Scandilove- tales from the frozen north

When we are at conferences comparing Boards, many of us and our officers tend to compare structures- who chairs, how many students, etc. But there are other ways to look at Boards and strategy. For example- what is the balance of discussion that involves recording, reviewing and evaluating past activity to improve (looking back), versus gathering of current student ideas, feedback and opinion (looking present) and identifying new ways of doing existing things, and new things that can be done in the interests of students (looking forward)?

With this in mind at SUs 2017 a group of Officers and Managers met on the fringe to discuss an idea- a tour SUs around Scandinavia to learn about student representation, democracy, services and culture. Six months later thirty of us met in a meeting room in Copengahen to begin an extraordinary and magical five day journey- taking in fifteen student organisations, three countries, twelve nations and a bizarre motorway service area. We learned about a 1500 capacity venue staffed entirely by volunteers, a freshers focussed on kicking students in, and an approach to student representation and rights that puts the UK to shame- all on the tiniest of budgets.

We had big questions on our minds. Models in the UK for SU student leadership have remained quite ingrained but models for democracy are generally in retreat. Were there things we could learn from different systems and traditions for how this could evolve? The scandinavians appeared to offer some interesting examples for new types of student social enterprise. Were there projects or services that could provide inspiration? The UK has been moving towards a US market based model of HE but that consensus looks at best shaky given the headlines. Were there things we can learn from different HE systems in terms of education and student rights, and the way the “student interest” is represented within those systems? And more broadly, the political/economic consensus is breaking down around us as we move from minority government to minority government. Were there things that we could learn about Cooperation, Politics, Social Democracy, Austerity etc from the wider politics of a region that appears to have taken social democracy to its heart?

The reality is that different SUs on the trip had different things they wanted out of it- but a fair summary of what we were all trying to do would be something like this:

  • To record multiple alternative models for representative and leadership student democracy for evaluation in the UK context
  • To gather examples of practice in supporting, funding and coordinating student led activities, societies and sporting activity
  • To build a network of Northern European SU contacts to work on collaborative projects
  • To gather examples of effective student campaign, and influence practice for use in the SU
  • To identify potential student social enterprise projects for funding and support from the SU

What follows is a set of notes (and lovely photos) from our trip. These are personal reflections, and others from the group of SUs that took part will have other angles and detailed thoughts on particular areas of practice and expertise. What is clear is that whilst much was rooted in national context, situation and tradition- we have much to learn from European counterparts and any trip of this sort is valuable for sparking discussion, debate and “out of the box” thinking.


We began the trip in Denmark in Copenhagen.


Denmark of note:

  • Danish higher education comprises a university sector, college sector and an academy sector. There are four types of institutions offering higher education programmes:
    • Academies of professional higher education (offering short-cycle programmes)
    • University Colleges (offering medium-cycle programmes)
    • Universities (offering long-cycle programmes)
    • University level institutions for educations in the arts
  • Structural changes have affected parts of the system of higher education. All short-cycle higher educations are now concentrated in nine Academies of professional higher education (Erhvervsakademier). The majority of medium-cycle education is concentrated in 7 University Colleges (Professionshøjskoler).
  • The new university structure also includes eight universities, five of which are multi-faculty universities: University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, Aalborg University, University of Southern Denmark and Rosikilde University.The other three universities specialise in fields such as engineering (the Technical University of Denmark), information technology (The IT-University) and business studies (Copenhagen Business School).
  • A number of university level institutions are regulated by the Danish Ministry of Culture and offer first, second and third cycle degree programmes in visual arts, music, cinematography, theatre and performing arts.

Danske Studerendes Fællesråd, DSF (Danish NUS)

Of note:

  • DSF represents about 165,000 students across 8 Unis and 8 other HEIs
  • Toke (their lead staff member) is an ex-sabb from Leeds!
  • Higher Education is free- and students get about £600 a month grant + loan (and for some time after their studies!)
  • Students come to HE later than in UK and doing a Masters is the norm- there’s not much of a Graduate Jobs market for UG
  • DSF has twice yearly conferences, five elected officers, and five staff members
  • Mental Health issues are prevalent, as are contact hours and assessment and feedback

Of interest:

  • DsF hosts a Trade Union for Student Staff. Could this be something that could be established in the UK which might also provide a funding stream to NUS UK?
  • It also supports a Think Tank with members from across civil society and education, working on interesting policy ideas and action research at arm’s length from DsF. Could this be something that could be established in the UK?

