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The 1994 Education Act and students’ unions

It is now twenty years since the 1994 Education Act, an important moment for students’ unions and the higher education sector at large. Much has changed since, both inside the student movement and outside where perceptions of students and representation has been constantly evolving. Alex Bols takes a look at the last 20 years of evolution and how it might inform the next 20 years of students' unions.
This article is more than 9 years old

Alex Bols is Deputy Chief Executive at GuildHE

It is now twenty years since the 1994 Education Act, an important moment for students’ unions. Much has changed since, both inside the student movement and outside where perceptions of students and representation has been constantly evolving.

1994 Act

For those involved in students’ unions, the 1994 Act is thought of as a key moment in setting the status and direction of students’ unions.

It all started with John Major’s speech to Conservative Party Conference in 1992 – shortly after they had won a fourth consecutive General Election. After a decade of reforming trade union law he saw students’ unions as the next target, saying:

And we’ve already blown the whistle on one of the last bastions of the closed shop – student unions. The days in which they march and demonstrate at the taxpayer’s expense are numbered.

The resulting Bill proposed a voluntary membership approach to students’ unions – something that already had a significant impact on students’ union membership in Australia.

Following a vigorous campaign by students’ unions – but working closely with many in the university sector – the proposals were eventually watered down by the time it became law in 1994. The law gave students the opportunity to opt out of students’ unions, something that only a handful of students have taken the opportunity to do in the years since.

The Act however set in law the role and purpose of students’ unions as promoting the general interests of its members as students. So whilst the Act was clearly a success for students’ unions based on the starting point of the legislation, it also enshrined the idea that students’ unions should be supporting their ‘students as students’ i.e. limiting their ability to campaign on national and international issues such as the miners strike or apartheid.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of any particular debate there will always be arguments about how loosely we interpret this definition of affecting ‘students as students’ and the educational role in engaging with such debates. There is little question that the Act limited the scope of activity in many students’ unions, although a more sophisticated approach is generally charted today that allows for the facilitation of a broad range of positive activity inside and outside of unions.


It is worth considering that this twenty-year period also covers not just the introduction of tuition fees, but also other initiatives that have also affected the relationship between students and their institution including the introduction of the national student survey, student charters and the KIS.


Over this period the higher education sector in England has taken initially tentative, and then more purposeful steps, towards a marketised system with the 1998 introduction of full-time undergraduate fees, increased in 2006 and then again in 2010.

Following these earlier reforms we began to see the emergence of consumer-traits among students with year on year increases in the number of students making complaints and appeals, campaigns surrounding assessment feedback turn-around times and even protests at some universities about the number of contact hours that they receive.

In this time, three big changes are marked out for their significant impact:

1. The introduction of the Student Written Submission into the QAA’s Institutional Review in 2002 which encouraged students’ unions to invest in a well-researched and evidenced submission.

2. The registration by most students’ unions as educational charities after the removal of the exemption in June 2010, meaning that they had to report on their activities to the Charity Commission and be held accountable for these objects.

3. Following the review of public information and the development of Key Information Sets was the introduction of a new question into the National Student Survey asking about satisfaction with their students’ union.

These developments have happened against a backdrop of a 46% decrease in commercial revenue in students’ unions in the ten years to 2007. This meant both a reduction in income in many students’ unions but also increasing reliance on their institutional ‘block grant’ and therefore greater expectations by institutions about how that money would be spent.


With these changes afoot, there are different types of students’ union activity and therefore ways in which they could develop.

Below is a crude matrix to help identify characteristics of students’ union activity in the broadest of terms.

Along the bottom y axis is the focus that students’ unions place on different activities from representation at one end, to commercial activities at the other.

Along the x axis we have the changing relationship of students with their institution and unions – with the dichotomy of students as partners or consumers, and used the resulting quadrants to create some broad typologies of students’ unions.


In the bottom-left quadrant the union focuses on commercial activities and treats their students as consumers – broadly described as a demand-led service provider. This approach is attractive because the union provides services that students want, but does raise the question of whether they are providing something that no other organisation could do.

For a students’ union that is more focused on representation activities – top-left – but still broadly considers their students as consumers it could become an organisation akin to a consumer rights champion.

Indeed there have been occasions in the last couple of years when the Minister has suggested that this is most appropriate route for students’ unions and NUS to take. However, this feels a fairly passive approach – where students point out things that are going wrong but have little involvement in identifying ways to solve the problems.

