Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

When the Department for Education published its proposed restructuring regime for higher education providers back in July, many were surprised to find that expenditure on students’ unions – and in particular “niche activism” and their “sabbatical officers” – had been identified for scrutiny.

There didn’t seem to be any anchoring evidence for the assertion that funding for such things was “disproportionate” and “not focused on serving the needs of the wider student population” – but now, courtesy of the Adam Smith Institute, some background has emerged.

State of the Unions: How to restore free association and expression, combat extremism and make student unions effective argues students’ unions are perceived as ineffective by students, lack democratic legitimacy, and undermine freedom of association and expression. It goes on to propose that they should be split into different components (with funding cut from the “political” stuff) and that the National Union of Students (NUS) should have to collect individual subscriptions from students.

If you have a long memory, it’s a deluxe box set of “culture wars” stories about students, with a bonus mashup of proposals that Conservative Education Secretary John Patten tried to introduce in 1993 (see page 40), and this blog from December 2018 from someone who’s now Gavin Williamson’s Spad. So does the evidence stack up, and would the proposals work?

Banning clapping

Arguably the most eye catching section of the report rounds up a series of case studies to argue that SUs have played a “critical role” in the worsening free speech “crisis” on campus in recent years:

Banning speakers they don’t like, blocking the sale of particular publications, failing to prevent or encouraging violence at meetings, seeking to approve speeches in advance, blocking the formation of free speech societies, imposing rules on how meetings should be conducted, barring certain groups on whim from freshers’ fairs, and deterring speakers by imposing complex bureaucratic procedures on them.

What we don’t get is figures on the extent to which students’ unions have facilitated debate on campus in recent years, or the hundreds of thousands of events featuring controversial speakers put on by our circa 30,000 student societies. Instead we get the same tiny handful of Spiked! case studies we always get, most of which at worst represent students attempting to balance the need to tackle discrimination and prejudice with the need to facilitate freedom of speech:

In 2018, the Manchester University Students’ Union decided that students shouldn’t be allowed to read verses from Rudyard Kiplng’s poem ‘If’… The Oxford University student union sought to censor textbooks and lectures.

Bans have been pushed on types of food (including the sale of beef at the LSE, Edinburgh, and the UEA), fancy dress (at Kent, Oxford, and Edinburgh), speakers like Julie Bindel and Peter Hitchens, registration of new student societies (including the Nietzsche Society at UCL, or the Protection of Unborn Children at Glasgow), and even bans on clapping (Oxford and Manchester) or the waving of arms at Edinburgh.

Its “Top 10” doesn’t go well. At Number 1 we have “Peter Hitchens banned from Portsmouth”. Hitchens was a postponed event, while the SU worked out how to host it safely, not a ban. Number 2 has “Banning academics from using the phrase as you know at Bath”, which turned out to be a contribution from an SU rep in a university meeting that didn’t result in a…ban. Number 3 has “Banning beef at LSE, Edinburgh and UEA”, without noting that student votes overturned initial decisions in two of the three, and at LSE we’re only talking about SU outlets. There’s a few of the old favourites in there too.

It’s really not worth debunking each of the case studies in detail – but as a guide, students collectively debating and then advocating for curriculum reform, deciding what to sell in their own shops, setting down guidelines for behaviour, deciding what to display in their own venues, or trying to find ways to make sure everyone feels included in a meeting are likely not things we ought to be especially condemnatory about.

The efforts of hundreds of UK SUs over the past month to persuade students to not breach social distancing rules over Covid-19 are thankfully not included as examples of SUs telling students what to think or how to behave.

Is “no platforming” rife? For the avoidance of doubt, the closest we have to an actual list of so-called “no platforming” incidents at UK universities is this one, hosted on the “academic for academic freedom” website. There are 139 universities in the UK, about 30,000 student societies, and 404 providers on the OfS register – but the page lists just 84 cases covering 15 years. The majority don’t concern or involve students’ unions, many involve cases where the speaker wasn’t banned or the event went ahead, and a fair number involve far-right figures or those specifically targeted by the government’s Prevent strategy.

