The Durham Students’ Union (DSU) was recently ranked as the worst students’ union in the country for the second year running, which once again raises the question of what Durham SU needs to do to improve.
The revelation was drawn from the votes of the 315,000 university students across the country that took part in the National Student Survey (NSS). The ranking of SUs in the NSS is determined by only one question on the survey. This question asks whether the student feels that their SU “effectively represents students’ academic interests”.
Since the results were released, returning DSU President Seun Twins has argued that this question is flawed, maintaining that “academic interests are not what students associate with their SU and are only a small part of the rich student experience at Durham University.”
This response is, in my opinion, problematic. Durham is a collegiate university, where many of the responsibilities that are commonly held by SUs at non-collegiate universities are instead held by the colleges. Our colleges, rather than our SU building, are the hubs of our social lives, and also the first port of call for welfare concerns. A plethora of societies are also college-run rather than affiliated with Durham SU, and even Team Durham, which encompasses all of our university-level sport teams, is separate from the DSU.
I think it is therefore fair to say that it is entirely possible to pass through the University as an active and engaged student without ever really having many encounters with the DSU, or even necessarily being aware of the Durham SU’s function and purpose. One could be part of societies, play sports, go to student bars, and go to balls and formals without ever having anything to do with our SU.
This is of course through no fault of the DSU; it is simply a feature that is inherent to the collegiate structure of our University. The DSU’s role will always be unusual and limited in the sense that it has little involvement in many of the things that are key to the student experience. Durham SU’s role therefore essentially consists of tackling large-scale issues that affect the whole student body, providing university-wide support services, and being a platform for student politics. These responsibilities, whilst limited, are of course crucial.
This became especially clear when it came to negotiating this year’s academic safety net, where DSU officers were responsible for representing students in key decisions regarding their academic career. Whether one feels that the safety net that was agreed upon was adequate or not, the negotiating of it was certainly one of the most vital tasks undertaken by the DSU in this past year.
Seun Twins’ argument that “academic interests are not what students associate with their SU” therefore does not hold water. Especially in these pandemic-disrupted times, and given the inherently limited role of the DSU, academic interests appear to me to be exactly what students here at Durham associate with their SU. Twins’ comment also begs the question of what students here do associate their SU with, if not academic interests. It is a fact that every student at the University has had to rely heavily on the DSU to represent their academic interests during the pandemic.
It is absolutely crucial that the DSU acknowledges this. The DSU must not push the negative outcome of the NSS aside and brand the question about academic interests as flawed. It ought to openly acknowledge the criticism that students do not feel that their academic interests have been well represented, and vow to do better in future.
Moreover, the DSU has a lot of work yet to do to re-gain students’ trust, particularly in light of the 2020 DSU election period, where all votes cast for the very popular RON campaign were controversially removed. This was the nail in the coffin for the DSU’s reputation, and it has struggled to rid itself of this image ever since.
The democracy review that was carried out during the 2020-2021 academic year, despite at the time being criticised as expensive, has no doubt provided a starting point for how the DSU might regain the trust of students and rebuild its reputation. Anna Marshall, former Opportunities Officer, correctly identified that there is now solid evidence for what students want for the future of DSU democracy and that “we need to put those views into action.”
And this is exactly what must be done next. Currently, there are ideas on paper. These must now be translated into action. If the DSU wants to better fulfil its inherently limited responsibilities, it must first repair its broken reputation with the student body. Anna Marshall’s statement that “the lack of trust which many students place in the SU is a barrier to our democracy” is a promising acknowledgement of this crucial issue.
A first step to regaining this trust would be to acknowledge all criticisms, and promise to do better in light of them. This includes, of course, the constructive criticisms revealed by the democracy review, but also the criticism that has come from the NSS, that students do not generally feel their academic interests have been well represented. Once criticisms have been acknowledged, action must be put behind words.
Illustration: Verity Laycock