Developing Communities Through Academic Societies
The University of Bristol has historically had a considerable number of academic societies. These are popular with students and enjoy positive relationships with the institution. Although membership varies, the largest of these have more than one thousand registered members and so they offer an important way of engaging students who might not otherwise engage with the Students’ Union.

However, the communities formed by these societies are often discipline-specific and fulfil a social and academic function, rather than a representative one.

As a participant in the REACT project, Bristol SU sought to increase the opportunities for academic societies to champion learning, advocate the student voice, and engage with one another.

To achieve this, Bristol SU, in partnership with the University, established three key projects: The Richmond Lecture series, the Best of Bristol lectures, and a regular Academic Society Forum.

For more information on Developing Communities Through Academic Societies, contact Robiu Salisu

The Academic Societies’ Forum

The Academic Societies’ Forum is a termly event hosted by the University in conjunction with Bristol SU. The forum provides committee members with an opportunity to network together before taking part in several short workshops facilitated by University or Students’ Union staff.

This initiative seeks to develop a sense of community between the academic societies by bringing them together at regular intervals. As members of every academic society committee are invited, attendees are encouraged to network beyond their usual contacts and to identify opportunities to work together.

It also formalises academic societies’ role as representatives by enabling committee members, through the workshops, to be consultants and co-designers in the University’s key strategic projects.

Linking Best of Bristol with Academic Societies

The Best of Bristol Lectures are a joint venture between the University of Bristol and Bristol SU, and led by a student committee.

Every year, students are invited to nominate their favourite or most engaging lecturers. Successful nominees give a public lecture in an area of their expertise, which may not directly form part of the taught curriculum.

Each lecture is also recorded and made available online. The initiative celebrates excellent teaching, encourages interdisciplinary learning, and helps to build a community of learners across the institution.

Academic societies are particularly encouraged to get involved and benefit from the opportunity to engage with their subject outside the curriculum.

Richmond Lectures and Academic Societies

The Richmond Lectures are a collaborative project between the University of Bristol and Bristol SU.

Each year, students are asked to nominate inspirational or intellectual speakers to give a talk, which is held at the SU. A committee of staff and student representatives selects the final list of invitees and a relevant academic society co-hosts each talk.

As the events are free and open to all, students and members of the public are encouraged to engage in interdisciplinary learning.

The talks also provide the co-hosting societies with an opportunity to meet and network with the speaker, as well as raising the profile of academic societies across the institution more generally.

Since its conception in 2015 the series has proved to be extremely popular, with students valuing the chance to engage with inspirational individuals who bring additional depth to their studies.

Key benefits to the student

Students have benefitted both as individuals and groups from the increased focus on this area.

Individuals benefit from the lecture events because they bring the curriculum to life and allow students to extend their learning beyond the syllabus. The Best of Bristol lectures also celebrate the work of excellent lecturers - this helps to disseminate good practice across the institution, whilst exposing students to a range of lecturing styles.

The societies themselves benefit from the increased profile they receive by co-hosting their nominated speaker for the Richmond Lectures, which in turn encourages their members to be more engaged. Similarly, the networking opportunities provided by the Academic Societies’ Forum enable them to identify as part of an institution-wide community and to share good practice . Moreover, the Forum plays an important part in providing societies with a representative voice.

Key benefits to the University

The benefits to the University have also been numerous.

By giving academic societies multiple, different ways to engage with the University and Students’ Union, society committees feel valued and are encouraged to remain active throughout the year. This has the benefit of helping them to engage a high proportion of their members, which in turn helps to build cohort identities within subjects.

The Academic Societies’ Forum gives the University an additional pathway to work in partnership with students, for example by consulting academic societies on key strategic projects or co-designing initiatives together.

For academic staff, the Best of Bristol lectures offer a chance to have their teaching skills publicly recognised and celebrated. The series also allows the University to identify good practice in this area and gather indirect feedback from students about the popularity of their lecturers.

Finally, the Richmond Lectures attract high-profile and sector-leading individuals that give the University an opportunity to enhance its reputation within the city.

Key benefits to the sector

Our work in this area benefits the sector by showing that it’s possible for universities to foster an environment in which academic societies can simultaneously fulfil social, academic, and representative functions.

By investing in a variety of initiatives that engage academic societies at an institutional level, students are encouraged to identify as part of a larger community of learners and to explore beyond the confines of their syllabus.

Giving academic societies the opportunity to act as representatives widens the scope for partnership working between students and staff and ensures that students have multiple pathways for engaging with representation at the University.