In 1966, a group of situationist protestors (a postmodernist political group dedicated to exposing political failures through spectacle and stunt) gained control of the University of Strasbourg student union in the elections of that year. Their initial aim was simple: to see how much carnage they could cause with the SU budget of around £250-300,000, thereby making clear the flaws of student government and ultimately destroying it. Following continent-wide scandal, the courts ordered the dissolving of this anarchic student government.
Since this relatively exciting example of student union politics, however, things have been pretty quiet on the student union front. Today, most of us are happy to leave these organisations in the hands on the smarmy career politicians of tomorrow; after all, it keeps them busy in arguments over boycotting Israeli goods rather than us having to talk to them in bars, which can only be a good thing. Saying this, though, these student unions are there technically to represent us, and they actually offer a number of really useful services to postgrad students that you’re definitely not taking full advantage of.
Most obviously, they act as your union against the university. If you find yourself suddenly facing an unreasonable deadline, an unfair mark or an underprepared teacher, your SU offer you useful ways to raise your grievances. At the very least, their support and advice can help you feel less alone when facing those difficult times that we all feel in university when we feel like the whole system is set against us. In some situations, though, they can actually help you by putting pressure on the uni to change unfair policies or even in rare cases to raise a legal challenge against the university if the situation warrants it.
This influence extends not simply to your academic studies. Your SU has some level of remit over the vast majority of your university life, from the conditions in your halls (if you live if university-affiliated accommodation as so many postgrads do,) to who plays gigs at the SU bar. So if you’ve got a favourite band and are tired of seeing white trust-funded millennials grinding on each other at bad hip-hop nights, you’ve only got yourself to blame if you don’t try to get your group booked by the SU.
What’s more, SUs hold ultimate power over all societies at your university. So if you’re lucky enough to be a member of your uni quidditch team or to be a member of the hide and seek society , getting pally with your union is one of the best ways to ensure that your funding is maintained. Not only that, but those who are looking to start their own society for their pet project or interest have to apply through their student union, so they are the only thing standing in the way of your idea for the perfect society. (for more information about starting your own society and benefits of joining an existing society, read our guide here ).
Essentially, then, your student union can be an invaluable resource for the best and worst of your student experience as a postgrad. And if yours make Strasbourg in ’66 look efficient and organised, then why not run for a position yourself? An SU position will give great experience for any number of employment sectors, and the most dedicated union-ers can make really dramatic change. Plus, all of the positions are paid, so it means you can earn more than you already are by doing a postgrad degree!
Useful Links Sports and societies
Running a student 'Come Dine With Me'
Student politics - why should you care?
Understanding University acronyms and jargon