University of Copenhagen- Studenterrådet


Of note:

  • Founded 1479, 40,000 students
  • 2013 saw major changes to student life via the “study progress reform” which has given Universities power to speed up/cap completion (to avoid perennial students). This reduction in the ability to switch between FT and PT modes during a course has seen an increase in mental Health issues.
  • Focussed tightly on education and improving it. “We are fighting for feedback, and more lessons. It’s us who get into the table and go to battle when politicians are trying to implement reforms that weaken our education”
  • The Rector (ie VC) is seen as a key figure and key role of the SU to lobby the Rector.
  • Has constituent student councils from some of the depts/faculties at the University.
  • One of a number of SUs in the University- they compete for places in University structures and are allocated funding accordingly, with lions share to the SU that gets the most (ie this one)

Of interest:

  • They employ a campus ombudsperson- role focussed on enforcing student rights, and acts as an ambassador for students within the University, a mediator and someone who can support students with issues or complaints or those facing academic or anon academic misconduct charges. Could SUs learn from this approach to improve our profile amongst students in the education rights space?
  • Their officers regularly publish quite pointed blogs and opinion pieces focussed on education, improvements to it and its role in society- often with a focus on particular disciplines. Could we do more with our academic officers and reps in this space as representative bodies?

  • Generally, because this organisation doesn’t run clubs, societies, buildings (beyond offices) or major services, the impression is that their education focus delivers more democratic involvement in that function and clearer outcomes around education. Could UK SUs generate (sub) structures that deliver this kind of focus and clarity?

Studenterhuset (Student House)


Of note:

  • One of the things we saw across Scandinavia is Students’ Union buildings (Student Houses) often run legally separately from the representative/student activities operations.
  • In Copenhagen their “Studenterhuset” is one such operation. Located right in the centre of Copenhagen, they have a Coffee/Bar operation, meeting rooms and projects. It is owned and run by students from across the Universities with a focus on international students.
  • Their focus is not political and avowedly practical, albeit with a focus on co-operation, volunteerism and student run activity.
  • Students at Copenhagen Uni are automatically a member of Studenterhuset, and get extra discounts on beverages, snacks and entry fees to the “house”. Students at other institutions can sign up as a member and get the same benefits as the UCPH students.
  • It is much more “studenty” than the average SU operation and uses more volunteers than we would to operate- around 200.

  • A volunteer board consisting of students directs the “house”. Their job is to develop and organize activities “for the students by the students”
  • Runs a volunteer run bike repair shop at Frederiksberg and organizes the University of Copenhagen’s annual Spring Festival.
  • Alcohol sales are in decline
  • They take the view that the University itself is quite “Darwinistic” and their job is to improve student social engagement outside of the classroom/department.

Of interest:

  • Studenterhusets Problemknusere (Studenterhuset’s troubleshooters) is a sort of volunteer academy that creates educational courses about how to start up great volunteer projects at the university. An annual idea-day sees “the entire house” meet up and develop ideas for new activities for and by students. Outside of formal clubs and societies is there an opportunity to combine some UK concepts of volunteerism, enterprise and ideas generation to create a new category of student involvement?

  • Its strong international focus sees it running a whole programme of mentoring and events for international students with a focus on Danish students volunteering to improve social integration between international and home students. Could we develop a similar approach to integration between home and international students in UK SUs?
  • They run a fabulous and regular “flea market” (like a kind of car boot sale for students). Many SUs run markets and are used to organising events, but could this kind of second hand market for students take off?

  • They have taken it upon themselves to run a large outdoor student led matriculation ceremony, with guests from across the University- using it to promote messages about their culture and to encourage students to lead and change student culture. Could UK SUs learn from this approach to create memorable first year events that aren’t focussed on alcohol?
  • Student Sport at the University is run by “KSI” an association “preferably for students, employees and alumni at the University of Copenhagen”. It takes a large sports facility and the equivalent of an Athletic Union and operates democratically as a kind of co-operative, with financial support from the University. Could the UK learn from this approach of running Sports Clubs and Facilities outside of traditional University management structures?

Copenhagen Business School, CBS Students

Of note:

  • 20,000 students on a modern campus on edge of Denmark’s capital. Internationally renowned business school.
  • Appears to be made up three constituency unions (based on unions of the faculties/departments)- a fourth is not a part of the main CBS SU
  • Operates an on campus Café, Printing Service and Clothing
  • Central SU employs three staff (all admin focussed) and General Assembly (December) elects 11 Board Members and 2 Sabbs (President and Vice President)
  • Looks after around 60 student clubs/societies and handles representation for students at the University.
  • 40% of students are at CBS as a result of “contextual admissions” (ie not just grades) but this has not had the impact on widening participation they had hoped for.
  • Runs an annual student assembly which elects to its Board and then sabbs are elected from the assembly.
  • Has active involvement of a number of corporate sponsors (perhaps unsurprising given it’s a Business school) ie Carlsberg and Danske Bank.
  • Good set of values (Engagement, Commitment, Humbleness and Openness) and interesting strategy
  • They have concerns about expansion of student numbers:

