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.
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.