To protect students’ interests, SUs should step up their efforts on lobbying

Jack Ballingham is Opportunities Officer at Durham SU

If you wanted to describe the state of the debate around the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill since it was introduced over eighteen months ago, words like “well-informed” and “insightful” probably aren’t the first ones that come to mind.

When the Bill was originally being introduced in May 2021, the then-minister, Michelle Donelan, was rebuked by No.10 when she said that it would allow Holocaust denial on campus, something which the government denied.

In the eighteen months that have followed, government ministers, MPs, Lords and commentators have made a habit of publicly demonstrating that they don’t know very much about what they’re talking about. In the House of Lords in November 2022 a government minister justified the Bill (which only applies to England) by way of reference to an incident at Swansea University.

The case of Kathleen Stock at Sussex has been repeatedly referred to in parliamentary debates, despite the fact that it doesn’t appear that the Bill would actually have affected it anyway, had it been in force at the time.

And at almost no point has anybody for the government attempted to even address the ridiculously disproportionate duties the Bill will place on further education students’ unions.

While Lords and MPs have spent months tying themselves up in a debate that bears little more than a passing resemblance to reality, actually-existing students’ unions and their particular circumstances are being totally ignored.

Invisible students

This is a problem that is not confined to the “Free Speech” Bill – the government has repeatedly failed to consider students as a discrete group when it comes to all sorts of policy areas, including cost of living support measures and housing reform.

Perhaps the only instance in which the government has considered students lately has been the Home Secretary’s proposed crackdown on international students and their families.

As well as the obvious political drive behind immiserating students, staff and the education sector generally, the other main reason for this poor and ill-informed level of debate is fairly simple – there are very few people involved in it who know how the higher and further education sector works.

From watching debates in the Commons and Lords, it would seem that many contributors understand the entire thing to boil down simply to “Universities” with a capital U. They believe that universities do (or don’t) do X or Y, and this is bad, and therefore requires legislation. From the opposition, often, comes essentially the inverse argument – that universities are “good, actually”.

While there is certainly no shortage of academics, vice chancellors, college masters and similar in Parliament (mostly in the Lords), very few have any understanding at all of how students’ unions fit into the puzzle. We cannot be surprised that they are treated so poorly in debate when practically nobody in Parliament could, for example, describe how students’ unions are run as charities, how student societies are governed, or how external guest speaker events are actually organised.

Apart from a handful of newly-elected younger MPs, there are no members in either chamber who have been a university student in the last two or three decades.

Getting left behind

How do students’ unions tackle this astounding (and partly wilful) failure to consider their needs and circumstances? In many cases sectoral policy may be seen as “something that the NUS does”. However, the reality is that, with so many different crises facing students, their voice and the voice of their unions is getting left behind.

Many SUs tend to steer away from attempting to intervene in national policymaking. This is understandable – when the hysterical national narrative focuses on fringe cases at mainly Russell Group institutions, it can be hard to see what the relevance is at the majority of universities. While this is true, the policy that comes out of this narrative necessarily affects the whole sector. What happens at Oxbridge doesn’t, by itself, affect other universities.

However, the government responds to the former, and that affects both. The relevance might not be immediately obvious, but SUs need to stick up for their members before these laws get passed.

In the current climate it is absolutely crucial that SUs develop the awareness and capacity needed to engage with national-level higher education policy. There is no shortage of the necessary willpower on the part of sabbatical officers to take on this kind of work, but they need to be enabled to do so.

While it would certainly be massively useful for every SU to have well-resourced campaigns and policy departments to support this work, this is not always possible. What is possible, however, is for SUs to work together. Whether on the basis of region, specialism or just how interested they are, collaboration between multiple SUs increases the number of possibilities for successful lobbying efforts.

What is needed, perhaps above all, is persistence. Most student officers are probably familiar with any number of open letters sent to ministers or All-Party Parliamentary Groups. These may be a good starting point, but if change is the goal, a sustained approach that seeks out multiple alternative routes for getting SUs heard is crucial. SUs need to move beyond open letters and towards persistent, focused lobbying and engagement with the legislative process.

Tort a lesson

This is easy enough to say, but what does it look like in practice? A useful case study here is the change made to the Free Speech Bill in the Lords, which removed Clause 4 (i.e. the statutory tort) entirely.

While we can’t claim credit for this development, Durham SU has made a dent in a debate that has been mostly impenetrable for students’ unions.

The campaign against the Bill was not, initially, a particularly planned-for one (none of the officers at Durham in 2021, including myself, had stood for election with the Bill in mind). The first step was realising what a harmful Bill the original draft was – SUs need to be paying attention to legislation that impacts students, and to be brave enough to call it out when it needs it, as my predecessor did before I took office.

We took the initial opportunity to submit written evidence to the Commons public bill committee for the legislation. This is far from a silver bullet, but it offers a chance for an SU to lay out its objections and concerns in easily-legible detail. Obviously, with a government majority on these committees, submissions that government MPs disagree with are unlikely to sway much.

The actual evidence submission itself, however, is a very useful resource for an SU. It can be adapted into a briefing to send to MPs and, later, Lords, avoiding the easily-ignored lengthy email format and giving a good basis for discussion when meeting with those who are willing. It also gives a helpful document that can be used as explanation of the union’s work to its members and its university.

By making their expertise available in this way, SUs put themselves forward as stakeholders in the debate – while the “policy wonks” put the arguments well enough, far more appealing to shadow ministers, MPs and lords is a living, breathing student to talk to. The unfortunate reality is that these people don’t talk to students very often, and when an SU tells them about their circumstances and needs it can come as genuinely new information to some.

No need to worry

For many MPs and lords, this sort of lobbying will fall on deaf ears. In this process I met with multiple Conservative MPs whose main response to our concerns was simply that we shouldn’t be concerned in the first place. For some, however, there can be a real will to listen – mainly from the opposition, but also from the odd government backbencher and, more frequently, in the Lords.

We did find that some of our concerns were reflected in Labour amendments tabled at the committee – with that aforementioned government control, though, none were carried.

After the Bill cleared the Commons stages and moved into the Lords, we repeated the process of circulating our briefing and offering meetings. Uptake and interest was greater in the Lords, and with a greater inclination to table amendments this was more likely to get us somewhere. I’m a cynic when it comes to the fêted “revising expertise” and “level-headedness” of the House of Lords, but it can still be a substantially easier group of people to lobby.

In the House of Lords we found a greater willingness to listen (including from some fairly unlikely quarters). After identifying the statutory tort in Clause 4 of the Bill as one of the main sources of concern when speaking with members, the amendment that would eventually be passed was tabled by Lords Willetts, Wallace and other members.

At Durham, we involved students and student leaders in lobbying members of the Lords to support this amendment – we particularly aimed to contact members who were alumni of our own university, something which proved effective for an institution with strong alumni identity.

While one SU can’t claim a huge amount of credit for something like amending a parliamentary bill, I think at Durham we can say that we have made an intervention that has been noticed by policymakers, and has contributed to changes that will leave students a little less badly off from an overall malicious bill.

At a time when there is a myriad of legislation either tabled or on the horizon that will affect students (including the Free Speech Bill when it returns to the Commons), it is becoming increasingly important that students’ unions engage in lobbying to stick up for their members – if we don’t, there’s a chance nobody else will.

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