The students’ union paradox

Monday 31-10-2016 - 16:50

In the court of public opinion we are always found guilty.

I wear many hats as Vice-President Union Development of NUS. I lead our enterprise activity including extra and Apprentice extra cards, the purchasing consortium and UnionCloud. I am accountable for many of our events, including Students’ Unions 2016 and Lead and Change (our year-round training programme for officers), as well as our Student Opportunities work (sports, societies, volunteering and fundraising).

But most of the work I do is actually some of what I think is the most important – supporting, developing, creating and crucially – defending students’ unions as places where students come together to make their lives and society a better place.

That job seems to have become increasingly harder since I started 18 months ago.

It seems that wherever you look, someone is demonising students’ unions and the work we do.

Whether it’s that we uphold unhealthy drinking cultures (my response) or that we’re no fun

Or that we’re silencing debate and/or ‘banning’ stuff (never quite what’s happening) or indeed debating too much.

It seems also students’ unions are increasingly being misrepresented in the media and the fallout from lazy allegations about students in their unions. It hurts me to say there seems to be no end in sight for the attacks on credibility of students’ unions.

This is a massive problem.

Students’ unions are bastions of debate and discussion, activities, retention, politics (of all kinds), representation, support and advice. SUs are places where disenfranchised students build some power. If students’ unions are undermined, if policy shapers and decision makers don’t want to play with us, if students don’t respect their students’ union, we quickly lose everything we have worked for decades to build.

Why is this happening? Young people, students and civil society in general are under attack. Millennials have the least political power, most precarious livelihoods and worst economic prospects, but are still routinely attacked for being entitled, lazy and apathetic. Students are used as mules for public debt and cheap targets for political grandstanding. We have also seen nearly two years of co-ordinated political and media attacks on charities. Students’ unions are not immune to any of these forces.

What’s more, progressive, professional organisations of people in democracies across the world have seemingly collectively lost the ability to hold public confidence, win elections and hold credible debates. Students’ unions tend to exist in this increasingly lonely space, which leaves us exposed to the polarised debates around us.

Social media and the incredibly fast paced nature of news, coupled with always being at the front of public debates, has led to a number of incidents of serious negative press coverage for students’ unions.

So the question for officers, student leaders and staff – is what do we do to fix this serious and prolonged problem? Some of this stuff seems basic, but lots of SUs aren’t doing it;

  1. Embed ourselves more in local communities – that could be about hosting events in your SU, it could be working with other local groups to tackle joint problems (housing and voter registration) or it could be making sure you’re working with your local authorities. Stories with cross-audience appeal get picked up, as exemplified by Nottingham SU’s excellent work in parliament this week.
  2. Work collectively across students’ unions for local impact – whether or not that’s regional meetings (#OneCity and the like!), working together collectively and bringing together student groups from different places.
  3. Use your friendly national union if you want support, help or think your story could go bigger – send your story to, even if you just tag me (@Just_RichardB) or any other officer, we’re happy to share as wide as possible!
  4. Plan ahead to be strategic – if you know you have a poor town and gown relationship plan to highlight your students’ community work that year. If you know your campus has a reputation of heavy drinking – make sure you’re promoting to press alternative events you’re hosting.
  5. Tell the press you’re doing a thing - write a press statement, build relationships with local and regional journalists, share your impact evaluations. Putting people at the heart of your stories is a good way to get coverage – human interest is always a winner.


The least telegenic of all of the NUS Officers

(which is why I write words instead)




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