That’s not to say that students (and indeed society) more generally aren’t involved in the criticism and attempted “cancelling” of people online – but in truth that’s an issue that appears to be pretty peripheral to students’ unions.

What a waste

A major headline in the report surrounds money – the press release points out that SUs “cost” taxpayers and students £165 million per annum, or “£225 per student over a three year degree course” (if you assume everyone is a 3 year undergraduate). For context, UK HE’s expenditure in the same year was over £44bn, so we’re looking at 0.37 of a percent.

It’s upset about the cost because tuition fees “are now effectively paid for half by the taxpayer and half by students themselves”. Does AIS know about international students? Or the rest of the UK? Or home students that pay upfront? Or commercial research funding? Or university trading income from stuff like halls or catering? UUK reckons just over a quarter of income comes direct from government.

Part of the problem is that a lot of the figures on the money SUs get are just plain wrong. To make the analysis fair, the report says that its block grant data excludes grants of serviced accommodation and university services and grants for clubs and societies. But its “highest block grant in the sample” – King’s College London SU – is listed at £6,009k. A brief glance at its accounts on the Charity Commission website show that the core grant is actually £3,576k – the rest is in “donated space from the college”. Take out the portion of the grant spent directly on clubs and societies, and we’re down to 3,194,335 – about half of the figure that it’s outraged about. Northumbria is out by £1.2m, Coventry is out by £1m, Surrey is out by £581k, Sussex by £575k, Herts by £791k, Hallam by £425k, Plymouth by £580k, Keele by £635k, West London by £650k… and a big chunk of the other figures are also riddled with similar errors.

It also says that SUs give “£4 million of financing” to the National Union of Students (NUS), and contrasts that with the turnout in elections for delegates to NUS’ annual conference (“just 3%”). But its figures are faulty here too. NUS’ published budget for affiliation fees for the year ahead is £2m for the UK, with just £1.7m coming from SUs in England. 0.005% of UK HE’s budget spent on stuff like on information and training for SU officers or research on students’ experiences – which student bodies are free to vote to be a part of or not – seems like an oddly small thing to be focussing on.

Not interested

Another key theme centres on academic representation. Here the authors argue that while universities generally receive 80 percent satisfaction rates, “barely over half” of students think that their SU does a good job of representing their academic interests.

It is true that at 56 per cent, the satisfaction score for SUs is the worst scoring question in the National Student survey – and decreased when the question was narrowed to focus on academic representation back in 2017. But what we also know is that NSS Q26 as worded isn’t understood by students – 30 per cent tick “neither agree nor disagree”, and research tells us that a sizable chunk of students think the never properly tested “academic interests” phrasing means “subjects or topics that students are interested in”.

And anyway – given all the things SUs do, expenditure on academic representation is likely to be a small proportion of the total. If we’re generously looking at a quarter of that 0.37% we might reasonably argue that 56 per cent satisfaction with something we’re spending 0.09% of university budgets on is an incredible achievement.

Leadership issues

Another significant theme in the report concerns full time, elected “sabbatical” officers. Most SUs have a group of them holding different portfolios, and most spend their time working significantly over the notional 35 hours a week supporting students, engaging with the community, leading projects and sitting on university committees to offer a student perspective. Shockingly, “average turnout is just 10.8%”.

To get to this figure 40 SU elections are analysed… from the perfectly normal year that was 2020. Some are just plain wrong – Royal Holloway for example is listed at 13% but the reality was 31%. But as a reminder, the majority of SU elections this year were timetabled to happen during the first few weeks of lockdown, which might just have had an impact on candidate and voter attention. Surrey SU is singled out as only reaching 8%, “meaning that a staggering 92% of students were ostensibly uninterested in their SU”. The figure is just plain wrong – it was actually 18.4%. It also fails to mention that for the previous few years without a global pandemic it was hovering around 30% – roughly the turnout in your average (and arguably massively more important) council elections.

Even on election turnouts of 30%, they have considerably more legitimacy and proximity to beneficiaries than almost everyone else involved in university academic or corporate governance, or indeed charity governance more generally – and given most are paid around £20k (gross) to do so, they’re an astonishing bargain.

