Why have students gone quiet?
Allie Guy, President Welfare & Inclusivity, Falmouth and Exeter SU
As we discover that over 300 university students have signed non-disclosure agreements (NDA) with their universities, it is becoming clear as to why students seem to have gone quiet.
The last major moment that the student body had their voice heard was in 2010 – when there were multiple demonstrations around the country to protest against the tripling of tuition fees from £3k to £9k.
So angry were students that Police resorted to kettling student protestors; a crowd control procedure which began in the 90s and frequently ends in violence. It has been questioned whether this method of crowd control is even lawful. But the point is that we know what happened to tuition fees and most graduates these days leave university with a debt of roughly £50k.
Since then, the National Union of Students (NUS), the one centralised representative body for students’ political voices, seems to have lost its political edge due to financial restraints.
In more recent times, young people once again attempted to have their say. Research agency YouSight found that 87 per cent of university students within the UK voted in the Brexit referendum. Analysis shows that the majority of students were in favour of remaining in the EU, and in the 2019 General Election student support was once again vastly in favour of a left-wing government. But Britain has left the EU and Boris Johnson sleeps in No.10.
Even if these issues did not dilute the enthusiasm of the political activists hiding within the student body, the mere thought of finding the “spare” time to lobby universities and government while competing for a first class degree, paying £9k a year for it, not receiving any grants, working at least one part-time job, living away from home, and paying extortionate rent prices, is almost incomprehensible. And when some of them do put their head above the parapet, they’re paid off and told to sign an NDA.
The terrifying prospect is that we are raising a generation that is highly educated yet mute – silent on the injustices in their own or wider society and so powerless to engender change in the future. If things are to change, things need to change – and a good place to start should be in our SUs.
Radical change required
First, SUs should go back to their core purpose and be the hub for student engagement and action. If a student is upset, angry or let down, they shouldn’t just be “satisfied” with their SU, or believe it represents their “academic interests” – they should believe that their SU represents a platform on which they can turn their anger into hope and action.
Collaboration matters too. Depending on NUS to do our collectivism for us won’t work. If we have common agendas, we should reach out to each other on regional or issue-based ideas and initiatives – and some of us should take the lead, even if we haven’t won an NUS election to do so.
We should ask some serious questions of ourselves and what we expect. Given the financial pressures on students today, shouldn’t we be thinking about paying more of our student representatives and those that run activities?
There is also a question here engaging our ever-growing minority students. How do we persuade BME, LGBTQAI+ and other minority student groups to stand up and have their voice heard? If APPs and OfS are forcing universities to concentrate on these students more and more, we should take this opportunity by the horns – these students are not just statistics. Some SUs struggle to fill these part time officer posts – but providing a way for these students to have their day-to-day, lived experience to be understood and acted on by decision makers is surely the priority.
There are plenty of other ideas around, and new ones waiting to be tried out. The important thing is that we all don’t just think about how we incrementally improve our SUs – but we think instead about how to turn the quiet student murmur that we can all just about make out on campus into something far more powerful.
Being dependent on universities for money compromises our role
Gemma Paine, President, Surrey Students Union
There is an unsavoury but instructive quote from Prime Minister Harold Wilson when his cabinet wanted him to criticise the USA for their involvement in Vietnam: “we can’t kick our creditors in the balls!”.
It demonstrates the uneasy power dynamic between political independence and financial reliance.
It is hard to think of an equivalent between a university and an SU outside of our sector, where organisation A funds organisation B – but then expends time and resources trying to ensure they are not then subsequently kicked where it hurts by them.
It is true that some SUs generate independent income, but even that’s almost always on the university estate – and so the opportunity to generate it is at a university’s behest. Where SUs are entirely reliant on their institution for funding, universities are in many cases held to imaginary ransom when it comes to value for money, risk and efficiency in its expenditure. Ultimately, the SU is never truly independent, and the university never really has control over this part of its budget.
This uneasy balance has existed for years – but the future funding landscape allows us to pose the question: is this the way it must be? When poverty comes through the door, love goes out the window.
Thinking again on funding
The unique pressures that the HE sector finds itself in now merit a new way of looking at funding for student organisations. If SUs are to really work as independent charities that are accountable to their membership, then there has to be freedom from university funding. Universities too must be able to be open about their frustrations – whether it be student engagement or voter turnout in democratic events.
It is also the moment for SUs to stop expending so much energy and resource into trading. Yes, if it really fits with your core mission, and you can do it successfully, by all means – but when it is taking all your senior management energy to keep a sinking ship afloat you are doing your members a disservice.
SU funding would be an ideal opportunity for the Office for Students to finally connect with student representative bodies and generate challenge back to universities. Its background as a funder gives them the expertise, and their need for better student connections with no strong national voice gives them the opportunity. Why aren’t we campaigning for it?