This article is more than 2 years old

Minister weighs in

This article is more than 2 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


Good morning. There’s a major ministerial intervention today on antisemitism and news on Augar. We’ve been looking at implications for SUs of complaints about strikes. There’s a new book out with things for SUs to think about, an article on students as scapegoats, and new briefings up on league tables and attendance monitoring. Have a great week, and a fabulous weekend.

Jim Dickinson, Wonkhe SUs

Minister weighs into antisemitism definition

Universities Minister Chris Skidmore is today urging universities and SUs to advance efforts to tackle “unacceptable religious hatred” in higher education, calling on universities and SUs to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. In a letter being sent to universities this week, the minister calls on institutions and students’ unions to “step up and tackle” antisemitism. The intervention picks up coverage on BBC News, the Guardian, iNews, the Mail.and the Times, which also has a comment piece from Chris Skidmore.

The move will be seen as controversial in some quarters – whilst NUS adopted the definition in 2017, the University and College Union carried a motion in 2017 rejecting use of the IHRA definition, and Universities UK has resisted taking a clear position on whether universities should adopt the definition, as it claims different universities have received conflicting legal advice on the issue.

The Jewish Leadership Council, the Union of Jewish Students and the Community Security Trust have also raised reports of “unfair practices” where Jewish societies have been asked to pay up to £2,000 for their own security at speaker events on campus, which Chris Skidmore is concerned may amount to indirect discrimination. The intervention refers to the guidance published in February, led by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which it says “clearly states” the legal rights and obligations around free speech for institutions, SUs and societies to ensure they do not discriminate in the way they organise events.

Security Costs

However whilst the anti-discrimination responsibilities are clear, there remains a major lack of clarity over who should bear security costs when an event featuring an external speaker attracts controversy. In a separate development this week, a row broke out after a university cancelled a European elections hustings due to be attended by UKIP candidate Carl Benjamin – he had been expected to attend the event organised by the SU debating society at UWE today but there had been growing calls for him to be banned from the debate and promises of protests. UWE blamed concerns over security when it cancelled the event but has come under fire both from people who claim it is effectively no-platforming him and from others who argue it should have banned just him rather than calling off the debate.

Different universities have different approaches to security and costs – in some, the university will pick up the tab, whilst in others the SU or the society itself is expected to cover costs – and the issue of responsibility for those costs is rarely covered in block grant discussions or Freedom of Speech policies. The guidance itself said that it would be “reasonable” to cancel an event if the participants would not be safe from physical harm, for instance, if there was a threat of violent protests. However, “reasonably practicable” steps, such as increased security within “reasonable cost” should be taken. The definition of “reasonable” is likely to be very different in the context of a society or charitable SU budget, when compared to a university budget.

On Wonkhe: Earlier this year Jim Dickinson took a detailed look at guidance from the EHRC and DfE on Freedom of Speech on campus.

On Wonkhe SUs: We also examined in detail implications for SUs arising from the guidance.

Strike for gold

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator – which adjudicates on student complaints in England and Wales – this week published a new set of case summaries of complaints that arose from last year’s USS pensions-related industrial action. The case reviews hit the headlines because many involve financial compensation. Of course, that compensation has only been awarded to specific students in particular situations where students have followed the correct procedures. OfS’ position as regulator where the cases involve systemic breaches of consumer law was unclear, so we asked them about their approach. They said:

“We recognise that last year’s strikes caused significant disruption for some students and it’s right that students have various avenues of redress open to them where their studies have been disrupted. These helpful case summaries show that the Office of the Independent Adjudicator considers complaints on their individual merits, including suggesting that universities should make every effort to ensure that there is mitigation of any lost teaching time, disrupted assessments or other lost support, wherever possible.

“Where this is not possible partial refunds should be offered. In the event of future industrial action we will be expecting universities to take robust action to mitigate the impact on students. Universities will also need to clearly explain to students both how they might be affected and the steps that the university will be taking to ensure that the impact is kept to a minimum.”

“Students’ awareness of these rights is an issue we have identified. As stated in our 19/20 business plan we plan to evaluate and report on the advice available to students about their rights as consumers.

Read more on Wonkhe SUs:

What are the implications for SUs arising out of the OIA’s case summaries of student complaints about industrial action? Team Wonkhe dissects the material.

The End of Aspiration?

