The state of the union

When the current Home Secretary Sajid Javid took the NUS to the European Court of Human Rights to argue that forced enrolment into the union breached his right to freedom of association, he lost.

This was in the early 1990s, when university was free. Whether the case would be resolved in the same way today, when a student’s tuition fees are a principal source of funding for their union, is a matter that cannot be known. However, what is certain that the current situation requires full and systematic reform.

No meaningful opt-out

Across the UK, there are many hard-working union officers trying to do their best for the students at their university. However, there are far too many for whom a student union position is simply a stepping stone to a hoped-for political career; the same ones who prefer grandstanding on national political issues to genuinely representing their constituents.

The turnout in elections demonstrates the disconnect between the typical student union officer and the ordinary student. Turnout is regularly below 20%: at the University of  Durham, in 2018, it fell to 15%, while in 2017 Sunderland University celebrated their highest ever turnout – at 12%. Student union officers, therefore, typically receive the first-choice votes of fewer than one in ten of the students they represent – a far cry from the democratic mandate they claim.

At the heart of the problem is forcible enrolment with no meaningful opt-out. While the 1994 Education Act may have granted a nominal right for students to opt-out, in practice the right is only symbolic: a student who exercises it will not receive their money back, nor will they receive any new freedoms, such as the ability to form societies outside the student union’s aegis. The principal result is the loss of a vote in student union elections. With a choice that is all downside and no upside, it is no wonder that few students choose to exercise this option.

With a captive audience and guaranteed funding, student unions therefore have no incentive to genuinely adhere to their members’ interests. Unlike a traditional union – or any other voluntary association, be it a faith organisation or a political party – student unions can act as they wish, secure in the knowledge that their members have no effective means of leaving.

Gatekeepers and thought-police

Not only are students forcibly enrolled in student unions, but student unions seek to further infringe students’ rights of association by controlling and imposing rules on other groups and societies. One of the common defences in the debate over free speech is that it is students themselves who are making these decisions. I am a staunch defender of the right of a student union to choose not to invite an external speaker – but that a student union should seek to impose its views upon another student society, be it the Libertarian society or the Socialist Workers society; the Friends of Israel society or the Free Palestine society, is utterly unacceptable. Even worse is when student union officers abuse their platform and powers to lead protests or boycotts against the events put on by the very students they choose to represent.

There is a wide range of measures that student unions employ to dominate the student population and enforce a campus monoculture. Though insisting on a student union representative on society committees is rare these days, student unions will insist that societies abide by a number of rules, often including the union’s no-platform policy.

Student unions also act as gatekeepers to core events, such as access to buildings or to the fresher’s fair. We witnessed an outrageous scene earlier this year when a student union officer attempted to ban a Christian Union from exhibiting on the grounds that it would be alienating. Though reversed, the incident demonstrates the power that student unions have over other societies. While it is understandable that some societies may wish to be part of the same legal entity as the student union, to simplify legal matters, ones that do not should not be barred from either core university events or university buildings – which are, after all, funded by the fees of all students.

A further concerning matter is when universities choose to fund core student services through student unions, despite the fact that unions regularly take strong political stances with which many students might disagree. Recent examples include Cambridge University Student Union’s decision to not honour Remembrance Day on the centenary of Armistice Day, or the decision by a Manchester University Student Union officer to vandalise the Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’, once voted ‘the nation’s favourite poem’. Whether or not they are representing the views of a majority of their students, it is clear that such actions are divisive and highly offensive to many. Even more worryingly, a survey last year found that fewer than half of Jewish students would feel comfortable attending NUS events.

