I’ve been at UEA for four years now and I’ve had a complicated relationship with the Student Union (SU) to say the least. I went from being utterly disillusioned and disengaged to being a Union Councillor last year and the Deputy Chair of Union Council this year. But I’ve often wondered whether there’s any point in student unions anymore. It’s an awkward question that’s been lurking in the closet like the Babadook, gnawing away at me.
In my experience, the vast majority of people who get involved in student unions do so for the simple and decent reason of wanting to improve the university experience. They mostly want to make it fairer, more supportive, and more fulfilling for every student. Day in, day out, whether a councillor or an officer, these people spend ages tirelessly trying to make our universities better places for students.
Student unions are progressive institutions. Look at UEASU: we now have much better dissertation support and advisor training, incredible safer taxi and Never Okay schemes, and even free sanitary products and gender-neutral toilets. All of these things have made such positive differences to the day-to-day lives of UEA students, and all these things wouldn’t have been possible without an SU fighting for them. Take the campaign to increase investment in the Student Support Services (SSS) for example, a campaign the SU has been running for the entire four years I’ve been at UEA. Do you honestly think the student body has any hope of getting the University to increase SSS funding without the SU campaigning for it? At its core that is the purpose of the SU: to be a recognised body fighting on behalf of the student body, in a manner in which they are listened to by Universities and can actually enact real change.
In this time of the marketisation and commercialisation of higher education, we need student unions. With incidents like the University of Liverpool enacting academic sanction on students who can’t pay their rent, or Vice-Chancellor expenses scandals being a sector-wide issue, students need somebody to fight their corner. We need somebody to struggle for a more progressive and more fulfilling university experience. Somebody to stand up willingly, and shout enough is enough. We need an institution to fight to achieve real change for the entire student body. We need the SU.