The third group looks at students more as partners in their education experience whilst also working with students to develop their commercial activities, which in turn provides financial support for educational and representative activity.

The difference in approach between the two lower boxes is that both would run student bars and events etc. but one might be more focused making a profit, where the other would be more values-driven, and so might tend towards driving initiatives like a minimum alcohol pricing, or enforcing strong equal opportunities policies.

Finally what many people might consider ideal is a students’ union focused on representation and engaging students as partners. However, even this example is not perfect and often the most-engaged students will still want more from a students’ union that just this type of activity.

An ideal students’ union may have some of the features of the different groups strategically balanced to provide students with what they want and need, whilst also breaking new ground.

However I would suggest that most success comes when that strategy is mostly weighted to the right-hand side of the chart. With further changes coming to higher education and students role in it – such as shifting concepts of the ‘student interest’, it will be interesting to see how students’ unions evolve and adapt to the next 20 years.

This article is based on a speech given at the Leadership Foundation’s Student Experience Network on Thursday 26th June 2014.

4 responses to “The 1994 Education Act and students’ unions

  1. Good stuff, generally- although the impact of EA94 as a restrictor is often overstated, as it is here- “students as students” was always more a Charity Law issue and was the subject of clear regulatory guidance by the Attorney General as far back as 1983 (“Guidance on Expenditure by Student Unions” appears in the Charity Commission annual report of that year). The definition of SUs in EA94 was about catching them all, not restricting their activity.

    I think the piece tends to come off the rails at the Matrix section- largely because it appears to almost completely ignore student activities (the original purpose at least of English SUs), but also because whilst partner-consumer appears to work as a continuum, I’m not sure commercial-representation does.

    Perhaps more importantly, I’m growing weary of the denigration of so called consumerism in the sector. Alex is right to point out that the “consumer” approach doesn’t involve rolling sleeves up and participating in solutions- but I’m yet to meet a student whose seminar room heating is off, or whose lectures have all been shifted to another campus, that wants to get involved (and thus share the burden for) failure.

    In my view the very best unions won’t veer toward the right hand side, they’ll straddle both- demanding and monitoring minimum delivery standards, whilst participating and nurturing partnership over the academic endeavour.

  2. Wholheartedly agree with Jim the matrix ignores student activities and the consumer relationship students have with their institutions is nkt sophisticated enought to call for a focus away from SUs as consumer champions.

    The real weakness through is this misnomer of “commercial services”. Shops, bars, laundrettes, travel. All theze servics were developed to meet the needs of local student communities. To think of these services as purely commercial misundertands them and their role in the historic and modern campus.

  3. Great to get the discussion going. As ever 1,000 words and a diagram will only ever be a relatively crude model and as you say doesn’t capture the important role of clubs and societies in students’ unions. But whilst a crude dichotomy I wonder whether anyone has done any research into whether changing expectations of students has impacted on clubs and societies? Has there been a change in the type of students getting engaged in these activities? Does a student that joins a society to flesh out their CV in the third year interact in the same way as a first year? Are different types of clubs being created to meet different expectations?

    I suppose the second point that it would be useful to add is that as the number of providers of higher education expands – many with less experience of traditional students’ unions – that it is important that they are supported to consider the purpose of student engagement rather than just ticking a regulatory box. Many alternative providers have quite innovative ways of engagement but this isn’t true of the full diversity of this part of the sector and we I hope this discussion helps their considerations.

  4. Mal,
    I agree that the commercial role has typically been around local student communities, but Charity Registration has meant that there has been a need for diversification, and a need for the so-called commercial operations to become more commercial – old models that serve the needs of students, either at a loss or at more extreme subsidy, have drifted away really: see the amounts of SUs that have closed their travel shops, bars and clubs in recent years.There has also been a diversification into either having commercial operations that serve bodies outside the student body (at profit), or a move into other forms of operations for students that fit new needs – such as letting agents, bike hire and repair, etc.

    Typically the moves have been for the commercial operations to still fit with the students as the primary target market, but this isn’t necessarily so, and the commercial services either have to make money, or increasingly get shut down.

    Problematically for the SU movement – the closure of even under-performing commercial services does call into question the independence of the Union: can it truly be independent of an institution, and a voice to power, when often £1 million + is coming directly from them?

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