How Scandinavian SUs do policy and democracy (not elections)

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

If we compare the amount of effort and innovation that goes into reviews of elected officer roles and their portfolios in the UK with the effort and innovation that goes into reviews of the rest of SU democracy, it’s almost as if we’re obsessed with the celebs rather than the stuff that they do.

We see this during the year. SU elections are usually very high-profile – gobbling up significant budget, multiple weeks of comms time and generating their own brands and logos – while other forms of democratic input left to languish in the background.

That’s a shame. If the only thing that students really see is the pursuit of power by a select band of individuals (where most of those individuals won’t actually win a contest), no wonder students can be cynical or indifferent about “student politics”.

Going through the motions

It also means that the inevitable focus for weeks on end will be on the people that are trying to win, rather than the issues that those student leaders might need input on or need to tackle.

And it means that when we say that SUs are “democratic”, we’re often on shaky ground – because most officers are barely held to account and most democratic structures suffer from chronic under-participation.

Those painful pendulum swings from open discussion forums (that nobody attends) to the formal council structures of by-laws and motions (that students say are too bureaucratic and rigid) aren’t working. So are there alternatives?

In the UK there’s an odd tradition of determining the “policy” of SUs and NUS by passing motions, which the officially “last” for a while until they “lapse”. They’re often a bit random, students don’t leap at the chance to write them, and few people are ever introduced to what is currently the “policy” of the SU.

So are there alternatives?

Demokrati og politik

In Denmark, DSF’s national conferences (the Danish NUS) involve the leadership researching and consulting on a major issue, and then putting a draft policy paper out that member unions can propose to amend. An example of the finished product can be found here. It’s a straightforward way of doing democracy that commands support from the members. Here’s an example of its plan of work which is also voted on. Could NUS’ democratic procedures – and individual SUs too – evolve to develop a policy development process that combines research with formative and summative participation?

At the University of Copenhagen, the student council maintains a core “statement of beliefs” that guides their work and can be amended by resolution of the annual meeting. New students are introduced to the ideas in it by the student mentors and new academic staff (esp senior staff) are introduced to the goals within. SU officers stand tio implement and prioritise aspects of it. Could SUs in the UK create a core policy book for introduction to and amendment by students and their reps?

Demokrati och politik

In Sweden the SFS General Assembly is like the equivalent of NUS Conference. It meets every year in April or May and consists of 349 delegates from all member unions. It deals with proposals from the board (propositions) and proposals from member unions (motions). It also elects the Presidium (the two FTOs, one of which must be a woman) and the Board.

The event consists of two different parts: “Opinion Square” (åsiktstorg) and plenary meetings. Opinion Square, which is an interactive discussion forum where the members can discuss and take a position on the different proposals, is held prior to plenary meetings. Then during the plenary meeting, all delegates and the Board gather in a large lecture theatre and vote for or against different proposals. Could both the NUS DPC and also local unions learn from the SFS model of doing policy that combines formative discussion with summative voting on proposals?

In Linkoping, LinTek is one of many SUs in Sweden with a tripartite governing document arrangement – there’s a charter (like a constitution), a set of regulations/by-laws and a comprehensive positions programme that sets out the SU’s beliefs about education and student life. Students and new office holders are inducted into it, it can be amended by the council and election candidates/new officers effectively apply to prioritise aspects of it and implement parts of it. It is a big difference from the “free for all” culture of random motions and manifestos that we have in the UK. Are there UK SUs that could adopt a tripartite model of governing documents with a permanent policy policy platform?

Demokrati og politikk

In Norway, at STINN: The Student Organisation in Inland Norway has a standing “principle programme” which sets out the SU’s view on issues. Students can amend this at their council. The democratic structures also allow students to propose contemporary resolutions on education issues, which in recent years have included preventing blank screens during online lectures and seminars, public transport costs, the physical learning environment and the language skills of academic staff.

Then each year the elected officers adopt a series of priority issues that they believe will be particularly important for the coming period – this year they’ve gone for improved health and well-being, marking turnaround times and pedagogical literacy among lecturers.

Meanwhile the Oslo and Akershus Welfare Council has 37 representatives – the University of Oslo’s Student Parliament appoints 13 of them, whereas institutions that have fewer than 1,500 students join forces for five seats – and various sizes of delegation in between. At its annual election meeting, the Welfare Council elects a working committee (VT-AU). This sits for one year, from 1 July to 30 June and consists of four full-time sabbs.

At the same meeting, the Welfare Council elects a control committee, which also sits for one year. This checks that the Welfare Council and its associated bodies comply with the articles of association and other provisions that have been adopted! As seen in other organisations above, a central guiding policy document that can be amended is adopted and forms part of the main constitutional documents. Resolutions are more contemporary.

Demokratia ja politiikka

In Finland, the University of Helsinki SU’s comprehensive policy document is a living, permanent part of their core governing documents – updated regularly by the council – and provides a way to induct officers and staff who then focus on plans of action instead of passing resolutions for “yes no” votes at meetings.

Each of these systems might have their roots in Scandi political society, but if we’re serious about SU representation and democracy being an educational experience, there’s lots to learn from here given the number of people involved and the focus on creativity and consensus that the systems embody. Could UK SU pilot changes to democratic structures along the lines of Scandi SUs to create better debate and involvement?

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