The report pours scorn on efforts to boost election turnout, saving particular ire for “freebies for votes” initiatives from some SUs. It fails to mention how important it is for student voters and those standing for office to get a taste of representative, democratic politics – and ignores how important annual SU elections are for publicly highlighting issues of concern to students like student mental health, sexual misconduct or student loneliness.

Political campaigns

The big problem that the report associates with full time student officers is campaigning – SUs, it says, are “highly political organisations” with “little claim to a democratic mandate”. The report’s justification for this claim is a list of campaigns that a handful of SUs have run over the years – like the abolition of Prevent, decolonisation, and campaigns surrounding fossil fuels. Much more common campaigns around mental health, hidden course costs, better assessment and feedback, the BaME awarding gap or sexual misconduct are conveniently airbrushed from the analysis.

It would be easy – almost too easy – to note that a report concerned with freedom of speech seems to be keen to stop students collectively electing representatives who go on to debate, comment upon and campaign on matters of political concern to students. But again, we have to get this claim in perspective.

Students’ unions are charities that are subject to strict charity law prohibitions on political activity. If there was a systemic or endemic problem with SUs or their officers being “too political”, you would expect the Charity Commission to have formally stepped in at least once since it began directly regulating SUs in 2010. But it hasn’t. Ever.

What it has said is that comply with their statutory duties, there may be instances when it is necessary for the trustees of an SU to curtail freedom of speech if they are put on notice that speakers at events within their control infringe the rights of others or discriminate against a protected group.

In truth the commission’s only substantive interventions into the operation of students’ unions came in the early part of the decade, when alongside Universities UK and the government, it was advising students’ unions to risk assess external speakers to prevent extremism – a practice that this report now condemns.


To address the issues, the report makes 15 recommendations to address “ineffectiveness, extremist activities, and lack of democratic legitimacy” in the system.

The central suggestion is that SUs be broken up into four components, only the first three of which would be permitted to draw on university grant funding:

  • Social activities
  • Sports association (a competent already university-run in much of the sector)
  • An academic council, elected through a system of class and faculty representatives rather than centrally
  • Broader student representative councils, but with voluntary membership and without compulsory student funding

Separately, student societies would become independent from students’ unions and would be “free to set up bank accounts … without supervision by other students”. What could possibly go wrong? In almost all universities SUs act as a clearing house of support (particularly in relation to secure banking, administration, logistics, event management, and support on the assessment and mitigation of the risks associated with activities) for an extraordinarily diverse set of societies. In a tiny minority of cases SUs will make controversial decisions about their formation – but the evidence is that the system works well, and making them all separate would be a recipe for chaos.

A sensible alternative to the report’s proposals would be to legislate to ensure that student societies of all political types are treated in an even-handed way, and make SUs fund them fairly according to clear criteria. The good news is that both Charity Law and the Education Act 1994 already requires both of these things.

There are some other obvious practical problems here. It’s not at all clear how the author would prevent a student involved in the “academic council” from placing any concerns they have in the context of wider politics or education funding, or from looking at the BaME attainment gap figures in their department and drawing wider conclusions about the university or wider society. The idea that “academic” concerns can be separated from “political” concerns was impossible for John Patten in 1993 and would be impossible now.

On the assumption that societies won’t be stopped from undertaking activities, it’s also not at all clear that they would do as the authors would like. It’s worth remembering that this year’s big “no platforming” incident – Amber Rudd at the UN Women’s Society at Oxford – took place at basically the only UK university operating under the authors’ proposed model.

One of the recommendations says that “students union provision of welfare activities should not receive block grant funding from universities” because “services are not well-suited to provision by elected student politicians without necessary specialist skills”. You’d have thought that one of the co-authors – a former SU sabbatical officer at Bristol – might have noticed that his own SU’s advice centre was staffed by professional employees.

