The Relationship between Universities and Students’ Unions

Aidan Grills, Chief Executive of Leeds University Union, looks at the complex but important relationship between universities and their students’ unions.

The last five years has brought considerable change to the operating environment for students’ unions. With those changes comes a change in emphasis for the “partnership” which underlies communications and engagement between institutions and their respective students’ union. The relationship between both bodies is often shaped and characterised through the relationship between the senior officers of both.

With a new Teaching Excellence Framework in the balance, it’s the ideal time to take stock of the relationship. A new framework brings conjecture around the impact this could have upon the role of student voice and quality processes. The thoughts below are personal observations that are proposed as Drivers, Opportunities and Tensions of this change.

The changing operating environment for the modern campus demands more strategic impact from all aspects of HEIs. This has led to more scrutiny and expectation over outcomes from investment in the students’ union. Governance, leadership and management in SUs is radically different from the models pre-2000s. There has been a refocusing upon “core” activity, derived from a higher level of accountability to students and this means that providing services geared purely towards full-time younger undergraduates interested in sports, politics and alcohol just doesn’t cut it.    

Key Strategic Drivers

The Higher Education Code of Governance (December, 2014) published by the CUC reinforces the role of students in academic governance, actively encouraging a governing body to expect regular reports from students’ unions. Supplementary guidance published in 2011 surveyed HEIs and unions to identify 6 key drivers for developing a positive working relationship:

  • Improved student experience
  • Shared success
  • Improved student representation
  • Good service provision
  • Greater recruitment and retention success
  • Improved risk management

Opportunities and Tensions

With a strategic alignment between HEI and SU, more non-academic service provision could be shared or collaboratively outsourced. Retention and enrichment activity holds great potential, with many examples of students’ unions growing leadership skills and opportunities outside the classroom. Quality enhancement activity has a strong tradition of partnership, innovative and evidence-based input, since student engagement work has received targeted investment over recent years. Contributing to the educational mission of the HEI, partnership work can build a sense of belonging and affinity that will enhance the student experience.

In recent years the same changing environment has seen tensions emerge, which can cause worry or concern, but often attract little effort in the way of risk management. Tension can arise from difference in corporate vision between HEI and SU, frequently around philosophical role of education in society (but very infrequently about the role research plays). Questions arise over who owns the “student voice” and best interpretation of opinion data and who runs things (non-academic) and therefore controls operations and access to students?

Exploring the relationship

The CUC/NUS Guidance proposed a Relationship Agreement founded on the principles of: “strategic partnership, student-centred, respect & understanding, openness & trust, mutual support and commitment, independence, accountability, diversity & equality”.

It is interesting to consider how and where the relationship may be characterised, beyond written agreements. It may be through the commitment to involve elected officers in key decisions around the student experience, but without impacting discussions about other policy areas (such as University investment policies). It may be through a splitting of the political and operational context, so that involvement in student recruitment activity isn’t impacted by a struggle over quality enhancement work. The relationship is also characterised by the mutual understanding of issues between the senior staff of the SU and HEI. Yet despite much positive work to define and recognise the role of the Registrar/Secretary/COO, there is little understanding about the role of the SU Chief Executive and their place within the sector.

Sharing Responsibility

Following discussion on the issues above at the recent AHUA Autumn Conference, a number of themes emerged. One is the responsibility of the SU to present itself in a manner that allows for constructive dialogue. The high turnover of elected officers should not be a barrier to excellent relationships, but arguably places a greater degree of focus on the role of the SU senior members of staff. Trust is critical to all good relationships, so who should instigate a building of trust and does the right environment exist for this to flourish and grow the partnership work?

Students’ Unions are ready to evolve into more professional bodies that can generate greater impacts for the HEI. Students’ Union staff as well as elected officers will be critical to this development, but how does or could the sector recognise these staff and their leadership further?