Of interest:

  • There is a strong focus on volunteering- not out in the community but within the University/SU, with a strong focus on gaining skills. This appears to offer interesting opportunities to students without them having to “lead” or “run” a project or group. Could UK SUs offer similar opportunities to students wanting to be more generally involved in activity on campus?
  • What CBS calls “Student Democracy” is really a collection of their course reps. Interestingly they are viewed much more as a collective- they are the group that together represent students to the University and jointly develop University wide policy. In the UK support for reps tends to be much more individualistic. Are there opportunities to learn from this collective approach?
  • Interestingly the SU has secured a significant fund from the University that it distributes to students to deploy on student led activities- everything from “Impact Management Seminars- Improve Your Grades” to “Biking to Uganda”. The UK model is much more focussed on Clubs and Socs. Could UK SUs experiment with this project/initiative based approach and would it diversify outcomes and involvement?


Having finished up in Copenhagen, we then boarded our bus which travelled the short distance over the famous Oresund bridge to the southern Swedish city of Malmo.

Of note:

  • The teaching model applied at Swedish universities and university colleges is based on the motto ‘freedom with responsibility’. This means that students have somewhat less teacher-led time than is usual elsewhere, mainly pursuing their studies on their own or in groups.
  • It’s competitive- last year 403,000 people applied and 257,000 were admitted
  • Higher education in Sweden is financed largely by tax revenue. Since 2011 tuition fees were introduced for students from outside the EU/EEA area, with the exception of Switzerland.
  • The Riksdag (parliament) and Government have overall responsibility for higher education and research, which means that they make decisions about targets, guidelines and the allocation of resources. Education and research are the remit of the Ministry of Education and Research.
  • The Swedish Higher Education Authority (Universitetskanslersämbetet) and the Swedish Council for Higher Education (Universitets- och högskolerådet) are the central government agencies responsible for higher education. However, universities and university colleges remain separate state entities and make their own decisions about the content of courses, admissions, grades and other related issues.
  • The Swedish Council for Higher Education is responsible for admission issues, information concerning university-level studies, assessments of foreign qualifications, and international co-operation. The Swedish Higher Education Authority mainly has a scrutinising function, and is responsible both for reviewing the quality of higher education and granting degree-awarding powers. It is also responsible for the supervision of universities and university colleges, and for maintaining official statistics.
  • Comparisons noting that HE is free are not quite as simple as they look. There’s less small group teaching, and the focus is on proving teaching and learning for the fee with students funding the rest. There is a lower participation rate than in the UK and obviously less is spent on HE overall. Students graduate with about £25k of debt albeit on a much lower interest rate!

Malmo University- StudentKaren Malmo


Of note:

  • This is a new University (designated as such in 1998)- 24,000 students and the ninth largest Uni in Sweden
  • It has exchange agreements with more than 240 partner universities around the world and roughly a third of the students have an international background.
  • Education at Malmö University focuses on, among other things, migration, international relations, political science, sustainability, urban studies, and new media and technology. It often includes elements of internship and project work in close cooperation with external organisations.
  • Located in the centre of the city, the university has played an important role in the transformation of Malmö from an industrial town to a centre of learning.
  • A large part of the campus was constructed on grounds which, up to the mid-1980s, belonged to the Kockums shipyard, which had been a key element of naval-industrial Malmö. The SU is based here.
  • Some 72% of Malmo’s students are from “non academic” (ie first in the family) backgrounds- this is seen as a key institutional purpose.
  • The Student Union Malmö is a “non-profit, non-political and non-religious organization”, working for a “better education and a fun and safe student life for the students at Malmö University”.
  • It represents students from four of Malmö University’s five faculties; Education and Society, Culture and Society, Technology and Society and Health and Society (note the focus on society everywhere)
  • Again there is a focus on education- the SU “is here to help you with whatever might happen during your studies, anything from study related issues to housing and spare time activities. If you have problems regarding your education you should turn to your student representative” and “At every decision taken at the university, the Union is there to bring a student perspective”
  • As with all Swedish SUs since 2010 they have to sell membership- 79 SEK a term (about £7)
  • As well as running the student representative operation, Malmo SU operates the University’s societies. It also runs a Student House with a bar (the “Student Pub”), events space and meetings rooms. As in Denmark it is notably less “commercial”.
  • Housing (or lack of it) is a huge issue for students at Malmo. Membership of the SU gives students “points” that move them up the student housing queue!
  • They are particularly proud of their provision of Student Breakfasts

  • There are two elected sabbatical political roles (President and Vice President) and then four Ombudspeople who are elected, bursaries students who focus on educational casework for four faculties and

Of interest:

  • One of the impacts of the Education/Representation focus was found in their slogans and their framing. “We are committed when you can’t be”, was one. “The Union is BIG when you feel small” was another. Both frame nicely around collectivism and are a world away from some of the UK’s blander “student experience” marketing. Could UK SUs learn from these concepts to create more powerful messaging about the purpose of collective representation and its purpose?
  • The need to sell membership causes the SU to actively promote itself on a range of key benefits- some of which are similar and some markedly different. Is there more UK SUs could do to promote and “sell” the benefits of membership of the SU even though membership for us is automatic?

