Taking lessons from Sheffield

Last week, as the results of the National Student Survey were released, it became clearer than ever that in order to make YUSU more efficient, it needed to transition from an introverted administrative organisation, into a more transparent and engaging entity. For even though the University of York was placed 79th in overall satisfaction, much of this poor showing had little to do with the overall satisfaction of the university itself.

Rather, the recent result shows that only 61 per cent of respondents were satisfied with YUSU. Compare that with some of our neighbouring universities like Leeds (with a 90 per cent approval) and this year’s winner, Sheffield University (with 95 per cent), and you might be finding yourself asking whether YUSU is worth the money each student contributes towards it.

Such statistics rarely paint an accurate image of reality. Nonetheless, it should be recognised that at a time when a new cohort of students enter York, paying fees almost three times higher than the current finalists, the expectation of a union that is ‘value for money’ will only become louder, and more frequent. In this case, it might also be worth re-evaluating our understanding of the term ‘value’, and whether promises of more money resources will yield the desirable results that election campaigns have often, and will probably continue to promise.

Consider the phenomenal success of Sheffield’s students’ union. Stating its mission to “serve in the interest in all its members”, the union not only provides effective means of democratic representation, but also presides over a variety of recreational facilities, restaurants and club nights. True, Sheffield might have more space, and more funding at its disposal. However, it is perhaps their ambitious goals to deliver more open services to the student body on campus, as well as serve a public function within the city, that make it a truly outstanding union. No better has this been articulated, than by their new president-elect, Abdi-Aziz Suleiman, whose campaign pledges included ‘Open Cafe’ (a platform for students to directly engage with their sabbatical officers informally) and a student-run service to provide tuition to local people in the city. Ultimately, the success of Sheffield’s SU lies not just in an enterprising outlook, but an amiable ambition to become a fundamental part of a much wider community, that encompasses students and local people. Indeed, it wasn’t just about the money available to the students’ union, rather, the ability to create an inclusive community that would allow the Union to work for students at all levels.

As the new academic year starts, YUSU would do well in considering the students’ union model exhibited by Sheffield. While the sabbatical team have performed well so far, modern refurbished offices and new facilities can only do so much. Kallum Taylor and his team should also work towards creating a strong student community both on and off campus. Such a task does not come without challenges; a greater presence of YUSU within college communities, attempts to make union issues more accessible to the wider student body and positioning YUSU as an important organisation in York’s wider community will all be essential, not only in creating a more effective students’ union, but one that truly goes beyond ‘value for money’.

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