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.