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Students' unions: an A-Z

Week 33

22 April 2024

Students’ unions are an association that you’re automatically a member of when you arrive at your university.  This week we’re going to give you an A-Z of what a students’ union is and does (just as a warning, we struggled with at least one letter - but it's a pretty obvious one).

Read our Q&A before our A-Z

We spoke to the lovely team over at Solent Students' Union who answered a Q&A for our A-Z, about all the work they do over in the union!

A - Activism

Student activism is one of the main reasons we have students’ unions. Unions are known for supporting their members when it comes to equal rights and change.

B - Bars

Students’ unions will tend to play a big part in university nightlife. A lot of unions run their own bars (or if they don’t, they'll have relationships with local bars and clubs). Campus bars tend to serve cheap drinks, food and hold events, so keep an eye out when you get on to campus!

C - Campaigns

Students’ unions will run a whole host of campaigns to make your time at university the best experience possible. Many unions will run their own campaigns that affect students at their universities, making sure you're safe and supported, or they'll get involved in national ones in areas like liberation, welfare, education and sustainability. Find out more about the national campaigns here or check out your students’ union website to see what they’re up to and how you can get involved.

D - Discounts

You may have seen loads of adverts offering you a student discount from your favourite outlets - getting those discounts is super simple. A lot of places will simply accept your university ID or you can grab an NUS TOTUM card (this is where you can get discounts online). Students' unions will work with local and national companies to give you discounts on pretty much everything you’ll need whilst studying - from pizza to books! So it’s always worth asking if places offer a student discount. Also, check back next week to read our article on discounts!

E - Elections

Your students’ union will be run by students who you will vote for. You can even run to be elected at any year during your studies! Elections week tends to be a big week on campus where you’ll see walls plastered with posters, have people on campus handing you flyers, and the creative ones will do something surprising. Students running for office will write manifestos outlining their plans for supporting you as a student. And they may create some amazing campaign material like this catchy video from Toby Gladwin running for president of Exeter's SU. Spoiler, he won!

F - freshers' fair

Freshers' fairs are held during freshers' week (your first week at university) and they are well worth a visit! Freshers' fairs are essentially where you can bag yourself a ton of freebies and discounts. Local shops, bars, restaurants and clubs, and national companies like ASOS, Sainsbury's, Nandos, Lucozade and Dominos will come on to campus and hand out loads of their products and discounts, so make sure you find out when it's running and get down there early to beat the queues. 

G - Governance

Most students' unions operate under a similar structure, however, it's worth checking yours out to see how they're structured. Normally you will elect a president, the president will oversee a team of officers or vice-presidents who each represent a section of what makes your time at university a better experience, whether it's sport, welfare or engagement. The president and officers will work with full-time staff as well as a chief-exec or union manager to help put into action what they promised in their manifestos. There will also be a board of trustees who oversee the work of the full-time staff and chief exec. Phew. Solent Students' Union has a much simpler guide on how they're structured.

H - Help

Students’ unions are there for the sole purpose to help and support you. That’s their number one priority. Unions ensure that you're fully supported and given all the opportunities to succeed during your time at university. They are run separately from the university and are there to hold the university accountable to its students. To do this, they will work in partnership on a range of issues students face. Most unions will have an advice centre who give you impartial advice to help you with any problems you may face while you're studying.

I - Involvement

There are so many ways that you can get involved with your students’ union. Depending on the size of your union, there could be a number of committees and councils you could sit on which will all help inform change across the university. They will also have sports teams and societies for you to join (scroll to 'S' for more info.) Many unions will have job opportunities or will help you to find volunteering positions. Visit your union’s website or start following them on social media to see how you can get involved.

J - Joining

This is a simple one! You don’t need to join! Once you’re a student, you're automatically a member.

K - Keeping you safe

Students' unions also aim to look after your welfare. A lot of the time, students' unions who may share a city will work collaboratively to help keep you safe. Currently, Solent Students' Union and Southampton University Students' Union (and their universities) are working together on a campaign called Ask for Angela to make sure you're safe on nights out. Unions will also have links with local police stations who will work together to ensure students are safe on nights out. Unions will join in on national campaigns too to ensure that welfare is at the forefront of your time at university.

L - Live music

If you're looking to perform or watch live music, many students' unions will have venues or societies for you to get your musical fix. Bands like Kasabian, Feeder, Plan B, Snoop Dogg, Chase and Status and Dizzy Rascal have performed across the UK at students’ unions, so keep your eye on the venues and events organised by unions.

