Yes but what do students think?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

As I was working my way through my response to the Office for Students’ latest consultation on how it intends to implement the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, something irrationally irked me.

There are various moments where the document(s) use the word “policy” – just not in the way that I tend to.

OfS tends to mean rules, regulations and formal approaches to things – and it’s true that there are plenty of those sorts of documents in use in SUs.

But when I think about “policy” in SU terms, I’m usually thinking about what students – through their SU, collectively – think about things.

Going through the motions

Last year when I reviewed the hundreds of SU democracy and/or governance reviews that I’ve seen over the years, one of my observations was that the process of SU policy making tends to be sidelined, ignored or not covered.

I think that’s a shame. I’ve explained on here before why I think it’s important that students are able to discover and understand what their union thinks about their interests – it suggests an agenda, signals an organisation that understands them, and brings to life the idea that it is an organisation that will advocate for them.

For absolute clarity, I’m not talking about the process of representation. There’s plenty of SUs that make clear that the union or its officers offers students a “voice” – loads that promote that they represent students, and lots that describe the mechanisms by which they do it, or offer students the chance to influence who does it, or what is done.

But there’s precious few that reveal what the SU thinks. And in an era where student finances are right, time poverty is forcing students to make impossible choices about which aspects of the student experience they prioritise, and mental health and housing crises get worse, I figure it’s crucial that their SU makes clear what the SU thinks about those issues, what the SU thinks student life ought to be like instead, and gives hints as to what the union will be saying in the meetings and committees that often take place behind the scenes.

It’s even more important when university finances are tight. The volume of papers printed on whatever shade indicates “confidential” often means that reps playing by the rules can’t discuss what they’re going to be discussing, and can’t discuss what they’ve discussed when they’ve discussed it.

In scenarios like that, it’s important for students know what kind of approach their representatives will take – what the priorities are, what the red lines are, what rights reps will remind universities of and which cuts to courses or the wider experience that reps will oppose rather than tolerate.

But this isn’t just about communication, or remixing that post about the availability of mental health services or the union’s advice centre if students are concerned about a big thing. It’s also about how that “policy” – on anything from extenuating circumstances to access to the Library – is determined.

Resolutionary politics

The old, traditional way of making policy in UK students’ unions was reliant on passing motions. Students at “general” meetings or a version of a union council would be given a spot of training in the difference between notes (facts), believes (beliefs) and resolves (what you want the union to do), and then those meetings would debate them – with complex amendment processes and frustrating rules that assumed every proposal was either amazing or evil governing who got to speak and who didn’t.

Those resolutions would then last for a certain number of years, and there may have been a process by which students could vote to retain them to prevent a “lapse”.

It resulted in collections of disparate motions hurled together in barely updated PDFs in obscure parts of SU websites – often never read, and rarely actively acted on – unless an issue was so contemporary and threatening to students as to have barely needed the motion to be submitted at all.

But outside of parts of the Russell Group and a smattering of other SUs, the process is pretty dead. The web firms that sold SUs one of the two dominant packages helped, when they pretended an electronic suggestion box could or would revolutionise policy making. It didn’t. It just meant that hardly anyone was upvoting a suggestion that the brand of dry roasted peanuts be changed in the bar, incongruously listed alongside a detailed model motion on Palestine supplied by a national activist group.

Many SUs tried other wheezes. There have been attempts at fora aplenty. Some cling to the idea of referendums. Royal Holloway SU has a fab process where a detailed “policy inquiry” is run at least once a term on a specific issue. And lots of SUs have insight functions that can tell us what students said in the NSS or what they think about the advice centre. But there’s nothing that’s really caught on.

We could, perhaps, count officer manifestos – for those unions that haven’t abandoned them (god forbid students at least pretend to talk about issues) the sum total of the corpus of the text can tell us a lot about the student condition. But they don’t cover all the issues, often conflict within a team, and sometimes feel so off-beam in comparison to that which is in the gift of the SU to influence or achieve as to be laughable.

Who says what you says?

