If the ‘niche activism’ supports the community and helps widen participation – count us in

Image of paving stones with the words passion led us here written on them, besides two people's feet

An untimely attack on Students’ Unions

‘The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns.’ In July, the Department of Education included this provocative line within the details of their financial support arrangements for universities.

This is not the first time Students’ Unions have been attacked by the government of the day, see Mike Day’s blog, however to many within the higher education sector it seems completely unnecessary in the current circumstances and based on an antiquated view of Students’ Unions. 

Mobilising students in the pandemic

Our experience of students and Students’ Unions during the pandemic has been one of civic engagement and community activism, joining the national effort to support the most vulnerable. In Worcester, the University’s staff and students have been volunteering to help the community in a plethora of ways. The activism from our students has been far from niche: our students have clocked up almost 850 hours of Covid-19 specific volunteering, supported by the Students’ Union and University. This has included food collections for vulnerable people, supporting pupils with lessons, dog walking for those unable to leave their homes, blood donation, and volunteering with the NHS as community first responders. This is in addition to all the healthcare students, including Nursing, Midwifery, Paramedics, Physiotherapists, and Physician Associates, who have been working on the frontline of the NHS.

Worcester isn’t unique: Students’ Unions (SUs) across the country have been mobilising students to volunteer to support their local communities. Leeds Beckett SU has over 40 online volunteering opportunities – from hosting a virtual quiz for a local charity to being a mental health charity befriender. These activities provide all students, including those who themselves are shielding, the opportunity to engage with volunteering, and reach out to those who might otherwise feel isolated – building inclusive digital communities. As well as volunteering, there have been various fundraising drives from Students’ Unions too – with Winchester SU raising nearly £14,000 for NHS Hampshire. All these activities have undoubtedly had a tangible impact on people’s lives.

As the summer draws to a close, we’re beginning to ask ourselves: what more can the students’ unions and universities do, as the country moves into the next phase of the pandemic? This is likely to include initiatives to help communities recover, increase mental and physical wellbeing, and act as agents for change in race equality. Regardless of what the next phase might look like, we know that facing uncertainty requires creativity, enthusiasm, and an appetite to embrace change.

A role to play in widening participation

The Government’s own regulator for higher education, the Office for Students, has embedded students’ unions into the development process for Access and Participation Plans, a key widening participation regulatory requirement designed to improve equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education. It rightly expects universities to collaborate with students’ unions to develop their five-year plans, encouraging students’ unions and student representatives to comment on the way they have been consulted and involved in their ‘provider’s’ access and participation work. This role has been embraced by many students’ unions, selflessly helping future generations to access higher education and succeed.

Worcester Students’ Union prides itself on enhancing the personal development of all students, helping contribute to well-rounded, confident graduates – regardless of the students’ background. It does not stop with current students as the SU participates in active outreach to prospective students and local schools. Students and staff are present at every Open Day and Visit Day to show that we can help provide for students from all backgrounds to succeed through social facilitation, personal development, and effective representation. School projects include sustainability behaviour change projects and running student leadership workshops for school councils. All of this further contributes to the University’s widening participation work and civic engagement.

Jim Dickinson’s blog for WonkHe outlined the ways SUs do make a difference including their potential to support widening participation. But it was also highlighted that SUs aren’t perfect and need ‘help, expertise, and investment to ensure that the benefits on offer reach the students that really need them’.

The road ahead

Understandably, a number of universities are finding the current environment financially challenging. This has resulted in the funding (block grant) for some students’ unions to be under serious threat. At Worcester, we have reaped the benefits of investing in Worcester Students’ Union over the past four years, and plan to continue to increase the block grant in the year ahead. We know it will be challenging; however, we urge other universities and colleges to at least maintain their financial support in the years ahead and provide expertise and support – it will be in the interest of the wider student population and our local communities.

Meg Price is President of Worcester Students’ Union and a Student Director of HESA.

Ross Renton is Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Worcester, Vice-Chair of FACE and Visiting Professor at the Open University.

Photo by Ian Schneider

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