What makes a Student Union great?
There are more than a hundred Student Unions (SU) across Canada, around thirty-five in Ontario alone, representing close to two million students in colleges and universities.
And then there’s you. Inspired by other student representatives, you planned, campaigned and won a position within your institution’s SU. But how will you make your SU standout?
The bad news is that there are no groundbreaking methods; the good news is that there are best practices that will ensure your SU has the most impact on the student body.
1. A great Student Union provides services and help
This is obvious, of course.
An SU should be a student’s go-to with inquiries about sports clubs, societies, directions for financial services, mental health and academic support, and much more. Student representatives must ensure they’re fluent in the student contract and rights, aware of all services, clubs, and societies available on campus, as well as support services in the city. These touchpoints are crucial for students and make the SU relevant to all segments of the student body.
Tip: Make “customer service”, otherwise known as “membership service” of the utmost priority. Smile! Create a welcoming environment and go out of your way to ensure that the small things are attended to in order for your services stand out. There is great value in simplifying the quality of human interaction.
Resource: Here’s a great lesson you can show to your team and staff on taking customer service up a notch: Click here to watch
2. A great Student Union has a vision and capable leadership
Students united are powerful – and nothing unites a group more than a vision they believe in and a leader they trust.
As student representatives, you play a significant decision-making role when you sit on committees and boards. A SU must amplify the collective voice of students and communicate their wants and needs. SU leadership must put students and community at the centre of their vision while building connections between staff, volunteers and the student body.
Research: Developing your SU’s vision requires research – lots of research. Invest time into open forum discussions, create a student body segmentation study and run market research campaigns. Spend time on campus asking students about their opinions, much like you did during your election campaign! Drop in on club and society events, find out what your student body wants and align your vision accordingly. Additionally, consider initiating student-run award schemes to positively engage and celebrate each other. Surveys, focus groups, or a table in a busy area with sticky notes and a single question can all go a long way in getting collective buy-in.
3. A great Student Union listens and communicates
Communication and collaboration are key.
SUs exist to listen to the student body and amplify their concerns. Not all students will actively participate however; voter turnout for SU elections is consistently low. It is your responsibility as a representative to ensure that the student body is aware of the SU’s activities: get loud about your questions, initiatives, and wins.
Campaigns: Every SU needs a strong communications team. If you’re seeking to push a project forward or raise awareness around an issue, run communication and content marketing campaigns; use new media production tools; and always meet students where they are online and in real life, from social media to student lounges.
Example: Leeds University Union, “Why Should You Give an xxxx About an x?” Watch here.
Tools: Use good ol’ Mailchimp to grow your mailing lists and get more information to students! (Did you know email marketing is still the most effective way in reaching your audience?) Check out All Free Stock for great videos, pictures and designs to add to your content marketing!
4. A great Student Union is proactive and innovative
Complacency is comfortable – but it won’t get you anywhere.
To make your SU standout, you need a positive, proactive team that embraces new approaches and seeks out new technology and creative ideas. SU representatives and volunteers must keep pace with changes, be unbounded by customs and independent of third-party priorities.
Tip: Rules and regulations go stale. SUs must update their rules and regulations to develop a forward-thinking community that can agree to disagree – without allowing internal politics and customs interfere. Creating a strong team environment with deep roots in trust, creating room for conflict, peer to peer accountability and shared results are the pillars of innovating and exploring new ideas.
Resources: Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions of a team unpack the major pitfalls of most teams and the blocks they deal with before being able to innovate. Learn about it here.
5. A great Student Union networks and lobbies
While it’s important to listen to students’ opinions, it’s equally important to drive their ideas forward.
An SU’s value is also tied to its ability to provide support to students when they need it; be prepared to deal with everything from individual grievances to collective action. You are responsible for campaigning for student rights, bringing concerns and issues to the attention of the administration, national unions and governments.
Academics: While placing a high priority on lobbying the institution for student rights, remember that facing the university as a whole with hostility will only undermine everyone’s ability to move the issue forward. Seek out friendly faces amongst academics to get support – not all align themselves with the values of their institution.
Example: “Innovative Practice Report – Student Experience” by 1994 Group (2016) http://sdf.ac.uk/cms/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Student-Experience-Innovative-Practice-Report-final.pdf