Gothenburg University- University of Gothenburg Student Unions (GUS)


Of note:

  • The University of Gothenburg is a university in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg. Third-oldest of the current Swedish universities, 37,000 students
  • Eight faculties, 38 departments- training in the Creative Arts, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Humanities, Education, Information Technology, Business, Economics and Law, and Health Sciences.
  • Highest number of applicants per study place in many of its subjects and courses, making it one of the most popular universities in Sweden.
  • Somewhat confusingly for us, there are four student unions who “represent the social and academic interests of their members” and “play an active role in the shaping of the university at all levels.
  • We visited the student house of the biggest one (Göta studentkår) which has constituent unions from the Faculty of Arts, IT Science, Social Sciences, Education and Teacher training (and Graduate Research School in Educational Sciences)
  • Konstkåren separately looks after students in Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts; Sahlgrenska akademins Studentkår (SAKS) students at the Sahlgrenska academy; and Handelshögskolans i Göteborg studentkår (HHGS) students at School of Business, Economics and Law (They come in and out- they left GUS in October 2014 and seem to have a different outlook and different resources!)
  • Gothenburg has faced major student numbers expansion- doubling in the last fifteen years or so, which has placed major pressure on student social facilities. The general view is that it is not for the University to provide these as the city has coffee shops!
  • Although education is “free” it is clear that what is counted as education spend is very different to the UK- students do pay for SU membership and have to find their own student facilities.
  • Because public servants (ie Nurses, Teachers, Police) are held in such public high regard, they are taught in Universities like this where we may find professions not even being taught at degree level or often shunted into what are seen as “new universities” doing “vocational” work.
  • Reforms to Swedish HE mean that Universities are funded not by places but by “production” of graduates in different sectors (often with different funding streams)- this has led to some Swedish HE introducing policies to speed up Swedish students graduating.
  • The GUS Student House was owned by GUS but sold to the University in the early 90s when alcohol sales collapsed. The University had to sell it (Universities can’t own their own buildings!) but the deeds mean it can only be used for SU purposes… or be a “field of daffodils”!
  • Again membership of the SU gives students “housing points” to move them up the allocation ladder- student housing controlled largely co-operatively, with another significant shortage of places.
  • Students are framed legally as employees- and the student funding package tends to frame that funding as “wages” even though much has been converted to loan in recent years. This provides an interesting parallel to employment rights that some UK SUs use.
  • We got our first real glimpse of a different kind of SU policy here. GUS has a comprehensive “policy book” of beliefs on student issues and the role of democratic structures tends to revise and focus on these rather than the UK traditions of “motions” and “ideas”
  • The lack of competition over student facilities/marketisation obviously has benefits, but one oif the results is that the University does not feel any particular compulsion to invest in student facilities. The SU building looks dated and the clear impression is that such things are for students to fund/invest in.

Of interest:

  • Swedish law gives students the right to be consulted on all decisions that affect them, with a right to be represented across Boards and Committees. Could student representation entering the baseline conditions for OfS registration cement the Student Representation role of UK SUs?
  • The SU mainly consists of an assembly of around 56 reps (many of which are bursaried) from which officers in GUS are elected. This puts a real focus on the school/dept. Is there further scope to boost the profile/role of faculty/department reps in UK SUs and can we experiment with different forms of sabbatical election- moving away from our UK obsession with direct election of sabbs?
  • For international tuition fees, officially the University can’t charge more than the cost of the education. Whilst a phalanx of recharges get around the rules, could we learn from these debates as the live OfS debate on VFM and cross subsidies rumbles on?
  • The role of the Ombudspeople was very strong within GUS. Their role is to support students with educational casework (often seeking informal resolution if a students’ rights are not being met); support the SU Officers with policy issues; write (research and policy) reports on student issues. They are employed by GUS and have a role that mixes SU Advice roles with Education Policy roles. They have considerable respect in the SU and University and seen as a key membership benefit. They attract some University funding in a system largely based on membership fees. The focus on student rights is also vivid- this isn’t seen as “consumerist” or individualist, but a key component of the student experience. Could we learn from this approach as UK SUs develop staffing- particularly as OfS/OIA call for independent advocacy? And could SUs in the UK return to a vivid focus on student rights?

