to recognise and to assist students with. Opinions on striking can become very conflicting, however, it’s important to be able to understand the finer details behind disruptions to their education.

Sal Fox, Vice President Education and Welfare, Winchester SU

If I gave you my soul for a piece of your mind

Housing is up there too. Most years that manifests in calls for better information or trying to persuade students not to sign on the line too early. But this year you can feel a crisis in availability and quality really starting to bite:

The Cost of Living crisis has exacerbated Durham’s Housing Crisis, a consequence of the University’s over-recruitment. Student welfare has been detrimentally impacted.

Deborah Acheampong, Welfare and Liberation Officer, Durham SU

Calls for universities and SUs to take action to improve their rights, and give students support to enforce those rights, are growing. And students increasingly expect those charged with running things to work together to make things better, rather than pointing at each other to allocate blame:

With the cost of living and accommodation crisis biting hard on every level, I must consider an operative cushion effect by introducing a Joint-forum system which will include the collaboration of the university, the Landlord association of the Bristol community and the government.

Kolawole Samuel Olure, President, Students’ Union UWE

Remember the promise you made

What’s that you say? Outlandish ideas? You only read this far for things to laugh at? Shame on you. Even the ideas that sound far-fetched have some sense (and in this case, science) to them:

NAP PODS AT UNI! Naps are known to reduce stress levels, improve mood, and increase cognitive performance. Nap pods allow students to get a much-needed break between classes, and reduce the universities carbon footprint since students don’t have to travel back home to get some rest.

Akanksha Kumar, SU Officer, City SU

Behind every idea, of course, is a tale – either of personal battles or those of housemates, relatives and friends. We’re often surprised at how little interest seems to be shown in their experiences, as opposed to warning them off their goals.

Our top tip if you’re working with student officers in the year ahead is not to dismiss the pledges on paper or sideline the ideas on offer – but to interrogate carefully and listen to why students are proposing what they are, working to address what drove the daft idea in the first place.

We promise you’ll be rewarded with energy, creativity, commitment and a real passion for the place – something that feels like it’s often in short supply these days in HE.

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