The power of collaboration. Students’ unions and institutions

Blog for members
11 March 2019
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We spoke to Helen Quin, International Student Support Officer at the University of Sussex, and Natalie Sacks, Student Voice Manager at Sussex Students’ Union about how they have collaborated, what they’ve achieved together and their top tips for working in partnership. 

Do share your own experiences of partnership working in the comment box below.

How long have the university and students’ union been working in partnership? 

“There have been various initiatives between the university and union for many years. For example, the student rep scheme provides a vital link between students, the union and the university. The students’ union runs the elections and provides training while the university has access to the schools of study and provides higher level support. 

“When looking specifically at the international student experience, the union launched the Buddy Scheme in 2013, supported by International Student Support. The Buddy Scheme helps incoming students settle into life at Sussex by matching them with current students who provide informal support by regularly meeting up and sharing their experiences and tips.

“We felt it was important to link with the students’ union with the International Student Support Team at the university to reach more students. The two teams cross promote each other; the International Student Support team refer any students who may be feeling lonely to the Buddy Scheme, and the Buddy Scheme promotes the International Student Support team through joint trips and signposting those who may need specific assistance such as issues with their visa. 

“This partnership was further cemented in 2014 with the introduction of Sussex's first One World Week.”
What has the partnership enabled you to achieve together that you don’t think would have worked as well separately?

“The partnership means we can reach more students and increase how many engage with our services. The students’ union engages students through communications, provides access to societies and knowledge and expertise on running events. The university involvement engages staff, provides expertise and campus resources. 

“Working together has helped us to achieve a great deal. In particular, One World Week would never have had such engagement from staff and students without the partnership. The combination of resources with communications to students helped spread our messaging and increase activity into the week-long event.  In addition, we were able to present our combined strengths and received generous funding which we wouldn’t have had working on our own.”

What has been the most surprising result so far?

“The initial proposal for funding for One World Week was granted a very generous amount of money! Generally, the work done by the partnership (One World Week, cultural events, Language Cafe, Buddy Scheme, international students' working group) has helped to bring the international student experience and engagement into the forefront at both the university and union. 

“An example of this is that international student issues featured strongly in elected SU officer manifestos. Some representatives would like to see changes made to the international students' representative role at the union to give increased budget and decision-making powers to the position.” 

“The full time officers are currently looking into the creation of a full time international students’ officer. They have identified the need of the large number of international students at Sussex that are currently not being fully met by a part time unpaid representative role.”

What was the biggest hurdle?

“Time! It can be difficult to engage student groups and staff due to time constraints and changing members and roles every year.

“The Students’ Union is a busy organisation that is constantly changing and adapting in response to the needs of the student body at Sussex. Staff time and finances are the biggest issues at the Union and the priorities of the elected officers steer its work. Therefore, if international student issues are not considered a priority, then staff time and resources may not necessarily be given to them. 

“However, the union runs a ‘Demographic Data’ report every year to compare those students who engage with the union to the university population in terms of demographic information. This is used to identify which student groups are engaging with which services or departments, and those who are not. 

“It is very obvious that international students are a large group who do not engage with the union and so, dedicated time will be given to researching why this is and what can be done to help. After all, the purpose of the union is to represent all students at Sussex and because of this, international students continue to be a priority and are being included in the next strategy for the union.” 

Do you have any recommendations or advice for universities, colleges or students’ unions who are thinking about ways of working together?

  1. Foster good working relationships with students’ union elected officers and institutional (university) staff
  2. Create working groups with relevant staff from both university and union to push ideas forward and have consistent support for the project 
  3. Assign roles and responsibilities to ensure ownership 
  4. Empower students and staff to have agency in their own events
  5. If possible, incorporate the work of the partnership into job descriptions

We have further information for students’ unions on our website, including a presentation about working in collaboration from University of Sussex and the University of Sussex Students’ Union from our 2018 annual conference (Session D3, members’ only). 

You can also read Lincoln Students’ Union’s research report into international students’ engagement with the union which was funded through our grants scheme. 


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