Add it all up and it’s a problem for all sorts of reasons. Without SU policy, it’s not clear the basis upon which an elected officer ever says anything on behalf of students other than the delegated trustee principal – I won, so trust me. And yet for many elected officers, without a detailed briefing from a staff member on the way into a committee, the sense that you might not know what to say (or if I should be saying anything) is strong – especially if the issues feel technical, or out of that officers’ personal experience wheelhouse.

And not to besmirch policy staff in SU, but even if there is a briefing on the way in, it’s not clear the basis on which your advice is developed either. It might explain key terms or the history of an issue, but officers want to know what to push for – and while some of that is about a technical evaluation of what might be possible, some of it is about the collective view of students not being meaningfully discerned or deliberated upon democratically, as the Education Act 1994 and whose values statements that everyone has democratically demands.

If there aren’t clear stances on student issues, the future of the university or what’s wrong with the public transport or housing situation, we can bet that there aren’t decent processes that allow students to influence what they are.

And if there isn’t a clear vision for the future of the student experience, it leaves many SUs in a never-ending cycle of responding to the university and its proposals, rather than causing the university to respond to students – when both should happen if there’s truly a “partnership”.

Worse still, without clear stances on less “mainstream” issue – like placements for nursing students, the policies which govern which PGRs get picked to teach, or the way in which the harassment and sexual misconduct policy fails victims – the danger is that students are not being represented at all in several scenarios, because officers just won’t know what to say.

It’s all for EU

It’s why, on balance, I’m so interested in some of the examples we’ve seen of alternative ways of doing this across Europe.

In pretty much all of the countries that we’ve visited on our European study tours in recent years, both the national unions and local SUs have permanent, dedicated policy books. Like a kind of “third leg” of the constitution, they act to guide and inform staff, officers, volunteers and stakeholders on the stance that the union has on the issues that students face.

All allow those policy books to be amended at their democratic meetings. Some allow more “contemporary resolutions” to be passed on urgent things. A number review a section every year through consultation and research. All of them use that book of stances to brief new reps, officers, volunteers, staff and stakeholders on what the union is trying to achieve in the student experience.

In Finland, Aalto University SU’s comprehensive policy document is a living, permanent part of their core governing documents – updated regularly by the rep-co – and provides a way to induct officers and staff who then develop annual plans of action once they’re elected instead of passing resolutions for “yes no” votes at meetings.

It’s a similar system at the University of Helsinki, where the SU’s policy paper is effectively the third part of the constitution, and positions AYY as a feminist and anti-racist union – with policies categorised under society, community, and education. A recent update, reflecting structural and content changes, emphasises students’ livelihood and well-being, facility, and language principles within the university. The whole thing is shaped by the SU’s Advocacy Committee, which engages in vigorous discussions to ensure the policies reflect the student community’s current stance.

In Lithuania, the national union’s collaborative policy papers represent the outputs of groups of student officers who agree to work together to develop detailed proposals around education – that are then ratified by the LSS democratic structures. Here’s the output of a dedicated assembly on AI.

In the Flemish region of Belgium, VVS describes itself as a policy organisation that annually issues opinions on current education and student issues. It uses these views to represent the perspective of all students studying at colleges and universities in the Flemish Community in external meetings, and passes them on to policymakers as advice – whether or not at their request.

The positions are always on one of the main themes of VVS – Education, Social Affairs & Diversity and International – and are regularly evaluated and, if necessary, revised. Working groups from member unions research and create the papers, which are then proposed to the National meeting for amendment. Here’s the process. Couldn’t an SU in the UK do something similar with reps, and leaders from academic societies?

The Estonian NUS does something similar – it has three working groups of SU officers – Social Policy, Educational Policy, and International. The Social Policy group focuses on student well-being, inclusion, and equality, while the Educational Policy group sets advocacy goals for education. The International group deals with global issues affecting Estonian students, and proficiency in Estonian isn’t required. There are some impressive policy documents – their platform going into the elections, their SU development plan, their student mental health development plan and their overall student policy platform, which Estonian SUs use a reference point for their own representation work.

At LINTek one of the SUs at Linköping University in Sweden, there’s a charter (like a constitution), a set of regulations/by-laws and a comprehensive positions programme that sets out the SU’s beliefs about education and student life. Students and new office holders are inducted into it, it can be amended by the council and election candidates/new officers effectively apply to prioritise aspects of it and implement parts of it. It is a big difference from the “free for all” culture of random motions and manifestos that we have in the UK.

