Advocacy is about maintaining, upholding and enforcing people’s rights.
In the SU sector, this means advising students on their rights and advocating on their behalf – or working alongside them – to ensure those rights are upheld. It is not necessarily about standing up in front of a panel or a court – sending an email to address an infringement of a student’s rights may be equally as important, as may running a campaign to address discrimination faced by students with disabilities.
Under the Education Act, a students’ union has two functions: promoting the general interests of its members as students, and representing the generality of students in academic, disciplinary or other matters. The very essence of an SU is therefore about advocacy – promoting student rights and representing students when their rights are infringed, even though (when things are going well) many students may be more aware of the facilities, clubs and societies promoted by their students’ union.
So why do so few students’ unions have an advocacy strategy, setting out how these core functions will be achieved?
An advocacy strategy would be an excellent way of clarifying the role of a students’ union as an advocate of student rights. It would also demonstrate exactly how an SU will fulfil its charitable objects – which invariably refer to promoting the interests and welfare of students, and being a representative channel between students, a university and external bodies. Such strategy should clarify what a student’s rights are, set out the ways in which students will be empowered to take action to enforce these rights, and define how they may be enforced.
To be effective, advocacy needs to have a clearly defined purpose. There are three limbs to this – education, empowerment and enforcement. These three limbs overlap and together make up an advocacy framework.
Students may have rights as consumers (under their contractual relationship with the university), tenants, employees, citizens and members of an SU. Student advisors may therefore find themselves giving students advocacy support on a variety of topics, from academic appeals and disciplinary proceedings, to advice on money, employment, housing and general welfare.
When supporting students with these topics, advisors need to know where those rights are found. In many situations, the law will form the basic framework against which rights can be assessed and monitored. However, there are also many other places to look – including policies and procedures (of both the students’ union and the university), a Student Charter and even custom and practice, based on the way things are usually done.
Education about these rights and where they are found is therefore crucial. Advisors, student representatives and officers need to know what they are advising on, with proper training and support, and students need to know that they can come to their students’ union as a first port of call for help and support.
However, no one is an expert on everything. In many cases, the role will be to signpost students to relevant services, rather than advise directly. The sources of external support might include the NUS, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the Office for Students, the Competition and Markets Authority or even external legal advice. SUs need to know what external support is available, and what should be referred where.
Empowerment is intrinsically linked to education. Students need to know what their rights are, have enough confidence to stand up for them and have a genuine belief that their rights will be upheld.
Campaigns are a crucial way to raise consciousness of rights in particular areas. For example, we have seen a significant increase in the number of cases of sexual misconduct being referred to us by students’ unions since the #metoo campaign started. The campaign appears to have given a good number of students the confidence to bring forward legitimate concerns, by creating a safe space in which those concerns may be heard and acted on.
Representation is another important part of empowerment. An SU’s governance framework should help those students who might not be able to help themselves, by providing a collective voice on an issue. However, representation has to be appropriate and acknowledge that everyone’s voice may not be heard equally, so when setting an advocacy strategy, an SU might consider how minority interests will be taken into account and represented fairly.
An inclusive approach to advocacy is also crucial, with students playing a role in co-creating their rights. The NUS Charter of Rights and Responsibilities, issued in 1940, gave students the right to a share in the administration and government of a university. By involving students in governance structures of universities and standard setting (such as the QAA), they are empowered from the very beginning, because they have had a say in how those rights have been developed.
This may mean providing proper training and support to enable students to use their seat at the table effectively. Too often, students sit on university committees without having the full background to an issue or the confidence to take part in a debate. Where necessary, universities may need to be pressed for enough information to allow a student to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. Students are not just there to tick a box: their involvement should count for something.
An advocacy strategy should therefore acknowledge the role which students should play in creating their rights. By taking part in the advocacy process from the beginning, students will be genuinely empowered to take action to enforce their rights.
An advocacy strategy should set out the various mechanisms by which rights may be enforced, from peer support to help from professional advisors.
In some cases, students may be more comfortable talking to their peers, for example where international students come from countries where talking openly to sources of authority is not the done thing. This could be as informal as a housemate, or could be a more formalised peer-led service such as Nightline. Students providing that peer to peer support need to be properly supported and trained and the challenge for a students’ union is how to do this, particularly at the informal end of the spectrum.
Students may also enforce their rights through a process of self-help. Student housing co-operatives are a great example of this. Fed up with the vagaries of the private rental system, students take matters into their own hands and become their own landlord by setting up a housing co-op. This is an interesting development in the student housing market and one which looks set to grow in the future.
SUs and universities are vital sources of support to students to enforce their rights (although of course in some cases, a university may actually be the problem). The student representation system which is inherent to students’ unions provides a framework for the enforcement of rights. The course rep system can help students enforce their rights in relation to their education, whereas elected student officers provide a mechanism through which students can have a voice at university level via a network of committees, and also have a voice on national matters of importance to the students, such as tuition fees.
Student advisers also have an important role to play in the enforcement of rights. An advocacy strategy ought to define the function of these advisers and include guidance on how far to speak for a student, and how far to give them the confidence to speak for themselves (and the fine line between the two approaches in difficult cases).
Procedures and policies are another crucial part of the rights framework. This will include complaints procedures and disciplinary procedures, and it can often be a messy landscape to navigate, with conflicting procedures to follow depending on whether you are dealing with a student as a member of the students’ union, member of the university or as an employee.
As lawyers advising SUs, we too often see situations where internal procedures have not been followed correctly, or where the procedures are not workable in practice. We would strongly advise SUs to “stress test” policies and procedures with hypothetical scenarios, to make sure that they stand up when actually put into practice, and that you review them periodically to check that they still work. In taking action to enforce rights, internal procedures usually need to be followed before further action can be taken, so those internal procedures need to work properly. The OIA has suggested frameworks for policies and procedures which would be a good starting point when reviewing these.
Finally, external sources of support in the enforcement of rights include the NUS, the OIA, OfS, the CMA and professional advisors, such as lawyers. An advocacy strategy should help student advisors by setting out when and why they should refer to external sources of support.
Developing an advocacy strategy
An advocacy strategy should build on the statutory function of a students’ union and set out exactly how student rights will be upheld, maintained and enforced. Using a framework of education, empowerment and enforcement should help SUs to ensure all bases are covered, giving student advisors a clearer path to follow when supporting and advising students.
Wrigleys Solicitors LLP provide legal support to a large number of students’ unions in England and Wales.They advise on governance, incorporations, charity law, disciplinary and conduct issues, employment law and commercial/contractual relationships, and regularly speak at NUS conferences. This article is based on a seminar presented by Laura Moss and Alacoque Marvin at the NUS Membership Services Conference in August 2019. For more information, please see here.