Student groups have expressed concerns about plans mooted in the Green Paper to alter the role of students’ unions and exempt universities from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
National Union of Students (NUS) president Megan Dunn told BBC Radio London “There are some serious questions for the government around the proposals for a new Office for Students that currently don’t involve any actual asking of students’ opinions as well as obviously a rise in tuition fees linked with quality – as though paying £9,000 doesn’t mean you should get quality teaching”.
Sorana Vieru, NUS vice-president higher education, said she was “Disappointed to not see any mention of part-time education and addressing the decline in student numbers.
“This is putting a particular kind of student ‘at the heart of the system’: those who can afford higher fees and study full-time”, she added.
She also suggested “the ‘Office for Students’ sounds like something from The Thick of It”.
Meanwhile, some students’ unions have expressed concern about the implications of the Green Paper’s surprise focus on SUs on page 61 and link to trade union reforms requiring thresholds for industrial action.
Charlie Hindhaugh, Warwick Students’ Union’s education officer, said “worryingly”, students’ unions “are mentioned directly in the context of the government’s trade union reforms”.
He also criticised the lack of references to part-time students in the 105-page document:
“This is a paper which, while claiming to value ‘accessibility’, views students as a strictly homogenous block – it is targeted solely at full-time students who have come straight from school, with no mention of how mature students or part-time students will be supported”.
Tom Phipps, union affairs officer at Bristol Students’ Union, told Wonkhe:
“We are worried that this could further weaken the influence of students’ unions which began under the Major government in the 1990s. Being packaged alongside the trade union bill we fear this could limit the work of students’ unions through imposed legislative quoracy thresholds and referendums.
“The potential of exempting universities from FOI requests would also harm the campaigning aspect of students’ unions. These have been immensely useful in divestment campaigns and exposing gender pay gaps.”
Indeed, the possibility that universities would no longer be subject to FOI, in order to ensure a level playing field with private providers, has particularly worried student newspapers, which frequently use the act to hold institutions to account. Students have also questioned how exempting universities from FOI would help with openness in the sector, which the Green Paper sought to improve.
Speaking to Wonkhe, Jem Collins, chair of the Student Publication Association, which represents student publications across the country, said:
“FOI is a fundamental pillar in the pursuit of holding universities to account and we strongly condemn any attempt to undermine students’ or journalists’ abilities to probe the decisions being made behind closed doors.
“Universities ultimately exist to provide a good standard of education and serve their students, and in order for this to happen, senior management need to be held accountable for their decisions by a strong press, ultimately helping to improve the institution for all. FOI is one of the few ways that both students and journalists can do this, and the removal of this power would have a severely detrimental effect on the sector as a whole, as well as a chilling effect on the freedom of the press.”
Sabrina Dougall, news editor of Redbrick, the University of Birmingham’s student paper, called exempting universities from FOI “a terrible idea”.
“With the continual increase in tuition fees, there is a clamour among students to know how exactly their money is being spent. If universities do not allow reasonable scrutiny of their operations, then how can students’ fee payments be justified?”
“It’s also essential that universities be asked to justify that the standards of their teaching are improving, as there is a growing suspicion that universities are more interested in venue marketing, flashy building projects and courting prestige on an international stage than ensuring every student gets a great educational experience”.