And at the SU at Roskilde University in Denmark, the Student Council council maintains a core “statement of beliefs” that guides their work and can be amended by resolution of the annual meeting. New students are introduced to the ideas in it by the student mentors, and even new academic staff (esp senior staff) are introduced to the goals within.

At the University of Latvia, the study modernization agreement is a weighty bit of policy that aims to promote the modernization of the study process and environment at the university, aligning it with the latest trends in European higher education and science, LU’s strategy, and student interests.

The agreement specifies access to spaces (from Spring 2024, LU will develop a system allowing students additional access to study and relaxation spaces in all Academic Center buildings outside class hours), internal communication (LU will establish and implement guidelines for unified communication among students, academic, and general staff), and “e-study environment enhancement” (each course will have at least one self-assessment test in the e-study environment that does not affect the final grade, except where impractical).

Plus all students learn about academic integrity in their first semester, regardless of the study program.

At Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, the student partnership agreement is aimed at enhancing the student experience and fostering a collaborative university community, and combines both how students are represented in the university with jointly agreed commitments over the student experience.

Some previous highlights of this approach include Consent Workshops, improvements to postgraduate education, including increased recruitment targets and the creation of new programs, a student Leadership Development Framework that promotes the growth of student leaders through workshops, seminars, and networking opportunities, the development of additional indoor and outdoor spaces for studying and socialising especially tailored to postgraduate students, a new mechanism for resolving conflicts between students and the university without formal litigation, and the expansion of mental health services, academic skill development, peer mentorship, and library resources.

In Norway, STINN: The Student Organisation in Inland Norway has a standing “principle programme” which sets out the SU’s view on issues. Students can amend this at their council. The democratic structures also allow students to propose contemporary resolutions on education issues, which in recent years have included preventing blank screens during online lectures and seminars, public transport costs, the physical learning environment and the language skills of academic staff.

Then each year the elected officers adopt a series of priority issues that they believe will be particularly important for the coming period – last year they went for improved health and well-being, marking turnaround times and pedagogical literacy among lecturers.

And at Vytautas Didžiojo University students’ union in Kaunas, Lithuania, the the rules for becoming a student representative or committee member (and I’m not just talking academic) involve taking a test on – student rights, university history and procedures, and the governance, strategy and policy of the union.

It means that over 10% of the student body at the university know probably as much about the university as the average sabb in the UK does by the end of an average summer.

Effort and innovation

As I’ve noted before on here, if we compare the amount of effort and innovation that goes into reviews of elected officer roles and their portfolios in the UK with the effort and innovation that goes into reviews of the rest of SU democracy, it’s almost as if we’re obsessed with the celebs rather than the stuff that they do.

We see this during the year. SU elections are usually very high-profile – gobbling up significant budget, multiple weeks of comms time and generating their own brands and logos – while other forms of democratic input left to languish in the background.

That’s a shame. If the only thing that students really see is the pursuit of power by a select band of individuals (where most of those individuals won’t actually win a contest), no wonder students can be cynical or indifferent about “student politics”. It also means that the inevitable focus for weeks on end will be on the people that are trying to win, rather than the issues that those student leaders might need input on or need to tackle.

And it means that when we say that SUs are “democratic”, we’re often on shaky ground – because most officers are barely held to account and most democratic structures suffer from chronic under-participation. Those painful pendulum swings from open discussion forums (that nobody attends) to the formal council structures of by-laws and motions (that students say are too bureaucratic and rigid) aren’t working. But as we see across Europe, there are alternatives.

The opportunities are numerous and huge – especially for unions where the “policy person” is also the “democracy person” – or at least where those two get on.

There are golden opportunities for comms staff to promote issues rather than process, excellent opportunities for advice staff to convert casework into work that addresses the causes of cases, brilliant opportunities for officers to make clear that a whole process rather than just their brain came up with a view, and exciting opportunities to involve students in real democracy – where people resolve their competing interests, together, in public.

After all, next time the chair of the committee turns to an officer and asks “what do students think”, it would be nice to perform the mind-reading trick with some legitimacy.

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