Plenty of students focus on their studies and making friends on their courses or in their flats and forget to utilise their students' unions. Your student union is there for your benefit, so you might as well make use of it! Plus, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to access places with as many free resources as a students' union after you graduate – so the time is now. So what actually is a students' union and why are they so great?
Making use of a trusty dictionary definition in the spirit of academia, Collins Dictionary says that “the students' union is the students' organization in a university or college which organizes leisure activities, provides welfare services, and represents students' political interests.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. Your students' union (or SU for short!) is there to represent your views and provide support in various ways. Many SU’s are independent from the university and have their own separate buildings, providing distance between your educational institution that can be useful. If you have a complaint against your university, you could go to your SU for advice and get their help in reporting it to the correct channels at the university. You may have a dedicated student advice centre, or drop-in sessions with SU staff, or even sabbatical officers who can help with any pastoral and welfare needs.
Some SU’s offer separate counselling services to your university, confidential advice on financial matters and appointments with housing and academic experts. University wellbeing services have been under strain for years, with a 2017 report suggesting that in some universities “1 in 4 students are using, or waiting to use, counselling services”. With this high demand, it makes sense to head to your SU and see if their waiting lists are better, or if an alternative drop-in service could work for you too. Free and accessible welfare services? Sign me up.
Alongside crucial welfare provisions, students' unions offer much more. SU’s act as a real hub of student activity, whether that’s through a thriving student bar, affordable food outlets or a rigorous student representation programme. students' unions should always prioritise giving students a voice; at their core, they are quite literally a union for students. This means you should feel able to share your opinions and views on the union, university and key issues that matter to you.
Student Council is the best democratic opportunity that all students should be aware of and get involved with. At my university, it even offers free pizza and snacks to enjoy as you get into the spirit of a good debate. Any student can submit a motion to be discussed and voted on at council; if it passes, it will be implemented and could even feed into university or union policies for years to come. If there’s an issue you think needs changing, take those first steps to do it yourself. Student politics is a perfect place to start getting engaged in democracy, as you’re likely to see and feel the changes you are involved in and feel inspired to do more. Although student politics can get messy, especially when ego and idealism get in the way, it’s well worth giving it a go. Who knows what you might impact?
Student unions also offer a wealth of extra-curricular activities to get stuck into when you need a distraction from coursework and exams. Clubs and societies are a fantastic addition to your life (and CV) where you can try new activities, find a community and meet people you would never normally run into! Universities are home to thousands of unique people and societies to match; from Board Games Society and Circus Skills to League of Legends Society and Folk Dance, the possibilities go on. My biggest recommendation to any student is to join at least one society and really commit to going; you will meet amazing people, try new things and discover new parts of university life you just don’t get from only focusing on your course. Alongside societies, many SU’s offer volunteering opportunities, heavily discounted activities and employability workshops. Not only are these great additions to your skills for your LinkedIn profile, they give you so many new experiences and memories to take away with you when you do leave university.
Opening yourself up to what your students' union can offer you is so important to really dive into the student experience. You can make new contacts, friends and found family through everything the SU offers. I’ve been able to run workshops at conferences, be nominated for society awards and learn so many new skills through joining societies and taking advantage of workshops. Check out your SU and make sure to get involved early, so you have as long as possible to explore everything your students' union has to offer!