Durham Students’ Union has been rated as the worst students’ union amongst UK universities in the National Student Survey (NSS), analysis by Palatinate has found. This is the second year in a row that Durham SU has been ranked as the lowest of all 137 UK universities.
Only 29 percent of Durham students said that the Students’ Union effectively represents their academic interests. 2,551 students from Durham University responded to the question.
But Durham SU President Seun Twins told Palatinate that the question on the NSS survey about the academic representation that students’ unions provide is “widely recognised as a flawed question”. She claimed that “academic interests are not what students associate with their SU and are only a small part of the rich student experience at Durham”.
This is the second year Durham SU has placed towards the bottom of the table. This year’s rating is a slight improvement on last year, when only 28.9% of Durham students thought that the SU was effectively representing their academic interests.
Nationally, 53% of students surveyed were happy with their students’ union. The survey involved 315,000 students across the country. This is a higher response rate than last year, where 310,000 students participated.
Several other Russell groups also scored poorly in the question about Students’ Unions, including Warwick (38.79%) and Lancaster (38%). Newcastle (44%) and York (45%) scored below the national average, whilst Exeter (56%) and St Andrews (69%) had higher ratings for their Students’ Unions.
A report published by the Office for Students in March this year recommended that the question about the academic representation that students’ unions provide be replaced. It noted that the question in the survey, which is the only one about students’ unions, “does not reflect the diversity of provision offered by students’ unions across providers, or the range of student representation outside universities”.
Responding to the results, Durham SU President Seun Twins was highly critical of the survey. She said: “The NSS asks just one question about SUs – how well students think their SU represents their academic interests. This is widely recognised as a flawed question: academic interests are not what students associate with their SU and are only a small part of the rich student experience at Durham. It’s no wonder the Office for Students are looking to change this question.
“And it’s not just that one question that should make you think critically about the National Student Survey. The survey as a whole turns unique educational experiences into products to be bought and reviewed, pitting universities against each other in categories that aren’t necessarily the most important.
“Where is the league table that tells us how well a university is doing at decolonising or looking after their students’ wellbeing? How can we pretend it’s possible to compare nuanced educational experiences in the way we might compare Amazon reviews for a new phone? If we give these surveys weight, we are buying into this narrative, a narrative that backs up the marketisation of education and justifies rising tuition fees.“
Nonetheless, Twins celebrated the increase in Durham SU’s rating from last year, calling it “promising”. However, she acknowledged that “it could be higher”.
“This need for improvement, however, is not reflective of the amount of work we have completed this year to represent students’ academic interests. Instead, what we need to get better at is how we communicate what we are doing to students. Because in a year when education was hugely impacted by a pandemic, we’ve advanced students’ academic interests and protected their rights to fair assessment.
“This looks like bespoke safety net policies for postgraduate and undergraduates, a sector-leading postgraduate access and participation plan, making the case for more academic representation on SU Assembly, free academic societies, and paid internships to do necessary work decolonising the curriculum. These might not always be the most glamorous achievements, but they are unique to Durham SU and greatly affect students’ lives.“
The National Student Survey is only open to undergraduate students in their final year of study at college or university.
Image: Amana Moore