Student unions are ignored and misunderstood by charities, says report

A Hidden Gem?, by Clore Social Fellow Laura Hyde, says people see them as 'beer-dominated', but they could be a good source of talent and contacts

Laura Hyde
Laura Hyde

Student unions are misunderstood and ignored by other voluntary sector organisations, according to a new report.

The research by Laura Hyde, a 2011 Clore Social Fellow, says that, by working more closely with student unions, charities could benefit from access to talent and an extensive network of contacts, expand their audience and learn from the student movement’s democratic model.

A Hidden Gem? Strengths of the Student Movement and its Relationship with the Voluntary Sector, warns that a lack of understanding of student unions outside higher education is the largest barrier to a closer relationship.

People interviewed for the research said student unions were "underestimated, not understood, ignored and not seen as part of the voluntary sector", the report says.

Hyde told Third Sector that people viewed student unions from their own personal experience, a lot of which was that they were "beer-dominated, quite elitist and nothing like the modern businesses that student unions are today".

One of eight recommendations in her report is that the National Union of Students should invest in a PR and media campaign to help improve understanding of student unions.

The Charities Act 2006 requires student unions with annual incomes of more than £100,000 to register with the Charity Commission.

Other recommendations for the wider sector, student unions and the NUS include improving the number of young charity trustees. The report suggests that the NUS should coordinate a system to collate the names of students interested in charity trustee opportunities, work with Young Charity Trustees and explore partnership opportunities with existing recruitment schemes such as Trustees Unlimited. It says the NUS should join the Charityworks network to create secondment opportunities.

Hyde said that umbrella bodies such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the NUS, Acevo and Navca had all employed people from the student movement in the past. They were, she said, perfectly placed to promote the opportunities available and to "translate across the language barrier", because the language used by student unions and charities was quite different. 

Hyde carried out face-to-face interviews with 15 voluntary sector leaders who had worked in the student movement in the previous 10 years, and analysed 12 interviews conducted by the NUS with former elected officers who went on to pursue careers in the public eye. Participants at a workshop at Students’ Unions 2012, a national NUS event for staff and elected officers, were involved in shaping the final recommendations.

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