Opportunity blocked: the impact of the SU on student life






Opportunity blocked: how student opportunities and SUs relate to student life, belonging and outcomes

At Wonkhe, we are real fans of the UK’s unique Students’ Union sector. Earlier this year we launched Wonkhe SUs – a subscription service designed to support SU officers and staff to represent students’ effectively. We produce policy briefings and beginner’s guides on key issues in higher education, a bespoke weekly news service for SUs featuring the latest developments, news coverage, analysis and opportunities for SUs – as well as access to training, webinars, the team at Wonkhe and a dedicated subsite.

Many of the team started their careers at Wonkhe in higher education by working in SUs and we know first hand the value that involvement in activities, representation and leadership can have. But we also had a hunch that right now, those opportunities – and the benefits that can come from them – are not evenly distributed across the student population. And given that our subscriber SUs were worried about that too, we decided to work with Cibyl to find out more about said benefits and their distribution.

We began the process back in January 2019 with a small study on student belonging and loneliness at university (“Only the Lonely”), and in summer 2019 we expanded the study to look in more detail at student involvement in activities – the benefits for students of getting involved in terms of career, course and mental health; who is and isn’t experiencing those benefits; and what can be done about it.

The headline results are fascinating – and show that even when we control for student characteristics, there are major positive links between student wellbeing, course and career confidence and involvement. It’s also clear that a students’ course is a key place to find friendships – so ensuring that academic schools/departments/faculties facilitate meaningful opportunities to build friendships is key.

It’s also clear that SUs and universities should identify ways in which opportunities can be designed to reduce the level of initial commitment – be that financial, opportunity/time, and crucially emotional – and that “entry” points to involvement should exist year-round, rather than “loaded” into a busy Freshers’ period.

Above all, it’s clear that investment in SUs – especially targeted on social capital, friendship and diversifying the sorts of students involved in activities – could bring huge benefits to students and institutions. We’re enormously grateful to the student officers and staff in SUs that helped design the work and looking forward to working with subscriber SUs to make the most of the findings.

Jim Dickinson
Wonkhe SUs

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