At Wonkhe we’ve launched a bespoke briefing and support service for students’ unions.
At Wonkhe, we are real fans of the UK’s unique students’ union sector. I started my career in higher education by representing students as an officer at my students’ union, and many of the team here at Wonkhe have similar stories to tell. Students’ unions tend to get a bad press nationally, but away from the “student politics” headlines the day to day contribution that SU officers and staff make to higher education policy and decision making both locally and nationally is vital, where co-production with students is a defining and celebrated component of our system.
Right now, new SU officers are immersed in their induction – with new student leaders putting themselves and their ideas for improvement forward. With faith in representative democracy at an all-time low in wider society, we ought to be thrilled that in UK higher education, there’s a thriving tradition of student democracy that generates ideas, feedback, challenge, and keeps decision makers on their toes.
A tough gig
Representing students and contributing to policy effectively has never been easy, but in comparison to when I started out, it has become really tough – higher education policy is complex, confusing and constantly changing. We sometimes take for granted just how impenetrable the sector’s language and structures are for anyone, let alone those that have just been elected and won’t have the luxury of a year to “bed in”. We know that SU officers and staff that understand the environment and the issues are more effective, get more done, and make a bigger contribution to the life of our sector – and given Wonkhe is about finding and promoting diverse voices, we want to help.
For a small fee, students’ unions are able to subscribe to a new service that we unsurprisingly call Wonkhe SUs. We produce policy briefings and beginner’s guides on key issues in higher education, and a bespoke weekly news service for SUs featuring the latest developments, news coverage, analysis and opportunities for SUs – as well as access to a dedicated discussion group. And full subscribers can take advantage of training, take part in dedicated interactive webinars on key issues that SUs will be discussing with institutions, as well as being able to access the team at Wonkhe with questions and queries about policy issues. Our dedicated subsite for students’ unions is online.
What we’re not
We’ve been asked lots of questions about the boundaries of this work. Wonkhe is not a representative body – we won’t be speaking on behalf of students or students’ unions. That’s the job of SUs and NUS. We’re also not a campaigning body – there won’t be a national demonstration, a lobby of parliament or an election. But we do want to involve SUs and students in our work.
We want the whole sector to get behind our efforts to improve the impact of SUs, and there are lots of ways that our friends and partners can help. Sector bodies and agencies will want to identify briefing and information content that we should get into the hands of SUs. Those working on projects and policy will always want talented student officers and reps to be involved in the work they are developing. And locally, we know you’ll see supporting your SU to subscribe to the service as an essential way to improve the academic and corporate governance of your institution.
We have lots planned. We’re planning a series of collaborative research projects commissioned and led by SUs. In July we will deliver a policy induction event for SU officers, with a unique sector simulation event designed to get them up to speed quickly on the big issues and contemporary challenges. In early 2020, we’ll organise our first European study visit for SUs, and we’re also working on a host of policy projects, practitioner forums and partnerships to ensure that SU officers and staff are the best they can be.
We have a great team working on Wonkhe SUs. Associate Editor Jim Dickinson, a former NUS Director and SU CEO leads the work for us. Wonkhe’s editor and former NUS Head of Education Debbie McVitty and her wider Wonkhe editorial team will provide ongoing support and expertise. And our Chief Operating Officer and former SU officer NUS staffer Rachael Firth will be making it all happen behind the scenes.
We’re also always looking for SU officers and staff – as well as those with an affinity to or interest in SUs in the wider sector – to help guide the work on an advisory group. If you’re interested, please do get in touch.
I see work with students’ unions as an investment – in our mission to improve higher education policymaking and provide a platform unheard and diverse voices. But it is also an exciting opportunity to support the sector’s wider policy talent pipeline. Some of the most talented people I’ve ever met work in students’ unions, and we’ll all help secure the future of the sector if we retain them.