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Proposed work on students’ union, association and guild freedom of expression and wider standards

This article is more than 3 years old

This is a briefing for Wonkhe SUs subscribers.

This note describes a proposed approach to a national conversation on students’ unions, associations and guilds concerning freedom of expression and wider organisational standards.

We have asked Wonkhe to assist us in convening this work, initially through the organisation of and support for two national (focussed on England) roundtable events, detailed below.


An association of students (usually called a union in England, and sometimes called a guild) exists in pretty much every university in the UK, with variations in most other higher education providers. They tend to combine social and recreational activity with both collective and individual education and welfare advocacy.

They have played a critical role during the pandemic in supporting students, providing opportunities for social connection in an age of social distancing and in representing students’ views concerns to university management and wider society.

Within this sub-sector there are a range of contemporary issues that are the subject of frequent debate in the press and in political circles. In recent years considerable concern has been expressed about their role, for example, in matters of freedom of expression. This year:

  • The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, has said that “If universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”.
  • The Office for Students has announced that it will shortly issue regulatory guidance on public interest governance principles relating to academic freedom and free speech.
  • The government’s higher education restructuring regime suggested that universities accessing the scheme tackle expenditure on SU sabbatical officers and “niche activism”.

Students’ unions, associations and guilds recognise that concerns expressed by the media and by government about their role and practice in a number of cases has caused public concern. As charities we have a duty to protect our reputation, both in relation to how we are represented but also in relation to our practice, activities and decisions we make.

There is a danger that these organisations look closed to feedback or unwilling to engage in a constructive discussion about their activities. It is important that they respond to this in a constructive manner, reflecting on events that may have led to concern and seek to strengthen their practice to give confidence to students, institutions and the wider public.

We have therefore asked Wonkhe to help us to draw on expertise both from within the students’ union sector and across political and professional fields to examine a number areas in detail, and facilitate us to make recommendations that help assure freedom of speech and expression and value for money. We envisage a number of national conversations may lead to a task and finish group to lead development work, and in time a group may even play a role in resolving disputes surrounding the operation of SUs.

Freedom of speech

Clubs and societies are an important facilitator of freedom of speech and debate on campus – but there are concerns that some students’ unions have been involved in the “banning” or “no platforming” of speakers whose opinions their student leaders do not agree with. We would seek to refresh guidance on external speakers and events and set clear standards designed to secure the maximum possible level of diversity of viewpoints and debate and discussion on campus.

In addition we would seek to create guidelines which operationalise an assumption that the Education (No 2) Act 1986 applies to students’ unions, associations and guilds; create clear guidelines that set out how the costs of speaker events that require mitigations such as security costs will be met in order to relieve such a burden from individual societies; and make recommendations on the updating and revision of university codes of practice on freedom of speech – many of which may not have been updated significantly since the implementation of the Education Act 1986.


Funding to students’ unions is particular to each autonomous higher education provider without any set national practice or expectations. Where students’ unions, associations and guilds do receive funding in cash or in kind, it is reasonable to ask if this is providing value and being spent wisely. We would examine practice surrounding the transparency of student organsiations’ finances to students, universities and the public and develop standards for monitoring and evaluation in relation to value. We might usefully consider model financial memoranda in association with BUFDG offering clarity and common approaches to accounting for space and service charges etc.


Students’ unions, associations and guilds are registered charities that are regulated by the Charity Commission in England. There is a perception that in some cases they are poorly led or run with inappropriate or insufficient levels of scrutiny on their work. We would want to consider steps that might be taken to improve governance practice and consider whether a national code of governance would be an appropriate step.

Political debate and activity

Students unions, associations and guilds are bound by strict prohibitions on their activity in relation to the law of charities that ensures their work is focussed on students as students. There is a perception held by some that there could be activity and expenditure in some students’ unions is “political” and outside students’ unions’ charity’s objects “to advance education in the interests of students as students”. We would want to identify any additional steps that might be taken to ensure that expenditure and activity remains within the law.

