Stereotypical images of students spending all their spare hours propping up the bar are a far cry from the reality of life at Wolverhampton, where an all-embracing SU offers a wide choice of extra-curricular activities and services.
Interests are many and varied, and the University of Wolverhampton’s Students’ Union (UWSU) has responded to these in a pro-active way. Clubs and societies – covering everything from snow-sports to socialism, are core activities, along with support services and many other benefits.
The Union decided to develop these further as its main focus, with extremely positive results. This followed the closure of the bars last year, which were used by a minority of the student body. They had suffered declining income influenced by the economic climate and rapidly changing market forces; a picture which is reflected nationally.
With mature, part-time and postgraduate students, as well as those from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and workbased students, the new UWSU is more representative of a modern student population.
The National Union of Students is urging unions to change in response, and they and other unions are now watching Wolverhampton closely for tips.
University Pro-Vice Chancellor (Student Affairs) Jane Nelson is impressed with how quickly UWSU rose to the challenges it faced and how positive the developments have been.
She says it was vital to support the Union. When students campaigned for the Union shop to stay on City Campus, the University responded positively and it remains open, although it is no longer run by the SU.
“We took on board what people wanted and responded to that,” she says. “The Union receives an £800,000 grant from the University so it is a significant investment and we are absolutely behind them. We rely on them for a really important part of the student experience.
“This new direction is proving very successful. Everything started happening so fast; it concentrated everybody’s minds. The speed with which the Union responded was phenomenal.”
Jon Elsmore, Dean of Students, agrees: “The new focus is about being a Students’ Union for all the students, not just thinking about full-time undergraduates. Across the University, we are looking at how we can connect with all types of students.”
He says the University and UWSU is looking at how it can grow its virtual environment to develop a sense of community with students off-campus, with various plans in the early stages.
UWSU President, Cheryl McGivern, is enthusiastic for the changes. She says: “My new role has been a steep learning curve but I love it.”
She stresses that the three key areas for UWSU are advice to students, representation of students, and sports and societies, with fun social activities still going strong.
A highly successful Freshers’ Week, including a Wild Westthemed fayre, saw entertainment and events every day, with linkups with bars and nightclubs in Wolverhampton and Walsall. The 7,000 new students could not have wished for a better welcome.
An opening night at city nightclub Oceana saw record numbers of attendance from new students and a surfing party also proved popular.
‘BESTMATES’, student volunteers who help newcomers adapt to University life, were out in force, sports trials were held, over 30 societies were set up and a ‘Give it a Go Day’ allowed students to sample balloon modelling, knitting and loads more. Many students have also signed up for volunteering projects.
Since then, UWSU has barely stopped for a breath. A Red Day of Action, highlighting student debt, was supported by the University’s Executive, byeelections attracted a great deal of interest and Rob Marris MP and other national figures attended a funding debate – making Wolverhampton the first Students’ Union to provide such a forum on the topic of future higher education funding.
New ‘chill out’ areas include Zone Extra at City, where students can play pool and computer games, listen to music and grab a bite to eat, and the Game Zone in Walsall.
“It’s more of a ‘common room’ ethos,” says Cheryl. “There is not a big drinking culture here; students just want somewhere they can relax with their friends between lectures.”
Cheryl says a key part of her job is listening to student views. She is responding to feedback from ‘fill us in’ cards, which students can pick up and complete to give their opinions. The Union is also helping to get feedback from students about what is important to them through membership of a Student Affairs committee.
Wolverhampton has one of the highest take-up rates for the NUS Extra card, which gives fantastic discounts in high street shops and is a credit crunch essential. It is benefits like this that UWSU wants to promote, with the message that it is worth being in the NUS.
Cheryl is full of ideas for the future and hopes to organise a cultural day, featuring a range of international student societies. Plans are also underway for a spectacular summer ball.
“The SU is here for those who are interested in the broader student experience,” says Cheryl. “I’m really passionate about what I do. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”