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Student unions and student rights

Student unions and student rightsNatasha Ross shows that student unions are more than just a bar.

Discount drinks and '70s disco nights might be the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of a students union is normally the SU Bar, but student unions are first and foremost organisations that stand up for students. Here’s how.

Improving courses

Student unions recruit course representatives to inform academics and support staff about problems with their courses at regular meetings. They help students scope the opinions of their course mates and give them the evidence to back it up. so  students can make small but significant changes to the running of their courses.

Student unions are often involved in local politics on behalf of students, working with members of the local community including councillors, the police, and MPs to represent students on non-academic issues including transport, safety and housing, and national issues affecting students.

Putting students in charge

Student unions are serious about democracy, and that means they have a variety of ways of getting students to be involved in their union. These normally take the form of a ‘Union Parliament’-style meeting, or forums with the elected officers, where  ordinary students can bring proposals about a stance the union should take on an issue in the university and local community, a campaign the union should run, or even what food and drink should be sold in the union outlets!

The student union will have elected officers who normally work full-time hours. Different organizations have different types of full-time or ‘Sabbatical’ Officers, but their key purposes are to make sure that the university listens to what students think, and that the union is run in a way that best represents students’ needs. Officers are normally students who finished their degree the year before, but some students take a year out from their studies to undertake the role.

You’ll normally be able to tell when its elections roll around, as your university or college campus will be full of people in bright t-shirts, the walls will be plastered with posters and you won’t be able to get a cup of coffee without being canvassed for your vote by a candidate or their friend. Every registered student for a university or college with a student union can vote, and candidates set out their policies in a manifesto. It’s always good to have a look and think about who you’d like to cast your vote for, and don’t be afraid to get in touch with candidates if you have any questions about their policies!


The National Union of Students key mission is to ‘promote, defend and extend the rights of students and to develop and champion strong students' unions’. The NUS spends a lot of  time campaigning nationally about issues facing students, from Visa restrictions on international students, to transport costs for college students. The NUS also works with local student unions to help them try and influence policy. Before the last election, the NUS and student unions got 1,000 candidates for MP to sign a pledge saying they wouldn’t vote for an increase in tuition fees. The introduction of higher fees after the election meant many of the Liberal Democrat MPs went back on their pledge, but NUS and local student unions working in partnership managed to make tuition fees the first big issue for the coalition government, putting the issue of students and higher education at the forefront of national news and debate.

The NUS also holds an annual national conference each April where each member union sends delegates to vote on policy, elect the leadership team of the national union and debate issues in the zones which the NUS operates under:

  • Higher education
  • Further education
  • Welfare
  • Union development
  • Society and citizenship

Each ‘zone’ has a full time officer  called a Vice President who is elected to fulfil the policy, as well as electing the National President of NUS and other members of the National Executive Council. If you go to a university or FE college in either Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, each nation has its own president and national organization.

Getting involved

If you’re interested in getting involved, check out the student union website for your institution, or try and find a representative at one of the welcome events. Don’t be scared, your student union will always want to know what you think about the issues that matter to you.

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