This article is more than 3 years old

Once there was a war on students’ unions

This article is more than 3 years old

Mike Day is an international student experience consultant and student movement historian

For the last quarter century, student officers, have, during their induction, had their attention drawn to their responsibilities under the Education Act 1994.

It has taken on a particular status, up there with “Ultra Vires”, as something that must not been violated. 26 years on it is worth looking at where the legislation came from, what was it that drove the government to seek to restrict student union activity and try and abolish NUS; were there not in, in the early nineties, rather more important issues for the government to be tackling? Were ordinary students at such great risk? Were the abuses that some government ministers hinted at true?

Before answering the questions let’s take a leap to April 1st 1987. On this day I received a phone call from the President of People’s College Students’ Union in Nottingham. He was ringing me, as NUS’ Development Officer, to enquire about a letter his Principal had received from the local authority announcing the introduction of a “Statutory instrument” that would, in effect, require central government approval for any monies passed to students’ unions, that approval, it implied, would only be granted if students’ unions restricted their activities to a core of “legitimate” activities.

So, here it was, the long awaited, long expected attack on student union autonomy and by extension NUS; it was not thought that the Thatcher government would regard affiliation fees as in any way as legitimate. I asked the President to send me a copy and discussed the call with some colleagues. At that point an NUS executive member came down to report “rumours” she had heard about “some sort of legislation” that seemed to be focussed on the students’ unions in public sector colleges.

More calls came in from round the country; I had had a meeting with Adam Gaines, NUS’ head of research, I drew up a provisional action plan for Vicky Philips the President and finally got a call from the NUS information officer that a fax of the document in question was on its’ way. I ran to the fax machine, tore off the sheet that said “April Fool” on it, and waited for the document.

I had been had, providing a source of amusement for my colleagues for years to come. But in my defence, I had been had because, I knew and NUS knew that the attack was coming, we just didn’t know when or how or in what form. The made up scenario, co-ordinated by Sue Brighouse, the Campaigns Officer with whom I shared an office was entirely realistic. In the event it was to be seven years before the real attack came; a final battle, in a “war” that went back nearly twenty five years.

First Shots

In April 1969, NUS changed its’ constitution to get rid of what was known as the “no politics” clause which permitted NUS to pass comment on matters that went beyond education. That same conference elected Jack Straw as President, the following year Straw was re-elected on an overtly political ticket and his successor, Digby Jacks, was a Communist.

The media, on the look for a story, and somewhat disappointed by Straw’s moderate behaviour, in contrast to some of the leaders on mainland Europe, seized upon Jacks as a perfect threat from within – his “Karl Marx” type beard was a vibrant red. The media tapped into the hostility towards “student unrest” that grabbed the headlines form LSE onwards and promoted the general view that students had no business expressing their opinion on anything, recipients as they of “public money”.

At the same time NUS was negotiating with the Privy Council and Local Authorities on developing a legal status for students’ unions within their institutions that was sufficiently successful to be of great use in the battles ahead. The press agenda, along with nervous Vice Chancellors and Principals who did not want an “LSE situation in their college”, combined with the political shift within NUS threw the spotlight on how students’ unions were funded and what they could do with those funds. An NUS report quoted a letter from one FE Principal in response to a draft Constitution submitted by his students;

My conclusion is that this document was not produced at the College of Further Education: perhaps in part but it smacks too much of professional agitation and probably emanates perhaps from Essex University or even perhaps as low as some of those attending the London School of Economics. The arrogance is quite insufferable and unacceptable….what qualifications have students , to entitle them to judge teaching techniques….students are not necessary on the board (of Governors) …I would be prepared to a request for two properly turned out students to attend meetings of the Governing body…. “


The response says much about the sort of attitudinal barriers faced by FE college students’ unions, then and in many cases some thirty years later. The emphasis on students not having the right to comment is also an attitude that was run right through the attacks on students’ unions in the years to come.

NUS took the view that all students’ unions had the right to automatic membership, political independence, to have responsibility for their own financial planning and administration. NUS leaders, however, were conscious that students’ unions needed to be accountable for the public money they were given and consequently entered into negotiations with the DES on the best way to do this. But events overtook them, and a Conservative government was elected in 1970; the newly appointed Education Minister, was Margaret Thatcher.

The new Conservative government were to leap upon the opportunity to examine and change the system of student union funding. They were concerned about the recent changes within NUS and were determined to be seen to be doing something about “revolting” students. By courting a high profile and promoting itself almost as a trade union NUS ran into the line of fire, alongside the trade union movement as a whole. The government was determined to solve what it saw as the “union problem”. At that time the “Union Fee” was levied on a per capita basis and the invoice was sent to and met by a student’s local authority.

