ACUI Insights, Denver 2024

ACUI Insights, Denver 2024

Denver Colorado was the winter wonderland that hosted this year’s Association of College Unions International (ACUI) Conference, and the city and conference did not disappoint.

Our delegation from Australia included Jess Brown, Board Chair and GM of Griffith University Gold Coast Student Guild; Cameron Kenney, CEO of ActivateUTS; Eleanor Boyle, Operations Manager of ANU Student Associaton and two team members, Emily Yam and Hassan Riaz; and Stephanie Baris from Arc@UNSW. (Picture 1)


The main difference between the U.S. union model and what we typically have here (and Canada and the UK), is that they are all part of the University, not independent bodies. They might name things differently (for example, Student Associations are our Clubs and Societies) but largely the services and offerings are the same as you would expect here. The other big difference would be scale. We have 42 Universities and 59 TAFEs in Australia and an additional 8 Universities and 16 Polytechnics in New Zealand (total 125). By comparison, there are 3,982 tertiary degree granting institutions in the U.S. In addition to the vast number of institutions, the facilities that they have are superb by comparison. They mostly appear to have “Student Centres” that provide a hub for all services on a scale that we cannot match. The one I visited at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, was a campus of 10,000 students, and the student centre was across 4 floors with cafes, food hall, bar, ballroom, countless meeting spaces, a student drop in space with food panty etc, a merch shop larger than any I have visited here and so much more, all in one dedicated building. (Picture 2)

The sporting infrastructure would be the envy of all of us. As an example, Denver University has 9,000 students with 2 ice rinks, one with 7,000 seat capacity, in addition to all the other sporting pitches, gyms, sports hall, pool etc. (Picture 3).


I had the privilege of being involved in 3 education sessions this year and it connected me with delegates in a meaningful manner. One such session explored the employment opportunities in Unions in Australia, Canada, and the UK with many similarities between the three countries. I am going to work with colleagues across these countries to explore the possibilities of international job swaps (6 months) as professional development opportunities.

Another similarity in all countries across the sector is the focus on students in need. In the U.S. these programs are commonly labelled “Basic Needs”, which I liked, and focus on food insecurity, clothing loans and donations, financial literacy, and other such programs, very much like you see across our member campuses. Students are doing it tough everywhere and it makes everyone question the value of a degree, which will be under the lens even more if The Accord outcomes move us closer to universal tertiary qualification.


I asked my antipodean colleagues for their insights from the conference and added them to my own.

  • We punch above our weight – although less well resourced, many of our members programs and services are comparable, if not better, than those of our U.S. counterparts.
  • Many of the U.S. Unions have the advantages of smaller cohorts with generous facilities, coupled with the fact that all first years live on campus leading to much higher engagement and strong collegiate feelings towards their institution.
  • A likely outcome of that is the significant incidence of philanthropic investment in Unions in the U.S. Many had buildings and facilities named after Alumni

donors that gave back to enable outstanding delivery on campus.

  • Student leader recruitment, training, and development has been nearly perfected in the states. The level of detail, research, and focus they have in this area is unmatched and there is an awesome possibility to do more here.
  • ACUI put on a good conference. There are many similarities in the delivery of the conference and content but with a few twists that the working group will examine ahead of this year’s event in Melbourne.
  • The accreditation program is a gamechanger and we will look too how we might develop that here for our members. In the U.S. you can do a preparatory course and take a test to gain accreditation for your experience and expertise in the industry allowing accredited members to carry the postnominals CSAEd tm (Certified Student Affairs Educator). This, along with micro-credentialling, will be service that we will look to develop for members as it provides professional recognition for professionals outside the traditional MBA route and is specific to the industry.
  • Spaces matter. The U.S. model has dedicated buildings that bring together all services with student spaces that engender a sense of community. This is the gold standard, and we need to continue to seek such opportunities on campus.
  • There is a maturity to the U.S. approach to utilising data to refine services for students, especially in Basic Needs programs. This is enhanced by the access to data through the University and a model worth chasing here.
  • SEN is punching above its weight for its members. When you consider the scale of our organisation in comparison to ACUI, we are providing a good suite of services and continue to grow. We are ahead of both Canada and surprisingly the UK by the accounts of my old colleague from the other side of the world.
  • Whilst we still have a way to go, we are years ahead of the U.S. in acknowledgement and services for First Nations Students. Many of their institutions haven’t even agreed the need for a land acknowledgement and this year was the first year that ACUI had integrated any part of it at conference.

In summary it was a good conference, with many learnings for the “down under” contingent. but as ever the real value was in the building of new contacts that continue to grow and strengthen our network. I will be following up with colleagues in the UK, U.S. and Canada to work on mutually beneficial offerings.

Next year, New York…..

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