Students need more influence. Here’s how we get it

Huma Hasan is co-President at the University of Law SU

Students’ unions and their national bodies have historically been a powerful force advocating for the rights and welfare of students in the UK.

But recently, the student movement has been inefficient in addressing the pressing issues students face.

They are challenges that are compounded by government policies that have exacerbated the financial and social burdens on students.

I think it has been ineffective in advancing student interests for three main reasons.

The first is fragmentation – different groups pursuing different agendas. This lack of cohesion makes it difficult to present a united front.

A report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), for example, argues that that divergence in priorities among SUs dilutes the overall impact of their advocacy efforts.

The second is disconnection – between students and their unions, between SUs, and between SUs and their national body. Low turnout in SU elections and apathy towards SU activities are often pointed at.

A survey by the Office for Students (OfS), for example, highlighted that less than 10 per cent of students felt that their unions effectively represented their interests regarding financial issues.

The third is marketisation and reputation – where students’ unions are afraid of, or unable to raise issues of concern to students for fear of damaging either their institutions or the UK’s reputation.

An article on Wonkhe, for example, includes numerous examples of student representatives being directly or indirectly silenced over matters of concern to students.

Widely felt

The UK government has played a substantial role in exacerbating the challenges faced by students – many of which have been growing over time – and many of which are near-universal.

The tripling of undergraduate tuition fees in 2012 to £9,000 per year, and subsequent increases, have placed an enormous financial burden on graduates. The average student now graduates with over £50,000 in debt – and recent “stealth” changes mean that students will now, over their lifetimes, be paying more for less.

Students are struggling with soaring cost of living, which includes accommodation, food, and transportation. The recent HEPI study on a minimum income for students found that the average student’s maintenance loan – which has not been going up by inflation – does not cover basic living costs by over £5,000 across the UK. This forces many students to work in employment to make ends meet, which in turn impacts their academic performance.

There is a huge mental health crisis among students. Despite increasing awareness, mental health services in the NHS and within universities have not kept pace with demand. Universities often require external diagnoses to access support for new mental health conditions, which students cannot get due to long waiting lists in the NHS and exorbitant private healthcare fees.

And the shortage of affordable housing for students has reached critical levels. Across many cities in the UK the rental market is astonishingly expensive and competitive. Quality of living is often substandard in rented student accommodation with high rates of mould, unsafe housing and otherwise unsuitable living conditions.

Deeply felt

But this isn’t just about headline issues. Many students experience regulation or policy change related to their subject – and students have little influence over those decisions, often made by professional and regulatory bodies.

There are real gaps in policy over the benefits system, or how public transport is planned and regulated. Students are impacted by decisions taken over employment regulation, and were often forgotten when it came to Covid financial support.

How is it that the Westmister government’s childcare offer has been allowed to include full-time students? Where is the government’s promise on Sharia-compliant student finance? Why is so little being done to address student mental health and the failings of the NHS?


Whether big or small, these are issues impacting millions of people – so why haven’t they been getting the attention they deserve? Why are students always forgotten?

If we compare what’s done in the name of students to other welfare advocacy groups, it becomes clear that we have fallen behind in advocating for students.

Other welfare groups, such as those advocating for pensioners or low-income families, have been more successful in lobbying the government and securing beneficial policy changes.

Pensioners, for example, have consistently received protections and benefits adjustments that reflect inflation and cost of living increases. Benefits for welfare have kept pace with cost of living increases – but student benefits have taken a real time cut in government financial support.

Many welfare advocacy groups deploy professionals and researchers to effectively navigate the political landscape. UJS is doing this very effectively, recently having spoken to the Prime Minister to lobby for support in the fight against antisemitism. UKCISA is effective at communicating concerns about the immigration system – at least on the detail. RCN and Unison’s Nursing Students sections have been successful in lobbying for changes to expenses. And so on.

In contrast, we often rely on elected student leaders – without actively lobbying politicians to make the necessary changes. And we tend to channel our hopes and efforts through a single body – which will always struggle to convey the breadth and depth of the issues that students face.

So what should change?

I don’t think this is about conferences or constitutions. It’s about what we do to get our voices heard, our experiences understood, and our priorities acted on.

First, with a new government on the horizon, the student movement needs an influencing plan. Public campaigns are important – but a plan to influence all government departments and their agencies, offshoots and regulators is essential.

Second, that plan should not only depend on NUS. SUs have officers and staff that can and should be able to step up and represent on many of the issues that students face. If a new government is coming, it’s important that as many people as possible take on responsibility for influencing different parts of it. The student movement’s influence should not depend on NUS’ budget alone.

Third is that we need more engagement – with each other and with NUS. It is not impossible for NUS to hold more online meetings on everything from healthcare students expenses to housing regulation – and for those to result in detailed proposals and agendas to go to government and regulators.

Fourth is that we need a campaign for a proper statutory footing for students’ unions. Too many of us feel we can’t do or say things for fear of funding cuts. A new government should do what so many other governments do – give their students’ unions minimum rights, support and funding.

Fifth is that we all have to do everything we can – in difficult circumstances – to get students out to vote in this coming summer election. But more than that – we should be telling them to write to, engage with and lobby the candidates vying to become an MP. The more we get into their inboxes, the more they’ll consider our issues once there is a new government in July.

And finally, we should activate our societies into lobbying. At the University of Law, we’d love to work with BPP and universities’ Law academic societies to influence issues over accredited exams, widening access to the profession and the cost of legal text books. In a diverse higher education sector, we should harness technology to allow hundreds of campaigns to flourish rather than a few.

Some of those activities would represent a divergence from how we have operated in the past, and some will need changes to workplans or job descriptions. But it’s essential that we change the way that we influence – or we risk yet another Parliament that thinks it’s OK to ignore students altogether.

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