Student groups

Around 30,000 student clubs and societies exist on campuses and are funded and supported by students’ unions, associations and guilds – provisioning support with administration, events, financial management and risk. In a small number of cases concerns have been raised surrounding the politicisation of the process of approving and funding student clubs and societies. We would want to identify what could be done to ensure these processes are demonstrably fair, rules-based and even-handed.

Student leaders

Around 600 full time paid elected student leaders in the UK support students, engage with the community, lead projects and sit on university committees to offer a student perspective. It is important that student officers are accountable for their actions in relation to legitimate financial and legal matters. We would want to secure the highest standards of conduct amongst student leaders and identify standards for the handling of complaints or concerns about them.


Students’ unions, associations and guilds undertake individual advocacy of students (on matters including academic misconduct and appeals, complaints and housing). In these cases such services are not usually well-suited to being directly provided by elected student representatives without necessary specialist skills. We would want to examine practice in this area and make recommendations to ensure that students can have confidence in services on offer on campus meet minimum professional standards.

Education and Welfare

A number of students’ unions, associations and guilds and their members are also involved in a range of projects and services aimed at improving the education and welfare of students, and many involve students in the design and delivery of awareness or peer support work within a university. We would want to examine practice in this area and make recommendations to ensure that students are effectively supported in these roles.

Regulation and complaints

Students’ unions, associations and guilds internal complaints systems should be transparent so that students can be confident any concern is being handled effectively. We would want to consider policies and practice and consider whether there is a role for an ombudsperson.

Wider issues

We also believe that there may be worth in considering:

  • The contribution students unions, associations and guilds make to citizenship education through democratic participation through SU elections by examining practice in this area;
  • As part of the wider review of the National Student Survey, some work on the development of a more appropriate and effective measure of student satisfaction with students unions, associations and guilds;
  • Better training and support for student governors and members of academic boards/senates.

Form and process

This work – focussed principally on England – would be an exercise in the development of effective and robust self-regulation, and so would involve student officers and managers. However we would also seek to involve (non exhaustive):

  • The Department for Education given the political interest in this area;
  • The Office for Students given its duties surrounding Freedom of Speech;
  • The Charity Commission
  • The Quality Assurance Agency
  • Universities UK
  • Association of University Administrators
  • The Association of Heads of University Administration
  • Committee of University Chairs
  • Advance HE
  • Office of the Independent Adjudicator
  • The National Union of Students
  • The higher education mission groups

Two round table events

To progress the agenda and scope the work we have asked Wonkhe to help us to convene two national (focussed on England) virtual roundtable events.

One will seek to gather feedback from students’ union staff and officers; another will seek to involve stakeholders.

  • Students’ union, guild or association round table meeting: Friday November 6th, 10am
  • Sector stakeholder round table meeting: Friday November 6th, 2pm

For more details, contact us. Further detail including an agenda for each meeting will be posted here in the run up to the meetings.

Appendix: Characteristics of students’ unions, associations and guilds

Although they vary according to institutional tradition and mission, the key characteristics include:

  • one or more full-time sabbatical officers elected by annual cross campus ballot, usually divided into portfolio responsibilities (student activities, education, welfare etc) but sometimes divided by faculty or campus responsibilities;
  • a number of part-time elected student officers (combining study with office) to represent types of student or to lead particular union functions;
  • representation across formal institutional decision-making structures and regular informal liaison with institutional leadership;
  • a role in the institution’s internal academic quality assurance mechanisms
  • a written constitution, with provisions for elections and financial reporting
  • a code of practice agreed with the institutions (ref 1994 Act)
  • automatic membership from enrolled students, which in practice entitles a student to vote in elections – few students have taken up the opportunity to ‘opt-out’
  • funding in the form of a grant from their institution, often made up of a block element and elements tied to particular projects or initiatives – this is often accompanied by a formal financial memorandum;

2 responses to “Proposed work on students’ union, association and guild freedom of expression and wider standards

  1. Who is leading this work? I’m guessing NUS but the article doesn’t actually say and the contact us button doesn’t work? (It sounds excellent and very necessary btw…)

  2. Link should be fixed now. As it says above “To progress the agenda and scope the work [the students unions involved] have asked Wonkhe to help to convene two national (focussed on England) virtual roundtable events.

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