Two Views. You Choose: Should NUS Awards recognise impact or effort?

Thursday 08-10-2015 - 11:45

In the lead up to our annual Zone Conferences, NUS is highlighting the key themes from each of the five Zones. For this Two Views You Choose piece, we’re exploring the debate around whether our NUS Awards should recognise impact or effort. Agree? Disagree? Have your say by voting in the poll at the bottom of the page.

NUS showed last year that the public, and those we need for support, understand very little about the purpose and value of students’ unions. It is proposed that this puts the student movement in a weak position – struggling to articulate on our own terms why we should exist, let alone receive wider support for our objectives. We concluded that SUs should develop a clearer idea of what we stand for.

Union Development Zone will begin to tackle this challenge by looking at Student Opportunities – an absolutely key area of activity for students’ unions. We will be focusing on drawing out what’s important to us about our work in this area and considering repercussions for how we run our students’ unions, including NUS. With that in mind, this debate considers potential implications on the annual NUS Awards – perhaps success should be explicitly the difference we’ve made rather than the effort we put in?

Should the NUS Awards reflect the difference we made rather than the effort we put in?


Students’ unions often talk about the importance of making a difference – known also as our impact.

Knowing what difference what are making will encourage us to be smarter about how we work, and therefore more effective in our aims. We would 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.

But how well do we understand what we’re really changing about the world through our activities? Maybe we’re not doing anything at all that wouldn’t have happened anyway, or perhaps some of our activities are making things worse?

There are, in fact, many examples from charities where high-profile, well-funded and well-intentioned initiatives actually slowed down the progress they wanted to see. Similarly, it’s likely that there are things students’ unions are investing time and money into which are based on incorrect assumptions about how change will come about. As one example, does allowing a student to set up their own sports club actually increase the health of the population? Or improve the quality of education? Or create happiness?

It is surely the role of NUS, having identified this national issue, to ensure students’ unions are rewarded (or at least acknowledged) for helping our movement tackle it.

Because although talking about impact has been popular in the third sector for a few years, students’ unions have been slow to react. Particularly when capacity is tight. Particularly when we emphasise responding to the specific demands of members and officers. Particularly when we’re talking about the unwritten rules of a students’ union – the things we ‘just do’ because they are expected of us.

So why does NUS not recognise the success of a students’ union based on progress against the difference our movement wants to make? It is a clear action that could put our movement on a stronger footing for the long-term future.

It’s not clear what exact form the awards would take – we would need to devise them together - but awards for reducing wealth inequalities, creating a more active local democracy or improving life expectancy, would surely be a step in the right direction from the current system, which reward the ‘big and shiny’ rather than the genuinely transformational. It’s very reasonable that students’ unions plan towards these visionary goals considering our history, our influence on education and our engagement with the leaders of tomorrow.


Our aim as students’ unions is clear: we should aim to satisfy our students’ needs. Throughout history we have been at our most relevant when we listen carefully to what our students want, then turn those ideas into opportunities and services to make their lives better. This idea of ‘chasing the impact’ is unhelpful and risks damaging what makes our unions special - that we represent all our members and their interests.

So to the issue at hand: the NUS awards should not about measuring performance against a centralised national agenda. If our work is truly about supporting students at a local level then we should reward students’ unions who empower their members to do what they want, to say what they want, to change what they want. Our national awards therefore should celebrate each students’ unions’ individuality, and show our collective admiration for any efforts that change the lives of their diverse body of students.

What’s more, trying to measure our impact is a fantasy – our work affects so many people, in such a variety of ways that it’s almost hopeless trying to measure it in any meaningful way. We must stand firm in our beliefs that students’ unionism - providing opportunities for students, representing and campaigning on issues that affect their lives - is inherently the way to a better society.

The stories of generations of alumni, improved metrics of student experience and the power of our students’ union infrastructure will testify to that.

Perhaps a better way to improve the NUS awards would be to reward unions that invested in sharing their expertise/practice across the movement. Or even just profiled the winners for each award as leaders in their area. This would be practising what we preach in terms of collectivism – genuinely helping everyone to achieve the highest standards in our movement.

Should the NUS Awards reflect the difference we made rather than the effort we put in?
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