Jönköping University- Jönköpings Studentkår (Student Union)


Of note:

  • Jönköping University is one of three Swedish private, non-profit HEIs with the right to award doctorates. It operates on the basis of an agreement with the Swedish and conforms to national degree regulations and quality requirements.
  • The university is organized as a non-profit corporate group with Jönköping University Foundation as the parent organization and five wholly owned subsidiaries.
  • Four schools with about 12,000 students in total:
    • Jönköping International Business School (JIBS)
    • School of Education and Communication
    • Jönköping School of Engineering
    • School of Health Sciences
  • The legal status of the University means unlike the rest of Swedish HE, for whatever reason it retains compulsory membership. This is to ensure that the students have a “strong influence over their education” and the “overall environment on campus”
  • The cost varies depending on the mode of study and number of credits/hours but broadly it’s about 200 SEK a year (£18) and students can’t take their exams without the SU membership card!
  • The SU is effectively made up of four school associations which combined social aspects with projects and events

  • As with other Swedish SUs student discounts are viewed as important (and not separately monetised)- they deliver this via Mecenat which is a national not for profit
  • Again there is a very strong focus on education- “Is your education not good enough or do you just have questions and concerns? The Student Union will help you with everything that concerns your education”
  • The “main function” of the Student Union is to “ensure you receive high quality education. It’s important that you have access to information about your rights, obligations, and the rules and regulations of the University”
  • Democratically there is an Annual Meeting that decides on a budget and the “goals, visions and strategies” for the Student Union. The resolutions taken during the Annual Meeting form “the law of the organization”, and there is a focus on the elected officers working together to realize them over the coming year.
  • The AGM also elects an 11 member board and two sabbs (the President and the Vice President) who take a sabbatical that runs the calendar year. It’s not OMOV- the voting members are an assembly of students nominated by the constituent schools.
  • It largely operates in English as the University’s medium term goal is to get to 50:50 home:international students
  • Election of Operation Controllers: The Annual Meeting elects Operation Controllers who audit the Student Union, and investigate that the resolutions taken by the Annual Meeting are carried out.
  • Students that volunteer with the SU gain points, and points can help a students’ application to study abroad

Of interest:

  • There is a clear system of educational improvement. Course evaluations are described as “the fundamental building block of our monitoring system” as students provide “valuable information for improvement via the course evaluations you complete after each course”. Course reps here are framed as “Course evaluators”. Their task is to “gather the students’ opinions on the course various aspects and, based on these, discuss improvements with the course coordinator”. This frames the role of the rep very clearly- could UK SUs adopt something similar?
  • Jönköping is particularly proud of the way it does Freshers (Kick off). The event runs as a day long huge teambuilding event- students in schools are organised into groups who then take part in challenges/games with other students from other schools, acquiring patches to put on their jumpsuit. Students are “kicked in” to student life! The focus is on building social capital and learning to communicate/work with others. It’s like a classic teambuilding event but for all students. As part of this all of the groups are allocated “fathers” (this is less patriarchal than it sounds and is a shaky translation)- 500 “faddrar” volunteer for all new students to have someone they can turn to with questions about their studies and life as a student. A fadder is an older student who has completed the Student Union’ faddership training program, which includes leadership, alcohol impact, anti harassment/initiation, and first aid. Could UK SUs learn from this approach to strengthen bonds between students in the first week?

  • As well as again having a strong volunteer focus (the Jönköping SU run nightclub only has one paid employee- the rest volunteer to work there for Q jump privileges and free food) they regularly run “IQ” events- IQ appears to be similar to NUS Alcohol Impact but is very public and symbolic about being a brand you put on an event when “alcohol isn’t a focus”. This includes always giving away water and all soft drinks. IQ is a subsidiary of the state run off license! Could UK SUs learn from the IQ approach in making things like Alcohol Impact simpler and more student facing, especially with free soft drinks etc?
  • As mentioned above sabbs are elected on calendar terms of office and are elected in scrutiny settings rather than mass democracy- for example a committee makes a recommendation having interviewed candidates (although the assembly can go with someone else as had happened that year) Could UK SUs experiment with different ways to elect officers and/or inject more scrutiny into the process?