This week former SU societies co-ordinator Duncan Exley published a great new book on social mobility. Writing in the New Statesman, MP David Lammy said it provides a “sincere warning” of what happens when we abandon the principles of opportunity and mobility. “When we swallow empty rhetoric of meritocracy without asking what it really means; when we surrender to unfairness by refusing to support each other; when we mistake privilege for meritocracy; that’s the end of aspiration”.

What really marks it out is that unlike much of the material on the subject, student voices run throughout the book – as Duncan said on Wonkhe last year, “ladders are best designed by people who know what it’s like to climb one”. And there’s a whole bunch of input from and reflections on students’ unions, some of which we’ve put on the SUs site today.

On Wonkhe SUs: Some extracts focussed on SUs from “The End of Aspiration”, published this week.

On Wonkhe: Social mobility is in freefall. Duncan Exley, author of a new book on the subject, examines the role that universities play in the problem.

Leaving a legacy

The BBC is today reporting that the Augar review of post-18 education and funding could be published in the next two weeks, as part of a set of announcements designed to shore up Prime Minister Theresa May’s “legacy”. BBC education and family correspondent Sean Coughlan’s report suggests that the findings of the review, which has been delayed by the Brexit process, are set to be announced straight after the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of this month – in the window between the EU elections and the visit of Donald Trump.

We need your help

Over on the main Wonkhe site in late June we are planning a students and SUs special, and we’d love you to write a blog for us. You might have advice for the UK’s VCs on handling SU officers. You might have reflections on how to lobby for change. You could have a piece on a particular policy issue or a selection of things that you wish someone had told you when you started. You might have an agenda setting policy idea or a challenge for the sector to address. If you have an idea and would like to pitch it to us do drop us an email – we’re excited to showcase SU officers and staff for the wider Wonkhe audience.

SU webinars

We’ve spoken to lots of you over the past few weeks, and the consistent feedback on our webinars has been a) you and your (new) officers would be much more likely to take part once the new year starts, and b) you really need us to record them.

We hear you – so instead of carrying on this term and then pausing over the summer (which is the original plan in the subscription contract) we’ve resolved instead to pause now and to run webinars across the summer. Do let us know if you have any feedback about that – and do suggest topics that you’d like to see us cover when they return in late June.

Your SUs subscription

A full guide to the benefits that you are entitled through via Wonkhe SUs is available for both basic and full subscribers.

On Wonkhe SUs

The Wonkhe Show: Research, anti-semitism, social mobility, car parking

This week we discuss the government’s strategy on research and innovation and the Minister’s intervention on anti-semitism. Duncan Exley, former Director of the Equality Trust, has published a book scrutinising the UK’s social mobility problem and we chat Wonkhe’s Car Parking Ranking.

With Luke Myer of Edge Hill Students’ Union; Sarah Barr-Miller of UCAS; and Wonkhe’s David Kernohan.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google podcasts, Spotify, Deezer, RadioPublic, Podchaser, Castbox, or via your favourite app with the RSS feed. And if you’d like to be a guest, do email the team.

The elected year starts here

We’ve opened registration for Start 2019, our one day event aimed specifically at new SU officers. At this unmissable event, Wonkhe’s team of experts will spend the morning providing a comprehensive introduction to all the key issues inside the higher education and students’ union policy landscape.

Then, in the afternoon, participants will be immersed in the ultimate simulation exercise designed to set officers up for all the challenges in the year head. This event is initially only open to student officers at Wonkhe SUs subscriber unions. Book your incoming team on now.

In addition, every year new staff join the student movement from a range of backgrounds and careers – but there’s little in the way of induction into the UK’s unique students’ union sector.

At “So you’re new to SUs?” Wonkhe’s expert team of wonks and guests from across the student movement will provide the ultimate briefing on working in this sector, with sessions on key aspects of student life, the history of the student movement, higher education, working with officers and universities and much more. Save the date.