The LEAs were, understandably concerned that they had no say in the level of funding it was obliged to provide. Within the Conservative Party there were significant numbers of people, the authors of the “Black Papers” or members of the Monday Club, for example, who questioned the provision of public money for any activity let alone anything as subversive as a students’ union.

In 1971, before leaving office, Jack Straw warned of the political attack against students unions that were to come, he noted that NUS’ opponents claimed that insufficient work was being carried out on educational matters; that students unions were financially mismanaged and that students’ unions did not act in the interests of its’ members, criticisms that were to resurface in one manner or another for the next twenty years. Of course some of Straw’s rhetoric at conferences seemed to confirm his opponents’ worst fears

….The unpalatable truth for the right is that the radicalisation of the student movement has not occurred at the expense of other activities…..what they really object to is that having accentuated the class divisions in society and laid the beginnings of class warfare that we have come down on the wrong side. They hanker after those halcyon days when students used to break strikes and everyone learnt to be engine drivers….”

Funding and organisation

The government established an inquiry into the funding and organisation of students’ unions. A number of options were aired , voluntary payment, establishing a Registrar for students’ unions to oversee funds and deal with complaints; incorporating the SU fee into the tuition fee or creating a dual organisation with a separate “political wing” with automatic membership of the union for amenity facilities and voluntary membership of the other.

NUS organised a massive campaign against the proposals and behind the scenes DES officials and the CVCP were concerned that the proposals would provide the “spark” that student revolutionaries were waiting for . The student hard left derided NUS for trying to find a compromise and saw it as their legitimate right to use SU funds as they pleased , which of course played into the hands of the Government. The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Students’ Unions, a largely Trotskyite organisation stated;

The committee stands for total political independence for student unions, no financial accountability, no negotiations, no ‘clarifications’, no collaboration with college authorities. It wants Government proposals totally rejected and calls on students to fight to extend students’ autonomy and for student and worker solidarity.”

The belief in “inalienable rights” seemed to obscure the fact that whichever way you looked at it the money ultimately came from the public purse. Government battles with the unions, led to the announcement that the legislation would be postponed. It was a defeat Thatcher was not to forget.

NUS celebrated the victory but behind the scenes set about urging students’ unions to adopt a more responsible approach and to provide no hostages to fortune that would allow the government to intervene. There was an attempt to introduce a Private Members Bill on students’ unions in 1972 but this ran out of Parliamentary time. The Federation of Conservative Students was also opposed to the move, they wrote to Edward Heath;

…The left wing have, for the first time, received overwhelming moderate support in their activities against these proposals. This has serious implications for the future of Conservative Students in that we are in grave danger of losing the middle ground in student politics… .”

They impressed upon Heath that a reason for confrontation was “just what the left had been looking for”. The close association of NUS with the left and the Labour Party certainly damaged its’ credibility in the eyes of the Conservative Government who were not to forget the call by NUS to vote Labour in the 1974 General Elections , which saw the end of the Heath government.

A Labour Government appeared to give the student movement some breathing space. However, the Secretary of State for Education, Shirley Williams, was just as concerned as the Conservative’s had been about the use of public money. Led by Sue Slipman (President 1977 – 1978), NUS set about negotiating a deal with Williams that would see regulations guaranteeing funds for students’ unions in return for greater external audit and scrutiny.

All was going well until the election of the Conservative Government led by Thatcher; her newly appointed Minister for Higher Education was a former contributor to the Black Papers and no friend of students’ unions. He revived one of the models proposed in 1971 that the student union fee be incorporated into the tuition fee.

This meant that the SU fee would go to the institution rather than directly to the union. The institution would then make funds available in the form of a block grant. Boyson calculated that given a choice between funding academic services and the students’ union, the union would lose out. Certainly NUS and students’ unions ran campaigns that predicted the imminent demise of much of what an SU did.

In the event both were wrong, Vice-Chancellors and Principals demonstrated the value they placed on student run activities and, on the whole, made the same level of funds available to student organisations.

Shock Troops

Students on the right felt an opportunity had been lost. The early eighties saw the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) run by a new breed of Conservative, strident and arrogant, they hated NUS, thought that Nelson Mandela should be hanged and believed that their heroine, Margaret Thatcher was being held back by wet compromisers.