Uppsala University- the Student Nations


Of note:

  • Old, research intensive university in Uppsala- oldest university in Sweden and all of the Nordic countries founded in 1477. Uppsala also has important historical place in Swedish national culture, identity and for the Swedish establishment: in historiography, literature, politics, and music.
  • Many aspects of Swedish academic culture in general (ie the white student cap which is their mortarboard) originated in Uppsala.
  • It shares the “student nation” system with Lund University and the University of Helsinki. Nine faculties, 44,000 registered students
  • As in other bits of Sweden, there’s a massive student housing shortage.
  • At Uppsala we didn’t visit the SU (although we saw the Student House with an English themed pub!) instead we visited all thirteen of their “Student Nations”. Each dates back to the 17th century. They are responsible for arranging activities and events specifically for students and provide a space for students to meet, socialise and enjoy life outside of the classroom.
  • Most have a café, pub and restaurant, and popular nation activities include club nights, formal dinners, balls and musical events as well as societies and clubs. The closest we have in the UK is probably colleges at Oxford, Cambridge, Durham etc.
  • Each is named after a specific region in Sweden, and traditionally students joined the nation representing the region they were from.
  • Each had some salaried elected officers doing admin and a committee organising activities and events. Nations’ buildings were dotted around the City.
  • The Stockholm nation was particularly impressive-
  • Student leaders here were framed as “curators”. And each nation has an “inspector” (originally appointed by the University to calm down raucous activity hundreds of years ago) whose role was to support the nation- a senior academic.
  • The student services function isn’t focussed around the notion of a service but framed around health- “a rock to hold on to when the gale blows”- and features a light room designed by the engineering students, as well as counselling and public speaking classes! Naturally it has its own student committee.

Of interest:

  • The Nations system was not based on academic discipline and as a result appeared to offer a unique chance for students to feel close to a group of students cross-discipline. Can UK SUs learn from this model to improve “bridging” social capital offering a different type of “joining” than course/dept or society membership?
  • Many nations offered communal dining and informal social events, as well as “places” that students could go. The UK model appears to offer pre-drinks or clubbing. Is there scope to think about the way we operate social activity in the UK to improve social mixing with less reliance on alcohol?
  • A deep culture of volunteerism permeated the nations. Students ran bars, events and even stood for election to be responsible for things like working to deliver student breakfasts or run student pubs! This appears to be about scale- the smaller the operations the more scope and need for volunteers. Committees were seen as senior relatives in a supportive student family. Can we learn from this model to give more students the chance to get involved and serve others?

Stockholm University- Stockholms universitets studentkår (Student Union)


Of note:

  • Stockholm University- public university in Stockholm founded as a college in 1878, with university status since 1960. A whopping 70,000 students at four different faculties: law, humanities, the mathematical, and natural sciences so one of the largest universities in Scandinavia and fourth oldest Swedish university.
  • We got fairly deep into the SU system here. Compulsory student unionism ended in 2010 (it was always funded via a fee but that used to be compulsory) although by law students have to be consulted and there has to be at least one SU.
  • SUs have “Non Governmental Organisation” status rather than charities.
  • SUS has a Student Representation focus- there is a three year focus plan, plus prioritised influence goals and annual operative plan. It also supports societies but the bulk of social activity is organised via faculty associations
  • Its promoted influence goals are Health and Wellbeing, Widening Participation, Social Activities- Social Learning Space, Course Literature, Student Housing and An inclusive University
  • The assembly operates on a party list system with both traditional political parties and others competing for votes to form the parliament.
  • There was a very strong quasi autonomous student council for PhD students, organising student representation, social activity etc
  • They are funded via membership fee (120 SEK a semester, about £10), some government funding and University funding- this supports their representation work and the Ombudsperson service as is common across Sweden.

Of interest:

  • SUS has three subsidiary companies- it carries out Sports Facility maintenance, a second hand bookstore and a chain of student restaurants around Sweden! Interestingly these don’t fund the main SU- profits go back into the social enterprises to keep prices down. Could we learn from this model of social enterprise with a focus on prices instead of funding the SU in the UK?
  • In their education and representation work they are strongly issue led. Training for reps is focussed around identifying issues and ways of solving the issues, making recommendations for the faculty or University. This is as much about briefing students in general on policies and issues as it is about involving reps. Could we learn from this approach in the UK when supporting reps?
  • Their liberation group work is pretty under developed- but their rights and advocacy services for individuals do have a strong focus and strand on discrimination partly because a specific line in law guarantees “equal access”. This is arguably an area where the UK system is weak- could we learn from this approach?

SFS- Sveriges Förenade Studentkårer (Swedish NUS)

Of note:

  • SFS is an umbrella (confederation) of students’ unions within HE in Sweden. Founded 1921, 47 affiliated students’ unions, 270,000 students. Represents the interests of its members on a national level- Government, the Swedish Parliament, the political parties and the government agencies concerned with higher education.
  • Also active on the international arena, particularly within the European Students’ Union, ESU.
  • Annual national conference- unions meet to decide on the policy framework of the organisation and to elect a national board. The board has 15 members, including the President and two or three Vice Presidents. The President and the Vice Presidents work full-time at the head office in Stockholm during their term.
  • Even with the funding model they have where large amounts come from membership fees, SFS is concerned that local SUs daren’t bite the hand that feeds for the grant element!
  • SFS regional organisations have a strong focus on housing

Of interest:

  • Their campaigns have a relentless education focus. For example- a recent campaign (accompanied by evidence reports and clever policy) was all about demanding that teachers are better trained. Could we learn from this strong education focus in the UK’s national policy work?