M - Mature students

According to UCAS, a mature student is classed as anyone over 21 who hasn’t been to school or college before. Around 40 per cent of mature students are over 30 and have had work, mortgages or family responsibilities. As students’ unions are for everyone, they will have help and advice for mature students. A lot of unions will also have mature students societies and host coffee mornings or events for mature students to meet and build up a network.

N - Nightclubs

Some students' unions have their own nightclubs, often on campus. They will normally run themed or fancy dress nights, live music or will even let you host a night there. Clubs and societies will often run a takeover night to help them raise funds for their groups. A lot of the staff are current students meaning that it’s a good chance to gain employment there too. Students’ union nightclubs often help fund the overall students’ union, which means every time you visit, you're supporting your union! Do you need a better excuse?

O - Officers

The team that is elected to run the students' union are often referred to as officers. Officers are there to steer the direction of the union and ensure the university is making the best decisions for students. Any student can run to be an officer and every student can vote for who the officers want to run the union.

P - President

The president tends to be the highest ranking officer in the students union, leading the officer team and the students’ union. Presidents are normally the link between the union and the university, but will always act on what’s best for students.

Q - Quorum

In order for committees and councils to make decisions in a students’ union, they normally need to meet quorum. A quorum is a minimum number of members of a committee needed to reach a decision. This is why you should get involved with your union, because without enough people getting involved, decisions may not be able to be made! So find out about your committee and get involved!

R - Representation

We’ve covered this throughout this 52 things article and that’s because it can’t be stressed enough. Students’ unions represent YOU. They will fight on your behalf for equal rights, funding, and getting the most out of your time at university. Many students' unions will have student reps, these are normally at course level. This means you will have a representative for your whole course. If you’re unhappy about how the course is run, you can go to your rep and change the course for the better! There is also sometimes a network of part-time officers. These officers are normally voluntary roles looking after a number of groups of students who may need the extra representation such as LGBTQ+, BME, postgrad, international, etc. The voluntary officers will be able to work with the full-time officers to represent these groups and make changes for the better.

S - Sports and societies

If you're involved in a sports team or have a weekend hobby, it doesn't have to end with you going to university! Students' unions will support a range of sports teams and societies. Have a look at your union's website to see if there are any groups you want to get involved in, and if there isn't, you can start your own! Also, be sure to check back in week 51 we give you all the info you need about sports and societies!

T - Tables and rankings

Much like your university, students' unions have league tables! As part of a survey called the NSS (National Student Survey) which you can take at the end of every academic year, you’ll be asked to rate your students' union. This helps ensure that students’ unions are held accountable for representing their students. Which? University Guide also ran a survey to find the best students’ union.

U - Unions

Pretty obvious one for the letter U and pretty much every university will have a students’ union! Around 600 universities and college students’ unions are members of the National Union of Students (NUS), which is a confederate of unions, and the others act independently. The oldest students' union in Britain is St Andrews, which was founded in 1864. Unions can also be known as guilds or associations.

V - Volunteering

Many students' unions will give you opportunities to volunteer with them. Students’ unions work closely with the local communities and will often have opportunities for you to get involved in the area you are living. Or if raising money is more your thing, more often than not students' unions will have a RAG (raise and give) society, which will run events and campaigns to raise money for a number of charities. They may even have RAG week - a whole week dedicated to raising as much cash as possible for a chosen charity.

W - World Records

Students' unions do love to break a world record! We’ve chosen some great ones for you:

Cardiff Students Unions' attempt at the most Harry Potters in one place

X - X-treme sports

We struggled a bit coming up with something for X, so we figured we’d cheat a little. Worth it, for the chance to give a little nod towards x-treme sports societies such as ultimate frisbee, roller derby and airsoft. There's even an x-treme ironing society at the University of Nottingham. The Guardian has a handy little article to give you a better idea of the x-treme societies out there.

Y - You

YOU are the reason that students’ unions exist. They are there to represent you and your interests and make university a safe and amazing experience for you. They will lobby the government on your behalf, ensure you are supported and that you have funding, and work to ensure your course is everything you hope it will be. You should find out more about the union at your chosen university and definitely get involved where you can.

Z - Zoos (the petting kind)

We all know that exams are stressful. And unions are there to help relieve that stress. Many universities will have petting zoos on campus to help you get through the week, so you can pop down and reduce some of that exam stress by petting some cute animals like bunnies and lambs. One SU even had a turkey... A lot of unions also work in partnership with various dogs charities to bring you puppy rooms!

Tasks for this week

  • Have a look at your university's students' union.
  • See how you can get involved.