How can it be right that essential student services, that should be open and accessible to all students, are being delivered through such politically controversial organisations? This is not simply an abstract moral issue. Particularly when it comes to matters such as mental health services, there is a very real danger that a depressed, vulnerable or suicidal student could delay seeking help due to their understandable differences with their student union. Universities may in some cases wish to work with their student unions – some students may feel more comfortable with a service run by students. But it is essential that alternative provision of equal quality is made genuinely available to all who desire it, a requirement of the 1994 Act currently more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Programme for reform

Over the last four decades, successive governments have systematically reformed the union movement to make it more genuinely democratic, via measures such as individual opt-in and turnout thresholds for strike action. As the highly successful UCU strike earlier this year demonstrated, these measures do not prevent industrial action from occurring, when this is based upon legitimate grievances with genuine member support. But they do prevent unions from being hijacked by active minorities of malcontents, intent upon disrupting the ordinary lives of others. Over this period, student unions have remained largely unreformed, a situation which must change.

A minimum programme for student union reform should include:

  • No automatic enrolment. Students must explicitly opt-in to membership of the student union.
  • Any student who opts out must receive a refund on the appropriate portion of their student fees – or, at a minimum, these must be retained by the university to fund alternative services, not given to the student union.
  • Any student union that falls below 50% membership would lose any automatic right to representation on university committees or university dialogue. In such circumstance, the university would be expected to actively engage students more broadly to fulfil the relevant condition of registration of  the Office for Students.
  • A minimum turnout – perhaps 30% – to be imposed for all student union votes that would significantly impact other students. At a minimum, this would include the election of officers, the passing any resolutions calling for changes to course timetabling or curriculum, and any disruptive actions such as sit-ins.
  • All students should be free to form societies of their own free association, outside the auspices of the student union, and subject only to requirements that they comply with appropriate governance conditions – such as having a bank account and a constitution. Such societies should enjoy full access to core events such as freshers’ fairs and to university buildings and facilities, including those operated by the student union.
  • Student unions and student union officers to be forbidden from using student union resources – including mailing lists, student union premises or social media accounts – to campaign, coordinate protests or organise boycotts against any other legitimate student society.
  • Universities to fully comply with their duties under the 1994 Act, and provide full, equally accessible alternatives to equal quality services to those funded through the student union, particularly in areas involving support to vulnerable students, such as mental health services. No student to be disadvantaged in terms of access to services due to student union membership.

Some people will argue that there are more important challenges facing students. No doubt other equally well-meaning individuals argued before 1867 that there were far more important challenges facing the poor than the right to vote, and that focusing on poverty and health care were higher priorities than extending the franchise.

But student unions claim to be the voice of students, the democratic voice of universities. Accordingly, they require full and systematic reform, to ensure they genuinely represent their constituents, and to ensure that those students who reject them can exercise their rights to full and free association free of student union dominance.

16 responses to “The state of the union

  1. Wow, what did your SU do to upset you 20 years ago?

    If SUs had even-more-inconsistent funding from year-to-year, so many of the good things they do would have to be curtailed. Research across all students and collating their views – even those who didn’t vote – would be much more limited, while universities panic and set up competing similar functions. It would cost way more but contribute nothing more overall. Students would clearly be the losers.

    By the same argument, anybody who doesn’t vote in a general election could insist their taxes shouldn’t be given to the Treasury but should instead go into a special ‘didn’t vote’ fund where the Government would allocate those taxes to other similar government-type functions run by separate organisations. (Hold the jokes about privatisation of schools/hospitals for another day.)

    SUs have their faults – who doesn’t? – but your proposals aren’t going to improve things for students.

  2. Easy opt-out – yes, by all means. But requiring an explicit opt in will effectively disenfranchise those students who don’t get round to it, of whom there will be plenty. That’s hardly going to help anyone.

    Why would it be helpful to the student body to have the university in charge of recruiting students to university committees rather than the students’ union?
    It would mean those students would not have any structure behind them, and there would be no means for the average student of holding them accountable.

    What would you suggest you do if you don’t get a minimum turnout on elections? Just not have officers? Or expect the previous ones to continue? Again, I can’t really see how that helps anyone.

