Green Paper and students’ unions: nothing to see here?

As the Prime Minister made clear at the weekend, transparency is the word of the moment, both within and outside of the world of HE. In some respect, it should be no surprise, therefore, that students’ unions (SUs) also came under the spotlight in the Green Paper – yet it was a surprise to many. Recent Government policy has been relatively silent on SUs, and the Green Paper itself lacks a clear rationale for opening up the debate.

The move raises two questions: are there real problems with SUs, which simply have not been detailed in the Green Paper? And, if not, what is the Government’s motivation for including such vague proposals?

Part C of the Green Paper contains two short paragraphs specifically relating to students’ unions. The first of these recognises the important role that unions play in representing students’ views and delivering services. The second that, in the context of trade union reforms, the Government is seeking ideas on how to increase SU transparency and accountability.

It’s hard to argue that increasing accountability or transparency is not a good thing, particularly in the context of increased institutional grants to unions. However, it is important to be clear about which aspect of SUs needs to be more transparent, and why. Accountability could relate to a number of areas – service quality, income and spend and wider decision-making, are just a few examples. The Green Paper gives few clues.

A look through the sector’s consultation responses that we have collected also sheds little light. The overwhelming message from the sector is that unions are both accountable and transparent and that further intervention by the Government would not be welcome. Students’ unions are already covered by fairly extensive legislation. The 1994 Education Act sets out many requirements, including publication of affiliated bodies and financial accounts. And, as charities, SUs are covered by charity law and regulated by the Charity Commission.

The argument goes, then, that the problem must be one reported by students. Here, the data presents a not entirely rosy picture. According to National Student Survey data, satisfaction with students’ unions in the UK averages 68 percent, far lower than the reported 86 percent satisfaction with the overall quality of university courses. The range of scores is also wide. In 2012, satisfaction ranged from 95 percent at the top end to 37 percent at the bottom. Unions also face challenges getting students to engage in their democratic structures, with the turnout at elections across UK students’ unions averaging 18 percent.

However, not belittling the importance of these issues, they do not in themselves point to issues with transparency or accountability. There can be a number of reasons why satisfaction and voter turnout are often low, including a lack of awareness of what SUs do. Tight funding constraints, particularly for smaller unions, can limit what they can accomplish.

Issues with transparency and accountability have also not been raised by recent Government ministers. HEFCE’s recent decision to remove the SU satisfaction question from the NSS seems inconsistent with a Government with concerns in this area (while this decision was taken by HEFCE, BIS will have presided over it).  

So where have these proposals come from? The limited text within the Green Paper contains some possible clues. The brevity of the proposals, and the fact that they had not been trailed pre-publication suggests that it is a last-minute insertion rather than a representation of evolving Government policy. Secondly, the reference to trade union reforms suggests that the Secretary of State may have had a hand in it. He has been leading on trade union reforms personally for the Government.

As we reported back in May, there is a fraught history between Sajid Javid and students’ unions, running back to his time at the University of Exeter when he took his union to the European Court of Human Rights. ­The action came during a series of heated battles between Government and SUs over concerns about left-wing activism on campus. The debates of the time eventually led to the 1994 Act, which, although ultimately watered down, had initially sought to curb the role of SUs.

In contrast, David Willetts was much warmer to students’ unions, even before he entered the Government. And as Minister, he always treated SUs as part of the ‘solution’ rather than a problem to be fought. The approach did not go unnoticed, and it was widely assumed to herald a new era of stable and professional relations between students’ unions and the Conservative Party. However, bad feelings are still alive and evident today in some factions of the party: for example, see this recent article for Conservative Home which calls for SU “books to be opened up”.

So all of this will undoubtedly raise alarm bells for SUs, not least because of the reference to trade union reforms which have been described by the TUC as “the biggest attack on trade unions in thirty years”. A Trade Union Bill is currently entering Committee stage in Parliament, and there may have been concerns that SU reforms could be ‘tacked on’ to this – particularly if an HE Bill is not forthcoming. However, for procedural reasons, this is extremely unlikely to happen.

In response to this agenda, NUS has launched a #LoveSUs campaign to build support for the work that they do. And outside of the ‘nothing to see here’ line characterised by many Green Paper responses we’ve seen, some written responses contain suggestions for how to increase quality and student participation in their unions. Universities UK, for example, has called for robust data sharing agreements between institutions and SUs so that SUs can engage more effectively with their members; and UEA Students’ Union has proposed that unions complete a transparency and accountability return to HEFCE as a condition of funding.

So it is possible that whatever the Government’s original intention, good could come from opening up this debate, for both students and their representatives. Providing of course that the dialogue is an open one and that both sides work to understand where each is coming from. As with so many of the Green Paper’s proposals, we’ll know more when the Government publish their response in the spring.

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