Durham SU remains the worst students’ union for “representing academic interests” for third year running

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Durham Students’ Union (DSU) has been ranked as the worst students’ union in the UK for the third consecutive year in the National Student Survey (NSS), analysis by Palatinate has found. 

This comes as the NSS is undergoing a general review, with a particular point of contention being the survey’s criterion for ranking SUs. Currently, the survey only contains one question about SUs, which asks students to decide whether they feel that their SU “effectively represents their academic interests”.

Out of the 2,492 Durham undergraduate finalists who answered Question 26 in this year’s survey, only 26.6% answered in the affirmative. This result represents a small decline from the 29.4% of students who agreed with the statement last year.

The DSU therefore remains the lowest-ranked SU amongst 136 UK universities for representing students’ academic interests. Nationally, 53% of students surveyed were happy with the performance of their SU. Over 324,000 students took part in the survey UK-wide, an increase on the 315,000 who took part last year.

Outgoing DSU President Seun Twins last year criticised the NSS for its approach to ranking SUs, telling Palatinate that the academic representation question is “widely recognised as [flawed].” 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 year, SU Undergraduate Academic Officer has echoed Twins’s criticisms of the NSS. He told Palatinate, “the academic representation side of things is only one facet of what we do” and claimed that the NSS question is “confusing” for students who “don’t primarily think of us with regards to academic matters.”

“I’ve pushed for online exams where appropriate, greater access to museum and archival resources… I’ve got these things improved for students”

“We have so many student volunteers, societies, associations, all of whom engage with us in ways outside of academics: we are not just a body that lobbies for academic matters. 

“And our lobbying also goes beyond academics into areas where the University needs a bit of a push: student sex work, drug harms reduction policy, faith spaces, restructuring of porters, the South College Christmas formal incident.”

But despite pursuing these non-academic goals, Procter believes that the SU does a “significant amount” of work in representing students’ academic interests.

Speaking of his personal work in this area, Procter said, “I’ve pushed for online exams where appropriate, greater access to museum and archival resources, the removal of unnecessary Covid-19 restrictions, and mitigation policies during strike period — and I’ve got these things improved for students.”

He added that SU services also help “hundreds of students” each year to navigate through various academic procedures, such as academic appeals and Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) forms.

Procter emphasised his concern that the SU “struggles to communicate what we do for students’ academic interests to the student body.” He believes that this is a major contributing factor to DSU’s poor performance in the survey.

“The SU ‘struggles to communicate what we do for students’ academic interests to the student body’ “

“Whilst we do a hell of a lot for students in academic spheres, I don’t think students recognise or link this work with us and the question they get asked in the survey.

“Much of our ‘bandwidth’ with students has been taken up by small areas of our work (like student sex workers) and we’ve struggled to communicate about the value of the wider work of the SU. It’s very understandable that this will have impacted some people’s responses.”

Going forward, Procter said that the SU will push to improve its communication by engaging with students “at every point possible.” He encourages “anyone with queries, ideas, or dissatisfaction to come and speak with us so that we can understand exactly why we struggle with this question and how best we can work for our students.”

Durham SU joins the likes of Edinburgh (36.5%), York (36.8%) and Lancaster (39.7%) in performing well below average on the SU satisfaction question. The university with the best students’ union according to the survey was The University of West London (74.6%), while Sheffield University’s SU was ranked highest amongst the Russell Group (67.1%).

An ongoing general review of the NSS could see the question on SUs and academic interests replaced or altered. In March, the Office for Students (OfS) published a report into the survey, which stated that “there was a strong feeling among students’ unions that Question 26 was not well understood and did not reflect the diversity of provision offered by students’ unions across providers.”

The OfS have since published and trialled a new pilot survey, in which the question about SUs has been altered to ask students about their overall satisfaction with their SU. If changes to the survey are confirmed at a UK-wide NSS consultation this summer, they will be implemented from next year’s survey period onwards.

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