There were stories that they trashed hotel rooms, sang Nazi songs and celebrated Hitler’s birthday; the claims may not be true but it was all part of an extremely heated and hostile atmosphere within students’ unions at that time. They championed the right of students to opt out of students’ unions by withholding part of their tuition fees and claimed that institutions had succumbed to “bully boy” tactics on the part of the union when the student was excluded for non payment of fees.

They highlighted attacks on visiting ministers and spoke payments made by students’ unions to what they saw as terrorist organisations like the IRA and the ANC. The pressure, alongside a few clear cases of abuse, led to the Attorney General issuing guidelines on Ultra Vires payments in 1983, advice that is still seen as the basis for the control of SU expenditure to this day; NUS legal advice sought to ensure that students’ unions observed the law.

But this was not enough for the FCS; they lobbied the new Secretary of State for Education, Sir Keith Joseph urging him to introduce voluntary membership. In responding to these demands he demonstrated a greater understanding of the situation than they possessed, realising some of the inherent difficulties in legislating on the matter, difficulties which his successor, John Patten, was to ignore over ten years later.

A wrong impression has been given by the phraseology we use. We use the words of industrial trade unionism; in a students’ union is not the same, mercifully, as an industrial union. The only work it can stop is by itself, by its own members to its own harm. What we have in the students’ union is a provision that enables automatic membership, automatic access, to be given students at a University or Polytechnic to the facilities such as libraries and sports facilities provided by the public and I do not see how, therefore, to make membership voluntary.”

A closed shop?

To keep up the pressure the FCS published Forgotten Closed Shop which listed the alleged abuses of students unions and they found willing allies in the House of Commons who were prepared to take up the cause, Edwina Currie introduced a Private Members Bill in 1984 which called for NUS membership to be made voluntary, she followed this up with an Early Day Motion; on both occasions she made the assumption that students still paid for compulsory membership out of their own pocket, a situation that was not possible given the legislation her Party had introduced in 1980; she ignored it either through ignorance or through malice.

Conservatives were still making the claim in 1993 – 1994. Of greater significance was the publication in May 1985 of the Government’s Green Paper Higher Education into the 1990s, the paper contained suggestions for the restructuring of higher education.

The section on students’ unions gave a preview of what the Conservatives saw as the problem, it spoke of the unrepresentative nature of students’ unions, claimed that there was a proliferation of sabbaticals that were in office for years, that freedom of speech was prevented and that if these issues were not addressed voluntarily by institutions, the Government would consider looking at the current arrangements for student membership.

In the introduction to the section the paper made references to the “unrepresentative” nature of students’ unions. It was a list of the very issues that Baroness Cox and others had proposed in the Black Papers in the early seventies.

In their submissions to the Green Paper, students’ union officers and staff fought back pointing out the extent to which they were accountable and the false assumptions upon which the paper was based as well as the vital role played by students’ unions in the life of the institution. The first battle ground, turned out to be “freedom of speech”; the list of Ministers and other public figures who have been the target of student demonstrations was long, and received widespread coverage, Leon Brittain at Manchester, Michael Heseltine at Strathclyde and John Carlisle, the apologist for South Africa just about every where.

There were suspicions, voiced by NUS President Phil Woolas, that MP’s were deliberately provoking the very incidents to give them the excuse to legislate. The target of the press was the “no platform” policy developed in the mid seventies it was seen as crucial tool in the fight against fascism. The form of the policy recommended by NUS sought to deny a platform to declared racists and fascists; under Sue Slipman’s leadership, NUS had modified the policy to one of “no invitation”, but within a year of her departure Labour Students got the policy changed back.

There were, of course, students’ unions and political group who abused the policy and tried to extend it democratic politicians and on occasions, Jewish groups, which had the effect of devaluing the policy and opening it to attack. There were some Vice-Chancellor’s who were keen to show that they were doing something about their unruly students in, notably, Portsmouth, Sussex, Bristol and Reading.

The situation at Reading was highly prophetic. The Vice Chancellor sought to restrict the block grant given to the Union to what he termed “core” activities. Under pressure from the media and Government the CVCP (December 1985) and CDP (February 1986) issued codes of practice for visiting speakers. But this was not enough for some MP’s who introduced a Private Members Bill to prevent what they saw as inadequate regulations which “had too many doors through which the activist can bolt.” In the debate John Carlisle MP urged Ministers to,

Look at the funding of the National Union of Students and students’ union bodies, which as my honourable friends will know, exists on a closed shop basis. He should particularly look at the role of those who take sabbatical leave and who are, in many cases, those who are causing the trouble.”

