The views and opinions outlined in this piece belong entirely to the author, and are not reflective of the views of the wider Editorial team, nor Concrete as a whole.
Student satisfaction is hard to measure. Undergraduates are fickle creatures, likely to punish our universities with negative feedback for an increase in the price of Jagerbombs in Red Bar, or a perceived decline in the quality of the music at Saturday LCRs. Consumed with concerns over the crispy-to-soggy ratio of the curly fries in Blend, most students are failing to recognise that our somewhat indulgent priorities are in fact entirely out of the control of the suited academics that sign off on departmental budgets and book our graduation speakers.
It is with these thoughts and similar that UEA’s administration will be comforting themselves with today. The National Student Survey revealed that – despite doing nothing particularly life-ruiningly terrible, bar the fairly dire return times on assessment feedback – our university has dropped a further place, to joint third. This steady decline is based on the views of final year undergraduate taught students, those who graduated this July. So if you’re wondering who to blame for your institution’s sudden drop in prestige, you need look no further than this year’s crop of newly no-longer-student-loan-minted graduates. Comfort yourself with the thought that, unless any of these backstabbers happen to be an expert in trade negotiations or EU free movement policy, it’s unlikely that anywhere is hiring.
Moving on, however, to the biggest NSS inflicted blow to UEA’s self-esteem: students’ satisfaction – or rather, the lack of it – with our ever-less perfect union. Described by the NSS as an “Association or Guild,” (a step up from the rather more unprintable names given to the SU by those who some of our officers delight in referring to as “YikYak trolls,”) the union has taken a battering far more severe than that of the university. UEA SU has really not had the most brilliant of years. The sequence of disasters began in Fresher’s Week, with the ban on a somewhat unexpected item of Mexican headgear, followed by the refusal to allow students into the LCR for having words perceived as potentially offensive written on their t-shirts.
It didn’t end there though. Spiked Magazine gave UEA a red rating for freedom of speech on campus. This was due to a series of PR catastrophes, including but not limited to: the aforementioned Sombrero-gate debacle, the banning of UKIP and The Sun newspaper from campus and “collectively creating an environment that is hostile to free speech”. If YikYak and general campus rumours are to be believed, previous officers considered the students to be “right wing”, and knew that in return, students saw the union and the culture surrounding it as an authoritative group, who didn’t care about those they were supposed to represent.
Satisfying as it is to know that the officers were aware of the levels of dislike they inspired, you have to wonder why so little was done to address these matters. The rise in satisfaction levels with the union is restricted to four schools: Education, Medicine, Psychology and Health and Social Work. The efforts of former Undergraduate Education Officer Connor Rand to support UEA’s medical students’ solidarity with the junior doctors strikes, and the improvements in the union’s engagement with smaller schools of study should be commended, but why was the same approach not extended to the wider student body?
While the tagline “liberal-loony-lefty-uni” is certainly popular with the gutter press for reasons significantly less highbrow than the staunch defence of the right to express opinion without persecution, the number of times UEA has featured in such groan-inducing articles says something worrying about the way we risk beginning to be perceived.
I don’t want #Mortar-gate to be the first thing that springs to mind when employers look at my CV after graduation, and neither do you. Both the university and UEA SU need to recognise that they have an image problem on their hands, and take steps to ensure that students, graduates, staff and alumni continue to be hugely – and rightly – proud of far more than just Greg James, Derby Day and the UEA bunnies.