Events, Resources

Valuing Students’ Union Records and Archives

Students’ unions in the UK are multi-faceted organisations that support their members in a variety of different ways and draw on a range of organisational traditions. Developing at higher education institutions (HEIs) from the late nineteenth century, students’ unions today fulfil a variety of functions, including representing students on governance structures, providing leisure or sporting facilities, and enabling students to come together in extra-curricular activities. However their records have often been preserved in haphazard ways and students’ unions continue to face challenges in caring for records. Yet students’ union records should highly valued for the irreplaceable record of locally-rooted student life they contain, the counterbalance to ‘official’ accounts of higher educational institutions they provide, and the insights they can offer into British social, cultural and political history.

Mike Day and Jim Dickinson reflected in their 2018 report on the student movement that ‘we know little about students’ unions’ and that research ‘is only beginning to make use of students’ union archives’. Research by sociologist Rachel Brooks and colleagues has drawn new attention to the changing nature of students’ unions within UK higher education. As hybrid bodies that don’t fit into neat organisational categories, students’ union records have also rarely been discussed in archival studies literature.

To fill this gap, the ARP has been conducting some research into the record keeping challenges faced by students’ unions. Working with historians of student life and The National Archives Sector Development team, we developed two online surveys and a series of qualitative interviews with students’ union leaders, sector leaders and archivists. AHRC-Collaborative Doctoral Award holder Paul Beard conducted the surveys and interviews. The research identified a number of challenges including a lack of awareness of university archives services, the lack of capacity to build long-term and sustainable relationships between students’ unions and archives services, problems of space and storage, high turnover of both elected student leaders and paid staff, and poor record keeping practices. In general, records are low priority for students’ unions but they are also perceived as low value to their associated HEI, with limited policies or practices put in place to support students’ unions with record keeping and archiving.

As a next step, we are collaborating with the Higher Education Archives Programme (HEAP) to host an event titled at UCL on 21 May 2024 (see the full event programme here). Paul will present key findings from the research before we invite expert speakers to reflect on what would be lost without students’ union records? What is the value of records for individual students’ unions? What do students’ union records add to the official university record? What is the value of records for the student movement? There will also be an archives show and tell of students’ union records, and a chance to attend curatorial tours of the Generation UCL: 200 Years of Student Life in London exhibition.

Importantly, the event will include a workshop where participants are invited to explore some of the challenges in caring for and making accessible students’ union records, contributing their thoughts and ideas on the care and use of such collections. Data collected at the workshop will inform a guidance document for students’ union staff, sabbatical officers and archivists based in universities and colleges. We are now looking to find a consultant archivist to help us develop this short guidance document. Please see Archives-Consultancy-Brief-March.pdf here.

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About Georgina Brewis

Professor of Social History at UCL
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