  • SFS’ student city of the year is a long running project that focusses on efforts made by the local authority and University to make the City student friendly. There is much competition and it’s an innovative way of delivering policy work and getting messages across. Could we learn from this approach when promoting pro student agendas?

Karlstad University (Swedish Karlstads universitet) and Karlstad Studentkår (Student Union)


Of note:

  • The sunshine University! State university in Karlstad, former university college (founded 1977) granted university status in 1999 (was a branch of the University of Gothenburg)
  • 16,000 students with a focus on training professionals- the CTF Service Research Centre (Swedish Centrum för tjänsteforskning) at Karlstad University is one of the world’s leading research centres focusing on public service management and value creation through service.
  • The motto of the University is Sapere aude (Dare to know).
  • They’re very proud of their student led teaching awards

  • Again they have to sell membership- and the focus is on student security and discounts

  • There’s a lovely (but small and poorly funded) student house; a student ombudsperson; a magazine and here course reps are framed as “programme council” reps (again they form into a council who develop education policy)
  • Funding from the local authority delivers a mental/physical/sexual health project

  • Their doctoral section is particularly impressive with its own volunteer ombudsperson

  • Small admin staff team (about 3)

Of interest:

  • The SU as others has an assembly elected on a list system with lists that consists of a number of political and non political party lists. The assembly then goes on to elect the officers/board of the SU, with a focus on experience in elected officers. Could UK SUs learn from this approach?
  • The SU has developed a strong “student city” agenda with five clear demands- Housing, Buses, Mental Health, Representation in the City’s decision making and Safety. Could UK SUs learn from this approach to strengthen the role of students within a local area/city/community?
  • In truth Karlstad is a pretty rudimentary example of SUs, but its policy portfolio is impressive. At its core is a permanent “opinions” document covering all the big student life issues (“what the SU thinks about issues of education quality, study social issues and legal certainty and influence”)- students can propose to revise these, launch special investigations on them or prioritise projects on them- and they don’t contain “resolves”. This gives the SU a solid long term policy base without harming democracy or depending on a stream of ideas or motions- new officers are inducted into these and it encourages medium term strategic influence planning where the UK focus is on organisational strategic planning. Could UK SUs learn from this approach, developing a solid beliefs platform across the key portfolios?


We were sad to leave Sweden but our final leg was a visit to Oslo to meet with three types of student organisation. A number of issues and ideas crystallised here in the final leg of our exhausting week!

Of note:

  • Eight universities, nine specialised universities, 24 university colleges as well as a range of private university colleges.
  • Bologna process- bachelor’s degrees (first cycle, three years), master’s degrees (second cycle, two years) and doctoral degrees (third cycle, three years).
  • Acceptance is offered after finishing upper secondary school with something called “general university admissions certification”
  • Public HE is “free” with an academic year with two semesters, from August to December and from January to June. “Free” here only means the education bit- even things like counselling are student funded through semester fees.
  • Student funding is a mixture of grant and loan with some incentives for completing on time
  • The ultimate responsibility for the education lies with the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.
  • About 230,000 students in all.

Noway- Norsk studentorganisasjon NSO- Norway’s NUS


Of note:

  • 181 delegates attend their General Assembly
  • There are six sabbs at NSO- President, VP, 2 Education Sabbs, International Students and Welfare and Equality
  • Plus some admin staff and four Political Advisors
  • It operates on 4 clustered working groups (like NUS zones)
  • There is a big focus on Lobbying, with deep links into Government, Ministers, NGOs etc etc
  • It has 2 Board Members on the equivalent of UUK, and given the law guarantees 20% student representation on basically everything it has to find about 3-500 people to sit on boards every year
  • It does engage in local capacity building work often using its own Alumni network of former Su officers/sabbs (“Oldies”)
  • A big campaign is student funding- for example they have campaigned for the student maintenance package to last 10.5 months rather than 10
  • The student loan gets converted into 40% in grants if you pass (You can work but if you earn 18k euros you lose your grant)
  • Another major campaign has focussed on getting the Government to define student health (student mental health issues on the rise) and to stop students falling between the two stools of childhood and general population. They are also campaigning for a third legal gender.

Of interest:

  • This was the most vivid example of a functioning democracy that focussed well on policy and issues. As in some Swedish SUs there is a solid platform of beliefs for the working groups that can be updated and amended by assembly (resolves and actions are planned by boards). They also publish results of enquiries (research areas led by their policy staff), still allow motions on contemporary issues and supplementary policy platforms on key issues like Health. All but the contemporary resolutions are long, carefully developed documents involving students and reps and are developed through research and discussion rather than constant voting. Could we learn from this approach when thinking about student policy issues?