NUS took the view that the Government should be spending time looking at ways to protect ethnic minorities rather than providing opportunities for Fascists to speak . The motion failed but, backed by Baroness Cox in the Lords, the ideas were incorporated into the Education No 2 Act 1986. The Act placed a duty upon University and College authorities to ensure freedom of speech. The CVCP were concerned about the cost of policing and institutional autonomy and secured an amendment that allowed them to refuse a speaker if the cost was high or if there was a fear for public safety.

There were attempts by various FCS groups to test the legislation, but after a while the issue disappeared off the agenda having had the effect making institutions think twice about inviting controversial speakers and not prevented Government Ministers occasionally receiving a hot reception when they visited colleges on their way to speak on the platform that had never been denied them. It was a victory for the FCS but the following year in 1987, Norman Tebbit, Chair of the Conservative Party, closed them down following allegations of vandalism, vote rigging and accusing Harold Macmillan of being a war criminal, they were replaced by the Conservative Collegiate Forum (CCF).

Back Bench Guerrilla Actions

The next phase of attack came, once again from the back benches, with Tim Janman MP for Thurrock putting a series of Early Day Motions on voluntary membership, and an amendment to Kenneth Baker’s Education Reform Bill, both ran out of parliamentary time as did other moves. However the pressure led Kenneth Baker to announce an enquiry into students’ unions.

Seventy institutions were selected, in almost all cases the college authorities passed the questionnaire to the students’ union to answer. The DES sought information on the full range of students’ union services and asked questions about students’ union expenditure and accountability; democratic participation; services offered by organisations to which the union affiliated, and finally students’ unions were asked to place market value on NUS services. It was this last section that caused most confusion.

After a meeting with DES officials NUS and SUSOC held a briefing day at South Bank University SU that sought to clarify what certain questions meant and not, as some have suggested, orchestrating a favourable response. The inquiry results were published in May 1989 and failed to produce the kind of ammunition that opponents of NUS and students’ unions had hoped to illicit. The high level of accountability for funds to the parent institution was confirmed as were requirements to operate within the bounds of charity law. This did not deter some MP’s, in succeeding Baker in 1989 the new Secretary of State of Education John MacGregor, played to the gallery by announcing that he was considering legislation on students’ unions.

A student from Exeter University made a submission to the European Court arguing that the compulsory membership of his students’ union contravened freedom of association under article 11 of the Convention on Human Rights. The European Court found against him. This was, as we shall see, to prove to be an important ruling.

Final Conflict?

Throughout 1992 Early Day Motions and Adjournment debates on students’ unions continued to be tabled; John Patten, now Secretary of State for Education, decided to take up the issue. He was, in all probability making a bid for the leadership of the right within the party and students’ unions were an issue that now bordered upon obsession. NUS got wind of discussions taking place at Cabinet level. Patten proposed bringing forward legislation that would require students to opt into services provided by students’ unions.

He suggested dividing services into core and non core and proposed that the Secretary of State define which service was which. Sport was seen as non essential, welfare essential. He argued that students (or the institution) could raise funds for non core activity, but that no public funds should go to them. NUS fees were to be met from private donation and a secret ballot was to be held every year to decide affiliation.

Any profit made by a union was to be returned to the institution, in an attempt to “market” the ideas he proposed that any saving from the funds paid to NUS and amounts spent on campaigning, which he presumably believed to be large, were to be transferred to access funds after redundancies and fees for the transfer of assets had been paid. He acknowledged that there might be problems with European legislation on “Freedom of Association” but confidently predicted that by the time it had gone through the courts NUS would be long gone.

The advantage of the proposals, he pointed out to colleagues, was to remove NUS as a voice for students. Some of his colleagues felt that the core was “too narrow” whilst others felt his proposed code went against the Tory agenda of reducing bureaucracy and red tape. October 1992 saw both John Patten and John Major refer to NUS and state their intention to legislate.

…it is only a few who get involved through the National Union of Students in supporting dubious causes of no interest to other students.”

The following year John Major highlighted students’ unions as one of the key threats to society along with the proliferation of motorway cones. By the time John Patten’s proposals, slightly modified, became public, in July 1993, NUS were ready. The THES described the announcement as;

a silly knee-jerk issue emanating from the backbenches of the Conservative party which ministers have diplomatically ignored for years. It is a pity they have succumbed now.”