On Wonkhe

SUs in the news

  • Queen’s University Students’ Union has cancelled its Eurovision screening amid calls to boycott the competition, held in Israel this year. Irish News carried the story and Ulster 105 had a discussion. BBC News and the Irish News also covered a planning application for the redevelopment of the SU building.
  • The Guardian reported that tens of thousands of students have protested across Brazil against sharp cuts to education enacted by Jair Bolsonaro’s administration – the first mass protests since the far-right president took office in January.
  • Cardiff University has closed counselling referrals for new students at the start of exam period due to demand, reported the Tab. Features SU President Fadhila A. Al Dhahouri. Study International looked at what UK universities have been doing for Mental Health Awareness Week and also covered the story.
  • The JC carries an op-ed on “Labour antisemitism” which suggests that adoption of the UN’s “Zionism Is Racism” resolution in the 1980s opened the door for British SUs to restrict the activities and funding of Jewish societies on campuses or even ban them.
  • The Express highlighted that EU Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt cut his teeth as President of the LIberal Flemish Student’s union while studying law at the University of Ghent.
  • The Telegraph and Argus reported that outgoing Lord Mayor of Sheffield and former SU President Majid Majid visited Bradford.
  • Furness College Students’ Union is to join protests when Tommy Robinson visits Barrow, reported the Barrow in Furness Mail.
  • The Motherwell Times reports that the Students’ Association at New College Lanarkshire has called for the Scottish Government to intervene as a pay dispute between lecturers and college bosses shows no signs of ending.
  • Staffs Live looked at efforts to combat climate change, highlighting the work of the SU.
  • The BBC reported that Jewish students in Bristol have launched a petition calling for a union officer who made anti-Semitic posts to resign.
  • On FE News, the founders of students’ Emotional Fitness app Fika (in closed trial partnerships with universities including Exeter, Lincoln, Manchester Metropolitan, Bath Spa and Coventry University Students’ Union: London Campus) comment on the toxicity of today’s image-focused online culture for young people’s emotional health.
  • Refinery29 has a feature on what it calls the “The Big White Middle-Class Problem With Environmental Activism”, quoting a number of SU officers.
  • The Dundee Evening Telegraph reported that “noise chiefs” will be in place at two coastal towns to ensure a student party does not disrupt the sleep of locals.

What’s occurring

Campus safety

What could a “whole campus approach” to sexual violence look like? Lots of universities and SUs right now are working on policy and how they support for those impacted by sexual violence and prevention. A new manuscript outlines the structure and development of the University of Otago’s whole campus approach to sexual violence that includes staff and students and addresses policy, support and prevention work. The model is usefully described with a focus on the theoretical approach to the model and the theory of change guiding ongoing evaluation.

Meanwhile, thesis season continues – this week there’s a new US study out exploring perceptions of student safety that seeks to determine the factors that impact student perceptions of campus safety, and to determine whether perceptions of campus safety have an impact on student engagement in campus and student activities. It finds that factors that impact perceptions of safety included gender, university facilities, and prior victimization. Students in the study utilised interesting “precautionary behaviors” that enhanced feelings of safety, particularly while engaging in student and campus activities.

Making a success of student representation

There’s interesting new research out this week on student participation in the governance of medical and veterinary education that sought to work out which factors make student participation in institutional governance a success or a failure. It finds that a cohesive, well-organised and independent student organisation can have a crucial impact on student participation in educational governance processes, and that a clear school policy on student participation and better introduction, feedback and coaching of representatives should be provided.


Student mental health came up at PMQs this week. Chelmsford MP Vicky Ford wanted the Prime Minister to urge the Secretaries of State for Health and for Education to work together to provide a specific fund for universities to develop new and innovative ways to help students with mental health pressures. She’d obviously not heard about OfS’ “Challenge Competition” on the issue, but was “happy to ask both the Health and Education Secretaries to consider options to look at the issue further. There was also an interesting Westminster Hall debate on licensing in Durham that’s worth a read.

Clear as mud

Earlier this week ex-LSE sabb and “money saving expert” Martin Lewis hit the headlines earlier this week when (together with the Russell Group) he called on the Government to scrap the current student loan statement, after 90% of respondents said a redesigned version of the statement helped them understand the system. However, HE economics expert Andrew McGettigan spotted a flaw – and said the “revamp” misfires because they based a key part of their statements on an “elementary mathematical blunder”.

Class acts

Graduate recruitment platform Debut has published “Working with class: The state of social immobility in graduate recruitment“. It finds that over a third of 18-25 year olds are put off joining a business if they perceive the workforce to be made up predominantly of middle and upper-class employees – equating to 2.5 million young people. It argues that this is costing businesses and the wider economy £270 billion per year. The research also found two thirds (66%) of graduates felt they had to change “who they are” to “make a good impression” during an interview and the majority (64%) said they weren’t able to express themselves as individuals during application processes.