  • There is a very strong involvement from their alumni network- ex sabbs deliver a large amount of consultancy and capacity building for free. This a major untapped resource in the UK- could we learn from this approach and give SUs access to wealth of experience?
  • The deep focus on lobbying work across Government and Civil society clearly pays off for them in terms of influence- they have respect across political parties, unions, NGOs etc and this helps with their campaigns and policy work and prevents students being seen separately in society. Could we learn from this focus on influence at a national level?

Studentsamskipnaden i Oslo og Akershus- Oslo and Akershus Student Welfare Organisation


The Welfare Council- Studentvelferd Oslo

Of note:

  • This is where things got very interesting! SiO is a student co-operative regional student welfare organisation- run like a company but with a student dominated board.
  • It handles housing (with 8500 units and up to 20,000 bedspaces), Sport (facilities, clubs and participation), Counselling, GP Services, Societies (600), 40 Cafes, Catering, Careers and Nurseries. Employs 600 people. Serves 67k students as members and turns over 1.1billion NOK.
  • It is funded through a semester fee (about £55 a term) and it even rents out skis poles and boots for the snow!
  • The Government subsidises student housing but SiO doesn’t get funding from Universities (only space)
  • One of the groups SiO funds is a Welfare Council- a student interest organisation, that provides students connected to SiO with a strong voice in matters concerning student welfare.
  • The Welfare Council chooses half of the members on the Board of SiO, including the chairman, who has a double vote. The Welfare Council also elects student representatives to all other boards and committees in SiO.
  • In the Welfare Council there are 37 representatives, each of them representing 1.500 students. Because of this, the Welfare Council has a large impact on the Student Welfare Organisation, and also manages part of the student fee revenues.
  • It has three sabbs all of its own!

Of interest:

  • As such “Free Education” in Norway isn’t directly comparable- here it “means” education strictly with welfare, careers and student activities services funded through regional co-operatives. Could this be an angle when looking at how tackle the student funding debate?
  • This model is efficient and looks very student responsive, yet also professional. About £7m in semester fees is serving almost 70,000 students and multiple Universities. Could these sorts of regional, collaborative student co-operative solutions be a new model for looking at responsive student services in the UK? What if Universities were only allowed to charge for education and other services were spun off in this way? Could we learn from these models?

And Finally


Some general reflections:

  • The trip was also rewarding because of the conversations with other SUs which were much richer than at the usual SU events and provide further opportunities for collaboration
  • The relative lack of a national BUCS framework ironically seems to mean much more social sport being played at every University
  • The separation of organisational functions everywhere appears to mean thousands more students involved in SU functions and University functions than in the UK
  • There is less money about and it shows. Fees and competition have ushered in facilities spend in England even if the system we have is a rotten way to fund it.
  • There’s a real focus on education and issues. Everywhere you look there’s hundreds of students actively involved in the development of their experience.
  • Their NUS’ impressive focus pays dividends. In fact organisational focus albeit in fragmented settings in comparison looks highly effective and excellent value for money.
  • The culture of volunteerism is rampant and deep and everywhere. Large parts of the student experience are created by thousands of volunteers or co-ops. It’s pretty uncool to not be running something. And it’s almost all School Plays instead of Broadway Musicals- the involvement matters.
  • We have so much to learn re student rights. All the SUs employ ombudspeople that solve problems and enforce student rights and promote rights. Student rights are everywhere without the consumer origin that makes some queasy here.
  • Policy making in SUs is fascinating. Instead of the UK model of motions or glorified suggestion boxes they all have powerful, optimistic visionary beliefs that encompass all areas of student life.
  • The role of student democracy- which is respectful and collaborative- is to revise or prioritise rather than chew through a million “motions”. They are literally teaching a different way to do democracy based around mediating one’s interests out in public rather than grandstanding which we should look at.
  • Social activity is organised in all sorts of interesting ways but tons of it appears to deliver bridging social capital in a way that ours doesn’t.
  • It isn’t perfect. There are much lower overall participation rates. And away from the bifurcated binary English debates the lack of use of student satisfaction data or competition does have down sides. There were bits that were brilliant but probably about historical accident, or culture, or the weather. But so much of what they do on a fraction of some of our budgets is creative, powerful and exciting.
  • HE is about outcomes and qualifications and careers. Replication. Delivery. Expectations. Skills. Finding your place in the world. But it should also be transformative. Creation. Innovation. Informality. Discovery. Changing the world. Our group sensed that the Scandis are better at the combo than us.
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