Over the last couple of years there has been an increasing openness within Students' Unions (SUs) to work with local churches. Here is an outline of what we have learned so far and a suggestion of a way forward.
What is a Students' Union? - Every university will have one, although it may be called something slightly different (e.g. Student Association). It is a student-led organisation which is there to promote and protect the well-being and experience of students at that university.
Union Staff - While there are elected, vocational executive committees who run SUs, it is often the Chief Executive and his/her staff who are better to work with in the first instance. This is because they are permanent staff members so it is possible to build long term strategic partnerships with them. They may introduce you to others in the union which is helpful, but they are the best first point of contact.
Long-term trust - You may be talking to someone in the SU who has no frame of reference for church. So it will help the conversation to talk about building long term partnerships between the town and the university. Churches are thinking about this for the long haul. We don’t want to burn our bridges by ramming the gospel down students' throats! We want to build with the universities over many years and serve them in what they are doing with students. We want the partnership to be thriving in 20 years time so be sensitive to the purposes of the SU.
Freshers' Fair Stands - Fusion is being welcomed into the freshers' fairs of many SUs in order to to promote the Student Linkup app and thereby help students find a local church if they wish to do so. This is a positive outcome for SUs as they want to avoid a situation where lots of churches are all trying to grab students and this presents them well under one banner. These can be run by local churches. It is a huge positive for us as it makes Student Linkup accessible to ALL students.
Preparation Material - The excellent material we have available on preparation for university has a broad appeal to SUs. Particularly the Student Alphabet as it is easy to lift and put it in a different context. Fusion is happy to give this material in return for an advert for the Student Linkup App and a reference to our source in their material. This has already happened well in a few locations.
Town/Gown - Every SU is interested in having good relationship with the community in which they find themselves situated. They may have targets along these lines or at least be keen to show how they are engaging with community groups, of which church is one. There may also be residential issues such as drunk students in residential areas that a local church is able to help with.
Student Retention - An SU and the university itself will be interested in retaining their students and decreasing the drop-out rate. Church involvement has a direct correlation to the success of this aim. Involvement in any community activity, like church, helps students to feel at home in their university city.
Surveys - Every SU will survey it’s students about the student experience. It is worth asking them about the results as it will be a good indication as to what the students in your location are like. It will also highlight ways in which you may be able to serve the SU. The “felt need” of a student in Durham will be very different to the “felt need” of a student in Wolverhampton. So it is worth looking into the research available.
Mental Health/Well-being - Everyone working with students is noticing the increase in people presenting with and being diagnosed with mental health issues. SUs have a responsibility to look after the well-being of their students and mental health comes under that heading for them. It is also worth noticing that many SUs would welcome help or expertise from the church in knowing how to deal with this issue.