Thinking about the impact of student opportunities

Friday 13-11-2015 - 16:05

At Zone Conference in Bradford I launched the key theme of the Union Development Zone this year. I suggested to the conference that although SUs know we aim to make a difference; we’re not clear about to what end.

1. What does impact mean and why do we care?

Impact is the change or difference brought about by a series of outcomes acting together.

Understanding and articulating the impact of students’ unions has been challenging. There are multiple reasons for this: a focus on delivery, a wide range of activities, an emphasis on responding to the demands of members and officers. However, this doesn’t mean the student movement doesn’t recognise the importance of focusing on impact. At NUS National Conference 2014, policy NC_UD_14 401: Empowering Active Students passed, stating our belief that, “Measuring and articulating what students’ unions do – impact – allows us to both think critically about what our activities aim to achieve and also better understand the benefits of our work”.

There is a broad recognition therefore that the student movement wants to make a difference. By gauging our impact we would know how successful we’ve been, be better at justifying how we spend our resources, more transparent for our members and better prepared to champion the positive impact of students’ unions on students and on society.

2. What difference do we want to make, to who or what?

As organisations delivering a huge range of different activities and services for thousands of different stakeholders it is impractical to understand the impact of everything we do. One activity might have any number of impacts on any number of stakeholders. It is therefore necessary to prioritise where we focus our attention.

In 2014, the Empowering Active Students motion made clear our belief that “Working with and through students’ unions, students have a valuable and vital impact on their education and wider society”.

In 2015, National Conference passed motion NC_UD_15 402: Students’ Unions Reimagined For The Common Good, which extended this notion to argue that, “if society is to recognise the public value of educating people and invest in tertiary education then students and their collective political platform (students’ unions) must be understood as a force for equality, social justice and the common good in society, not just as self-interested members of private clubs”, and resolving that “students’ unions demonstrate their success by preparing publicly available social accounts to document the difference they’ve made to students and wider society”.

So this policy helpfully functions to focus where we will look for the difference made by our work: social impacts that benefit students and wider society.

3. Policy development through theory and reflective practice

We want to understand how students’ unions make a difference through the work we do. This is a big question so, in order to provide an initial focus to the work, discussions this year will be limited to impacts arising from activities relating to ‘student opportunities’ (sports clubs, societies, volunteering, fundraising, media, enterprise) as well as basic democratic participation. This reduces the scope of what we’re talking about to a more reasonable size as well as supports discussions to be accessible because they’re focused around less abstract, more tangible and more common SU activities.

At Zone Conference, and with the UD Zone Committee in the coming months, we will explore ‘theories of change’ for the student movement – identifying the differences we aim to create, the assumptions we are making and the indicators we can track locally and nationally.

Separately a project group of around 8 students’ unions coordinated by NUS is testing hypotheses/assumptions about the impact SUs create, thus informing our policy development through reflective practice. Students’ unions are exploring the following 4 hypotheses – 


1. That students’ unions’ clubs and societies have an impact on social mobility by helping students from less privileged backgrounds make friends and feel at home at university/college. This not only helps to keep those students in education (increasing retention) but also helps them excel and achieve a higher standard qualification.



2. That taking part in decision-making helps to make students better citizens. In other words, their experience of democracy increases their appetite for engaging in broader decision-making across wider society.


3. That students’ volunteering in the community has multiple social benefits. That these social benefits are diverse, but can be aggregated in order to talk about the positive impact of students on their local community.


4. That, whilst at university or college, more people regularly do sports. Secondly, those students also help more people from the local community to do sports. This has multiple impacts including health, financial and cultural benefits (reduction in crime, increase in cultural cohesion and education).


This involves breaking down each hypothesis into much more specific activities and outcomes to be monitored, gathering relevant datasets and trying to prove the statement is false. i.e. if students’ unions weren’t active in this way, the results would be the same or better. Afterwards we’ll test with a wider group of unions.

4. What is a good society and how do we contribute to creating it?

The hypotheses listed above are a starting point from which we can practice methodologies for measuring impact. These are clearly not exhaustive, nor very specific, nor can they be proven to be reflective of the priorities of students’ unions. The list also assumes that the difference these activities makes is, for lack of a better phrase, ‘good’. Hence we have to identify what we believe the common good in society to be.

At this point we did an exercise to determine what a good society looks like.

The second question without a comprehensive answer is how do we aim to make a difference? To serve as a starting point for the debate, we could argue that students’ unions make a positive contribution to society in three ways:

Undoubtedly the three distinctions above collide and overlap. For example, students might intervene in tertiary education through collective action and make a difference that directly improves the lives of students. Regardless, this framework may help to segment and structure our thinking throughout the development of this policy.

At this point we did an exercise to determine how we contribute to creating the good society through our work.

5. What do we do with it: implications for NUS and sector?

Once the student movement has begun to prioritise, understand and articulate its impact, we must consider what we do with it! This will be a key part of our deliberations at Policy Development Convention, taking forward proposals to National Conference.

Implications for NUS might include such ideas as creating a national evidence base to showcase the impact of students’ unions, using the outputs to support local campaigns in students’ unions such as ‘keeping Wednesday afternoons free’ and refining our national understanding of success in students’ unions. Watch this space.

Richard Brooks,
Vice President (Union Development)


Union Development

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