The Scotsman joined in the condemnation of the plans, quoting the CVCP who saw it as “a sledgehammer to crack a nut” , it was an indication of the support that NUS was going to receive. The campaign that followed was one of the most effective ever mounted by the national union. It combined effective research and publications, with student action and lobbying alongside a highly professional and influential campaign behind the scenes.

A series of Student Charter’s were published one for students and colleges and one for students’ unions. Both pre-empted similar Government announcements and placed them on the back foot; John Major had, after all, had launched the “Citizen’s Charter” initiative in the first place, he had even suggested that lecturers be appraised by students.

The Charter, published for Higher Education encouraged student feedback at the same time as the Government were trying to dismantle the very infrastructure that supported student representation. Both NUS Charters were well received and showed willingness to be accountable for the provision of excellent services.

Sports and ents

Former NUS and SU activists offered their help which provided NUS President Lorna Fitzsimons and the negotiating team with invaluable advice and support along with vital introductions to politicians, civil servants and other decision makers. A series of joint meetings with SUSOC kept both student officers and SU staff informed and involved in the direction of the campaign. Joint strategies were developed with sports groups, entertainments interests and other areas of SU activity.

The Department for Employment put pressure on its Education colleagues by pointing the valuable role students’ unions had played in promoting “Enterprise in Higher Education”. The CVCP were, as ever, concerned about the implications for institutional autonomy. Civil servants were aware of the complex legal implications of the sheer amount of parliamentary time required to bring about Patten’s objectives.

Yet another DfE survey was issued, like its predecessors it failed to provide the ammunition it sought. Comment was invited on a variety of suggestions; that NUS affiliation be voted on annually, that such a vote had to have a minimum turnout of 33%; that there should be an audit trail on how sabbaticals spent their time. Campus unions were to be forbidden to spend money on ‘political’ activity and candidates in elections were not to be allowed to declare a political affiliation; elected officers could only hold a post for a maximum of a year.

There was a good deal of confusion over the status of trading and whether it could be considered a core activity, many feared that students’ union bars and entertainment provision were under threat. The timetable for responses to the consultation notes coincided exactly with the summer vacation, a less than subtle ploy – after NUS protests, the DfE was forced to extend the deadline.

The Education Bill was published soon after the Queen’s Speech in 1993 and to the delight of the NUS team it was introduced into the Lord’s, the very place where there was the strongest opposition to the proposals. The cross party university vote was strong and Patten’s team member in the Lords, Baroness Blatch, was not at all keen on the proposals. The Government were finding opposition in the most unexpected places, a quote from Lord Beloff sums up the tone of the Lords debates;

In the second part of the bill we have an attempted revenge by a group of small minded young people (some of whom are, alas, in the other place) who, having failed to make an impact on their contemporaries and secure election to student office, have decided to avenge themselves by destroying the institutions that gave them the cold shoulder . . . no-one takes seriously the arguments in the brief of my noble friend the Minister.”

Many in the Lord’s and the Conservative Party were taking the view that the fight was “not worth the candle” , and it was the Lord’s revolt that led to a complete “volte farce” by the Government. In January 1994 NUS negotiators held a series of formal and informal meetings with Blatch and other ministers to agree a compromise and to comment on some draft Government amendments; concessions were agreed on sabbatical tenure from the proposed one to two year terms; agreement was reached on affiliation ballots and crucially it was agreed that students should have to opt out rather than into their students’ union and a code of practice was to be agreed locally. The Government amendments were discussed in the House of Lords on 22 March 1994. The tone of this debate was very different; good sense had prevailed. In supporting the amendments Lord Walton said:

May I say how much I welcome the work that has been done behind the scenes in relation to this bill.”

The amendment was light years away from John Patten’s dreams of destroying NUS. Students’ unions had taken on the mammoth task of changing the opinions of decision-makers and building widespread support. It was a victory where:

Good sense has prevailed over blind prejudice and a distorted notion of students’ unions. We should now ensure that the student movement builds on the level of awareness we have created.”

The Act that was agreed gave legal weight to practices that were already commonplace, merely adding the right of students to opt out of membership of their students’ union. A positive benefit of the legislation was the way in which students’ unions emerged with a renewed sense of purpose as they had to be clear about why the current structures were of benefit to students and education as a whole. The truth was that students’ unions were not as extreme or as undemocratic as their critics had portrayed them.

Twenty six years on and students’ unions are at the heart of discussions on quality assurance, supporting students involved in that process and seen as key partners by institutions. It is a timely reminder of the value of student representation; the attack as made on students’ unions, had the ability to lobby, influence and call upon past loyalties not been marshalled, then students’ unions might well have disappeared.

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