A funny thing happened on the way to the democratic forum

None of us should need reminding that Students’ Unions are unusual organisations. They really shouldn’t work.

Led by enthusiastic but inexperienced leaders who change on an almost yearly basis, reliant on volunteers but held to a high level of compliance and required to include democracy as part of its systems of governance – if you pitched this idea as a starting point you’d be considered quite odd in the more traditional meetings of charity leaders.

Process or outcome?

Almost every union has a charitable purpose in their articles that includes holding forums of debate to help educate students. It’s been somewhat of a mantra of mine for the past decade, but where many organisations have some form of voting and discussion forums as a process for governance, for SUs it is an important outcome.

Company shareholder meetings propose motions and have people vote on them as well as electing the Directors who will lead them in the year to come, but unlike us they don’t do this to expand the citizenship education of those attending. When I vote in the Terrence Higgins Trust elections, I’m being asked for my view but that it all. Unlike students’ unions they aren’t trying to make me a more informed, better skilled and more engaged person as a result of that process.

I’ve spent a sizeable chunk of the past 3 years in students’ unions discussing, dissecting and, on occasion (and with their permission), disembowelling the ways that SU’s approach their democratic decision making. One of the first things I am asked is “What do other Unions do?” and so I answered this question with a recent piece of research.

Student council rules

One thing that struck me from the full report is that while unions are innovative and exciting places in a great many ways, the research showed that 87% of unions still use a Student Council model that has been around for decades. I know that some unions (including my home Union) dropped Student Councils in the late 2000s for different methods and have since returned to them, but it is the method for debating policy and holding that officers account that has endured. It has made me think about why this has endured as such a strong model.

My first suggestion is that it is the Baby Bear’s porridge of participative governance. Not too big like a general meeting or referendum, but not too small like an Executive Committee. You can train a dozen volunteers on how to put forward a motion and feed back to their constituents but it doesn’t feel like the power they hold is spread too thinly. Student Councils are maybe ‘just right’.

Watching two student officers discuss a clause in their Articles last week (I’m in all the fun meetings) I was struck at how naturally they relaxed into a two-sided debate (about whether the opportunity to run in an election or being “student led” was most important) rather than a collaborative approach to the issues. Perhaps our experiences for public discussion are so focused on an adversarial model that student council feels most “natural”.

What’s underneath

I love when SU’s do democracy ‘with the bonnet up’. I’m not just a big proponent of transparency wherever possible, I relish the totemic events such as election nights and hustings with all their overt display of decision making and power. My campaign to bring back paper ballots has little traction but there is something about watching the piles representing thousands of students’ opinions rise and fall that is compelling.

Some unions like Imperial have tried to replicate this feeling with online displays of who has voted from which demographic but that doesn’t quite feel the same. Part of the reason for this openness is to show that this union event is different. Not “just” a club night or society fundraiser; its something odd. Student Councils are somewhat antiquated, somewhat analogue but still easy enough to organise and look (just a bit) like a participative lecture from a trendy new academic to engage with. They are different enough to be noticed but not so separate from daily experience to be alien.

You want it your way?

Commercials for both children’s toys & cars include the promise that there are options for customisations and accessories. Marketing professionals think that we like to be able to personalise things and there’s certainly variety across SU councils. I’d argue that these are more ready for tweaking and adaptation than some of the alternatives.

You can’t add a representative to an open meeting to make a big difference and using electronic pad voting among 12 welfare reps is hardly impactful. Perhaps their ability to be customised is part of the Student Council’s appeal?

Democracy in Students’ Unions will never be ‘solved’ and a system that works brilliantly as one institution may be a flop at another. I’m all for innovation and new, challenging, ways of educating students about citizenship and getting their opinion but (as Mark Twain probably wouldn’t have said) the death of Student Council is grossly exaggerated.

Nick’s research on democratic forums in SUs can be downloaded here.

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