There’s also no mention at all of welfare support, or community volunteering, or widening access projects, or student media, or SU advice centres, or student shops, or part time employment for students, or loneliness projects, or housing advocacy, or employability projects, or civic work, or skills awards, or one world weeks, or interfaith activity, or initiatives aimed at improving student mental health or the disclosure of sexual assault. I could go on – but if the authors think those things would end up being cheaper, more responsive or better run if they were all run directly by HEIs, then they should probably note that they could be now – but HEIs sensibly, efficiently and autonomously choose not to.


It also proposes that the Office for Students (OfS) should become the main regulator of student bodies (representative and otherwise) in respect of both free speech and other matters – and should oversee the transition to the new arrangements proposed. Someone probably ought to point out that in September 2018 OfS found “no evidence of free speech being systematically suppressed” in universities, and CEO Nicola Dandridge was pretty positive about SUs at our Secret Life of Students event on September 17th:

I think students’ unions are incredibly important and play an extraordinarily significant and central role in the success of universities and student experience

What we can do and have done is reference the important contributions that students’ unions do make, and it’s something that we’ve been doing repeatedly, actually, and will continue to do that, and I think is clearly the case doing coronavirus as well

What we can do is say there is real value in having students’ unions, it actually makes your job easier. It enhances the student experience. Look at this. Look at what students’ unions are doing here.

That’s democracy!

In some ways the Adam Smith Institute is a refreshingly right-wing think tank in terms of its honesty. It believes in low, simple, flat taxes that encourage investment and innovation, and hence economic growth; a voucher-based education system that gives parents and schools complete freedom over how and where children are educated; and a privately-provided, publicly-funded healthcare system where patient outcomes, not NHS wages, are the focus.

“Students should make payments directly to universities, not the Student Loan Company”, says this AIS blog. “There is a risk that the courses cut will be disproportionately ones that attract pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds… But there’s nothing progressive about saddling a young person with massive debts to pay for a university education that does little to nothing to improve their life chances”. We’ve certainly heard a version of that argument before in recent months, if not the loans proposal itself.

Three MPs endorse the report. Northampton South MP Andrew Lewer says that identity politics, “woke” and “cancel culture” represent “serious threats to our freedoms as a nation. Former Chancellor Sajid Javid says that an “intolerant minority” in SUs is seeking to silence those they disagree with. And Education Committee chair Robert Halfon uses a foreword to argue that by making the “political part” of SUs voluntary, ordinary students would no longer “be required to finance political activities of which they did not approve”.

Javid and Halfon have a very old score to settle here. When they were students at the University of Exeter in the 1980s, Javid was so unhappy with the “automatic membership“ of SUs that together with Halfon he tried to take some action about it at the European Court of Human Rights – but was unsuccessful, and the right to opt out of SU membership with no detriment became enshrined in 1994 (almost no students ever take it up).

Other than those lines in the restructuring regime (and a Michelle Donelan quote that says the report raises “serious concerns”), we don’t yet know of course whether the conclusions and recommendations here represent government policy.

But it would be an odd, antiquated and mistimed hark back if they do, given the huge amount of work that SUs and their officers have been putting in to supporting students during the pandemic if nothing else. Since 1994 Conservative ministers have tended to be wise enough to see SUs as institutions which help build a strong society, and attacks on them as disproportionate and petty.

As David Willetts put it in 2007:

If we take a closer look at today’s students’ unions, it becomes fundamentally apparent that the student experience and wider society can only benefit from their continued independence from university and state control.

Student unions are often viewed by wider society as the place where Marxist-Leninists have hard-fought ideological battles with Leninist-Marxists. There are still some union members who use them as an opportunity to posture….

However, this is not typical. These days, students are more likely to have posters of Boris Johnson than Che Guevara. The social interaction and fiery political debate that went on when I was an undergraduate was – and still is – important. But students’ unions offer so much more to students and to the communities they live in.

We value student unions. We salute them and what they achieve for and on behalf of students. Without them, universities would be much poorer institutions, as would the employers, causes and political parties who take on their alumni.

The Boris Johnson bit was of its time. The rest seems pretty contemporary.