    These sorts of procedures will destroy students’ unions’ ability to do anything meaningful because they would not be able to plan year on year. That won’t help anyone.

  3. Very clearly the back-of-an-envelope manifesto of someone who has never been responsible for actually running and maintaining student societies, never mind an SU. Does Iain know how difficult it is for a bunch of students to independently open a ‘society’ bank account without SU support? Or independently negotiate access to University facilities without the SU as a verifying body?

    And anyone who suggests it would be helpful to create two parallel student welfare systems which don’t communicate and reinforce each other, inside the same university community, is displaying astonishing ignorance about how such systems actually function.

    Iain, your frustration with SUs is clear. But none of what you’re proposing solves any of the concerns you outline. Rather they undermine what Students’ Unions function at all.

  4. Have earlier responders not noticed the democratic deficit and financial unravelling of the NUS? While there are some exceptions, Iain Mansfield’s general contention that student unions require reform is pretty much unassailable.

  5. Your comment would be improved, Bradbury, with a cursory understanding of the difference between NUS and SUs

  6. Remember that a “disruptive action” like a “sit in” can be organised entirely without anything resembling a “students’ union” at all – and very often is already, because SU bureaucracy can be as slow as at any other big organisation – any number of individual students can just sit down where they like without the need for an officially recognised organisation. So such legislation wouldn’t prevent a single protest in practice – indeed, it might encourage them.

    The trades union legislation is a poor analogy (even if you accept that preventing protest is a good legislative objective), because there are major differences in legal rights between an official and unofficial strike that make it very risky for employees to just not show up one day. Students have no such protection regardless of who constitutes the protest – beyond the potential risk to public opinion if the university expels them – so the “active minorities of malcontents, intent upon disrupting the ordinary lives of others” could carry on regardless of your suggested (de facto) ban on students unions.

  7. Hey! I’m an officer and trustee of Manchester Metropolitan Students’ Union. I’m really interested in your perspective and I’d challenge you to speak to SU staff, officers and trustees. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how effective they are and the difference they make to their members’ lives. I did want to comment on a few of your proposals for reform from my perspective.

    I think they are largely impractical and unenforceable. As others have commented, what is to be done if the magical (and seemingly arbitrarily chosen) 30% turnout isn’t reached? If an SU is dissolved because students opt out, how are student representatives on committees chosen, if not democratically? What makes you think that I’m using the comms team my SU has to constantly undermine my own membership?

    I’d also challenge you on your forced opt-in option. Many of the students at my University are the first in their family to go to University. They, and their family, have no conception of what an SU is and what we offer (such as independent advice for just about any problem). Do you not think we are setting students to be placed in very precarious circumstances by asking during enrolment if they would prefer their contribution to their SU (about £52 per student, per academic year) to be refunded or redistributed? Is this a fair question to ask someone who may have never set foot on a university campus? Many of our members use the advice, support and student voice services (and our semi-independence from the University’s governance) we offer out of necessity; because they need help with understanding the disciplinary process or because they need to resolve an academic dispute or because they need to report sexual violence.

    Given you are a governor of a University, you have every right to speak to your University’s SU and understand it some more. What troubles me is why you haven’t already.

  8. Andy, excellent points, clearly argued on the basis of experience. The need for support from the union is often only seen at the last minute in the workplace: how much more true will this be for students, particularly as you say those from wp backgrounds.

  9. As a current sabb at Trinity Saint David Students’ Union I am bemused, yet curious as to how you have reached these conclusions.

    I’d first of all like to echo colleagues above in reaffirming that our Students’ Union has helped countless numbers of students in times of need and many of our members have benefitted from the services we provide, whether that be playing sports on a Wednesday, to supporting them through academic or non-academic casework issues.

    Regarding your points, I have to agree with Andy above in saying that your solutions seem to be arbitrarily spawned from an ill-informed perspective. I’d be very interested to discover the level of your engagement with the SU at the institution you are a governor of. My fellow governors at UWTSD certainly do not share your viewpoint in terms of our SU and recognise the work we achieve in the face of a difficult, fluid and sometimes hostile sector caught in the perfect storm created by your government.

