Uppsala Nations vs Durham Colleges – notes from an exchange visit to Sweden

Jess Rackham (SJCR President)

A student-staff delegation (representing three of the Durham University colleges) recently visited Uppsala University in Sweden in order to explore the curious concept of the Uppsala Nations: centuries’ old student-led institutions, historically representing different regions in Sweden, but otherwise too dissimilar from Durham’s Colleges….or are they? Here is Jess’ reflection.

I travelled to Uppsala intrigued and left feeling both fascinated and frustrated.

I joined the group relatively late, being asked to visit Uppsala in March. This meant that I had very little knowledge of the University before my visit – I merely had a rumour that their Nations (effectively Colleges) were entirely student lead but no clear idea of how this was possible.

After chatting to the Nation Presidents, Bar Officers and other students, it turns out that running a College by students for students, is actually pretty simple. When students are trusted and respected, they can do great things.

Now it has to be noted that the Nations are, in some senses, simplified Colleges. They have no accommodation onsite which removes the need for students to clean or maintain student rooms. Further, only some Colleges offer food (I don’t think any College was fully catered). However, any food which was cooked and served to students was cooked by their peers. Additionally, law in Sweden specifies that any bar which serves alcohol must also serve food and therefore each student bar served burgers, pizza and snacks throughout each night. The occasional formal dinner or white tie ball was also catered by a student team.

In Uppsala, student responsibility extends further than running a College. Within Uppsala, student representatives sit on the highest University committees – Uppsala’s ‘UEC’ equivalent sees the student need being directly vocalised to staff.  Here in Durham, only the SU President is present in these meetings, that’s one person representing 17,000 students (soon to be over 20,000).

It was this aspect which left me feeling both fascinated and frustrated. As a President of a Common Room, I am mandated to represent the student need and work to ensure that all decisions made are in the best interest of those I represent. Yet often the decisions I seek to influence are decided at meetings that no Common Room President is invited to attend. The question I ask is, why is this the case? I appreciate there are numerous logistical reasons as to why 16 Presidents aren’t invited to every University meeting yet it is debatable as to whether these reasons outweigh the benefits of having of having the student voice heard at the highest level.

Student representation at this high level has proven to work, as shown in Uppsala. This isn’t to equate the two Universities, clearly there are differences, however, we are not so different that a Presidential presence at various meetings wouldn’t work. A proposal which, in an ideal work, the University Executive would take under consideration.

Any business works best through collaboration, collaboration between a diverse range of people offering different perspectives. While the University is a business, it is one that should be focused on the wellbeing of the students. Students who are best represented by the Presidents they elect. And yes, I am biased as a President myself but I don’t see any reason as to why student representatives shouldn’t be consulted on those issues which affect the students.

This isn’t to say that the student voice in Durham University isn’t represented at any meeting, nor is it to undermine the work which has already been done to engage with Common Room Presidents, and the wider Presidents’ Committee. Having representation on SDC, SFAAG, and similar is fully appreciated by students and their representations. I simply think that we could go further – engage with students more and at higher levels, to ensure that the best interests of the students are at the forefront of every decision possible.

As I said, when students are trusted with power and responsibility, great things can happen as highlighted by the structures in place in Uppsala University. They are a leading example, one which I hope that Durham can follow.

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