You would say that

As others have ably pointed out, in an ideal world academic rigour and decent evidence would support conversations about freedom of speech and the way our democracy is changing. These need not be excessively partisan or based on inaccuracies. This study for example is detailed and fascinating – and shows that there’s more concern from students about freedom of speech in wider society than at university. If free speech and expression feels more protected inside the university bubble, but not outside of it, why are we getting all worked up about students’ unions?

Full disclosure here – I spend a good chunk of my week supporting SUs as part of our Wonkhe SUs project, and I have a background in them. But I don’t think I’m a sector rarity when I say that I spend most weeks in awe at the work they do in supporting and representing students on the budgets they have.

As I said on the site back in 2018, I’ve worked with student activists and leaders and sabbatical officers for over 20 years – in small colleges and large universities, in institutions, SUs and NUS. And the honest truth is that I’ve barely ever met a single one with a real desire to censor ideas or stifle debate, or police speech. It’s more a desperation to avoid hurting other people’s feelings by displaying inadvertent prejudice, and a real determination to tackle the world around them:

There are the students who weren’t prepared to put up with being groped in nightclubs anymore – and had the temerity to launch social norming campaigns and behaviour codes amongst students long before universities were shamed into joining in.

There are the students who, when running their own shop, didn’t want to profit from selling The Sun. N.B. not wanting to profit from the sales – not banning it, or geoblocking the URL on Eduroam, or confiscating copies from the local Tesco. They just got together and decided through open debate what they wanted to sell to each other.

There are the students who wanted us to ask other students not to “black up” at social events, or to parade around at fancy dress events mocking people of colour or people that are poor.

There’s the student who wanted to know what to do about her “handsy” lecturer for whom women had developed avoidance techniques over 20 years.

There are the students campaigning to have some reading from talented people and thinkers that aren’t white.

There are the Jewish students who spent much of the 00s sick of having Hizb ut-Tahrir organising front societies to spread vile messages of anti-Semitism.

There are the LGBT+ students who weren’t happy that the hockey team thought it was just “bants” to play Gay Chicken on their way to fixtures.

There are the students who wanted to get through a night out without a DJ playing “Blurred Lines”, slurring down the mic that it was time for the “lads” to go “blur the lines with the ladies”, with obvious consequences.

There are the students – not studying politics or philosophy or religion – who just wanted to get through the day without having to justify their own identity or existence.

And there are the students who just wanted a heads up if their class was about to discuss something they’ll find traumatic, which without warning would prevent their active participation.

Despite all of this they do believe in freedom of speech – passionately. They just want everyone to be able to access it. They are sometimes inconsistent and hypocritical – but aren’t we all. They are beacons for disclosure and carry astonishing burdens from students inspired by them. They can use baffling and exclusionary language, creating rarified environments that seem hard to access. But how do you think they feel in university committees? Or watching Parliament? And they can be dogmatic, and difficult, and occasionally just daft.

But mainly, they just work their backside off in the service of others. I’d like to be one when I grow up, only I no longer have the energy or the optimism. They listen at 3am as students disclose sexual assaults, lead the response when fires break out in private accommodation, climb on elephants in the room in university meetings when everybody else says the emperor’s clothes are just dandy, and put in 50 hour weeks to ensure that students aren’t lonely when they arrive “at” university in the middle of a pandemic. I’ll go to my grave never understanding why some are so determined to pour scorn on them, pigeon hole them all as marxists or avoid thanking them for their service.

As David Willetts spotted and later Chris Skidmore noted, they have led the way on national policy debates, particularly around the civic university movement and on mental health, and have become an important component of the character and success of UK higher education.

Everywhere I’ve been, the UK’s SU system that they lead is the envy of the world. In the interests of efficiency, autonomy and the maintenance of standards in UK HE, they deserve the sector’s praise and protection in the coming days and months.

4 responses to “Do students’ unions waste money?

  1. To misquote some one else “ the Adam Smith Institute exists to make Adam Smith turn in his grave” –

  2. To put this article in context, Jim has been an executive officer for a SU and a director at the NUS. Just saying.

  3. I do say “I spend a good chunk of my week supporting SUs as part of our Wonkhe SUs project, and I have a background in them” in the piece, and do make those two facts you have clear in my bio on the site.

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