    I too, am curious to understand the rationale behind your 30% benchmark and assume that this figure was reached through considered consultation with multiple stakeholders within the sector, including students and SU’s. Perhaps this seemingly ‘one size fits all’ target does not reflect the diverse nature of the sector as a whole, with more and more students nowadays choosing to study in ever more diverse methods – distance learning, work-based learning, part-time study, two-year courses etc. How would one suppose that an institution with a disproportionate amount of the aforementioned demographics can be benchmarked fairly against a Russell Group institution with a well-funded SU, the ‘traditional’ 18-25 year old, live on campus demographic?

    Regarding SU’s having their membership on committees ‘revoked’ for falling under a ‘50% membership’ target (again, any rationale for this nice, round number?), how would you suppose universities then engage with the student body in order to comply with the necessary legislation and quality assurance procedures? Do universities want or need to be taking up this extra mantle in addition to their existing roles? Have you even asked them?

    As for the old freedom of speech chestnut, I assume you’ll be scrapping the PREVENT duty so that extremist speakers will be allowed to exercise their libertarian right to freedom of speech? Just asking, don’t refer me to the watchlist plz.

    It also strikes me as more than a tad ironic to be lectured on reform and governance by a member of the Bath Spa Board of Governors, whose institution paid its Vice Chancellor £800k in their final year. But perhaps that’s just me.

    Happy New Year, perhaps your resolution can be to pop into your SU and have a chat with Ryan. You can probably get a campus map from reception to find your way there.

  10. Some of these proposals seem a little daft and SUs need the contributions of all students to successfully operate for the benefit of all and provide the great services and opportunities they can. I’m not sure about the author’s experience of SUs but it’s miles apart from mine if officers see election as the fledgling steps towards a political career – Russel Group maybe, less so post 92. That being said I’d whole heartedly agree that they’re in desperate need of reform and having recently worked at one I should know. Senior staff and officers lived in a bubble where incompetence and self-congratulation were rife while hard work, critical assessment of performance and effective representation / engagement of the vast majority of the student body was sorely lacking.

  11. This reads very much like someone from BIS/ DfE wrote it, i.e. no real understanding of how SUs work in practice (or arguably even in theory). This is an unhelpful piece, which spouts rhetoric and undermines the excellent work that SUs do to help students every day. As has been said, your ‘manifesto’ does not appear to address any of the issues you have highlighted. Instead of these poorly thought-out, and rather destructive, steps to reform, I think Universities and their SUs need to work closer to improve engagement from students with the SU. Why is voter turn out so low? Why do students sometimes have little understanding of their SU? And what can providers and SUs do together to change that? I don’t think reducing funding, encouraging opt outs, and replicating processes/systems are the answers somehow…

  12. You designed TEF – I think that’s all that needs to be said about you, and how much you really care about students

  13. Hi Iain,

    Interesting read, although I think on behalf of many of my colleagues across the SU sector, the SU you describe is not one I recognise. I would be keen to hear your thoughts on how Huddersfield SU operates – would you like to come for a visit and see what we do?

  14. In much agreement with the above statements!

    Just as a point of clarity, your article starts on a false premise, it is an exaggeration to say Sajid Javid took the NUS to the European Court of Human Rights and lost. All he, and some other students, did was fill in an application to take a case against the United Kingdom to the ECtHR. This application was was deemed ‘manifestly ill-founded’* and the case never even had the strength to reach the court for a judgement.

    Interestingly this is an error replicated on one of Sajid Javid’s profile…

    *A case is deemed ‘manifestly ill-founded’ when an application does not disclose any possible ground for establishing a violation of the ECHR. Usually when an applicant makes wholly unsubstantiated allegations or makes allegations which even if proved would not amount to a breach of the Convention.

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