Hidden (nursing) course costs

One in 20 places to study nursing were not filled this year, according to a new report that suggests concerns about the cost of study are deterring potential students. The Open University (OU) analysis “Breaking Barriers to Nursing”, found that one in four (24%) students drop out before completing their study – 6,740 potential nurses from each intake – while one in three (32%) currently studying are unsure if they still want to become a nurse. Money, specifically the cost of study or living away from home, as well as concerns about paying back student loans, is the most significant barrier experienced deterring a third (33%). Other important issues to consider include travel, (13%) entry requirements (11%) and workload (17%).

Banking on trustees

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has updated its charity bank account comparison table. It offers a chance to remind trustees that they should also be regularly reviewing the financial management of their organisation to ensure that it is as effective as possible and covers issues like dual authorisation to protect against fraud, changing a signatory if a trustee leaves, and ethical banking. SCVO has also published a blog on developing annual reports.

And the rest

  • The University of Surrey SU has launched a “no confidence” referendum on the institution’s governing body over concerns about jobs and budget cuts.
  • Proposals for a single SU that would represent both undergraduate and postgraduate students at Cambridge University have been published this week. Cambridge is one of the few universities left with separate representation for postgrads, with York and Keele among the last hold-outs.
  • A statutory instrument designed to tidy up the implementation of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 was debated and approved this week in the commons and is expected to pass in the Lords next week. One of the implications of the statutory instrument will be to bring “for profit” providers of HE that receive funding from the OfS under the auspices of the Education Act 1994 – most have previously been exempt from the legislation covering SUs.
  • Students have approved the outcome of a Democracy Review at Royal Holloway SU, work undertaken over the past 12 months to help it “put students at the heart of everything we do”. Led by the sabbs with the help of an independent consultant, the process involved significant consultation and engagement, with surveys, interviews and focus groups helping us develop a wide range of proposed changes.
  • The Office for Students (OfS) has announced the universities that have been successful in bidding for part of £5.6 million to boost opportunities for graduates who seek work close to home. Many of the projects funded in this Challenge Competition will provide work experience, internships, and additional training to help local students transition into highly skilled employment.
  • A new scholarship exclusively for student exchange between UK and EU universities is now open for applications for 2020. QS Quacquarelli Symonds has launched the QS MoveOn ‘StandOut’ Scholarship in partnership with Universities UK International. Interested applicants will be asked to complete a 500-800 word blog about why they would like to go abroad.

Today’s higher education headlines

  • The Guardian reports back from a roundtable on HE held in Manchester, at which senior academic leaders, funders and policy-makers concluded that a lack of government funding is stopping universities from reducing regional inequalities.
  • A coroner has ruled that neglect by the Avon and Wiltshire NHS mental health trust contributed to the death of Natasha Abrahart, a former University of Bristol student, by suicide. Abrahart’s parents have spoken of their frustration with the university and mental health services. The story is reported by the BBC, Guardian (with an interview with the Abraharts), The Times, the Mail, HuffPost, ITV News and the Bristol Post.
  • PIE News reports on Chris Skidmore’s comments about the importance of a mobility deal for British students, made at the Going Global conference this week.
  • Former OfS Board member Toby Young has a comment piece in the Telegraph defending writer Roger Scruton’s comments that there is political bias against conservatism at universities. The Mail reports Scruton’s comments.
  • Science Business covers a survey by the European University Association, which suggests that European universities pay more than 1 billion euros per year for access to journals run by the leading science publishers.
  • In an article for the Mirror, Gordon Brown says a future Labour government should offer grants for lifelong learning.


At Wonkhe we cover the intersection between higher education, students and the political arena. Some highlights include:

The full archive on politics is available on the site.


  • Surrey has a fascinating referendum on the performance of the university’s governing bodies. The “Question Time” for the poll was streamed live.
  • Lincoln has a terrific video-based annual report up.
  • Norwich University of the Arts SU has launched Storehouse – its official magazine.
  • Royal Holloway SU has an amusing video up encouraging students to complete their annual survey.
  • Edinburgh has a fun video up on its student led teaching awards.


  • An archive of previous Wonkhe SUs email updates ia available on our subsite.

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