What's the point of a Student Union?

What’s a student union actually for? Cheap drinks and discounts? Well yes, but it offers much more than a bar and a comfy seat. A student union also provides advice, from welfare to housing and student rights as well as laying on social and sporty events, even weekends away. 

You’ll first come across your union in freshers’ or welcome week – it oversees the clubs, societies and much of the activities laid on during the first days. You don’t have to join your union - every student is automatically a member.

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In the same way a professional workers' union defends employees’ rights, a student union looks after students. You can go to your union rep for academic, emotional, financial and social support. “Think of it as students with experience listening to the needs of other students and finding out their needs, and what the university is doing right or wrong,” says Katie Henry, former vice president of the students’ union, University of the Arts London.

Many students can go through university without getting particularly involved in their union after freshers’ week. “But it’s there if you need it,” says ChuChu Nwagu, incoming student union president at the University of Roehampton. When he was still an undergraduate student rep, he argued successfully for laundry facilities to be added to a new accommodation block. “You’d be surprised how important this was to students.” As well as social events, the union is there as an advice centre – and it’s independent of the university leadership. “We provide academic representation if students are accused of plagiarism for instance,” says Mr Nwagu. “We’ll attend a disciplinary hearing with them.” Unions also act as third party hate crime reporting centres and will have a dedicated officer to represent you in areas such as education, welfare, disability, diversity, the environment and more.

Student unions are staffed by volunteers, paid part time staff (often students) and run by former students or those on sabbatical who take leadership roles as full time positions – either way they know what you might be going through and will argue your corner.

While universities have their own housing and welfare officers, student unions will also offer advice in these areas – from looking through tenancy contracts to running counselling hotlines. “We also have a student rep system which allows students to feed back what needs to be improved,” says Hollie Cooke, president of Cardiff University Student Union – which has scored highly in the latest National Student Survey, and employs some 100 permanent staff and about 300 students. Some 22,000 out of a total 30,000 students at Cardiff have engaged in the union in some way this year. And the union also oversees some 260 sports clubs and societies, and more than 50 different volunteer groups. “As a law student, I joined the law society,” says Ms Cooke. “It was a brilliant way to socialise.”

Three weeks into term Cardiff’s student union runs a mental health awareness campaign – one of several joint initiatives with the university. “The third week is when the socialising peaks, work builds up and homesickness kicks in,” says Ms Cooke. “We work with the uni to try to get people talking.”

And if you want to start your own club or society, then ask your union, she says – they could give you a grant and support with the administration side.

Unions – with legions of part time employees – are a good source of flexible jobs for current students too. “They can be a great employer,” says Ms Morrish. Students with political leanings can become more involved as student reps – a union career can act as a springboard for a career in politics. The likes of Boris Johnson (former president of Oxford Union), Labour’s Ed Milliband (student rep at Oxford) and Jack Straw (former president of Leeds University Union and the NUS) were all politically active students.

It’s an incredible training ground too, says Ms Henry. During her time as vice president, she herself learned to train and manage volunteers, raised some £100,000 for charity, and convinced the housing office to step up its game against thieves and infestations. “I learned a huge amount. It was brilliant training for the real world.”