Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Livia Scott is Partnerships Coordinator at Wonkhe

In Serbia, students have the right to nutrition, rest and cultural, artistic, sports and recreational activities.

In the Netherlands, when a university terminates a course, it has to do so in a way that allows existing students to complete it – as originally described.

And in Sweden, students have the right to study in a safe environment – and have pretty much the same rights as employees, given that right is in the Swedish Work Environment Act.

Over the past few years, we’ve been assembling groups of SU officers (and the staff that support them) onto bus tours of students’ unions, guilds, associations across countries in Europe – the latest one of which was to the Balkans and Austria.

And we’ve seen any number of fascinating projects, initiatives, buildings, services and schemes that students deliver in the student interest.

But on the long (and often winding) roads between university towns and cities across Europe, we’ve been researching what it is that underpins all of the impressive stuff that we’ve seen.

And having burned through SIM data at an alarming rate, we’ve come to a conclusion. Save for Scottish domiciled students studying in Scotland, students in the UK pay pretty much the highest tuition fees in Europe.

Yet in return, they enjoy pretty much the worst student rights on the continent.

What’s underneath?

In the Netherlands, if an institution’s management has become aware in any way that someone on the staff may have engaged in harassment or sexual misconduct involving a student, the university has to inform the country’s confidential inspector of education. And if any staff hear about an allegation, they have to report it into management.

In Spain, every university has to have its own ombudsperson – an independent and impartial figure (with statutory reporting duties) that is given the role of protecting the rights and freedoms of the university community – and they’re selected by students and staff.

And in Croatia, every time a business employs a student, a small amount of tax is taken from that business to fund student activities, projects and services. Students’ unions then organise public funding competitions amongst students to run everything from cultural events to induction activities.

Everywhere we go, we first start by looking at the legislation that underpins the higher education system in a given country. Some have multiple acts of Parliament and some have one. Some go into excruciating detail about the operation of faculties while others afford wise autonomy.

Some define and guarantee academic freedom, albeit often with some funding constraints and priorities – and slowly most now ensure that quality assurance (and enhancement) is carried out in a co-regulatory way through a version of the QAA.

But what’s remarkable is that in pretty much every country we’ve been to there is an entire section of their legislation on students and their rights.

Take Lithuania. There’s a minimum amount of space that has to be allocated, by law, on campus per student. Student reps have veto power in the senate, faculty councils and assembly on issues related to student interests – and if they use their veto, a special committee reviews the issues, and a two-thirds majority vote is required to override it.

In Latvia, students’ unions receive at least 0.05% of the annual university budget to run activities and representation in the student interest. And SUs have a legal right to request and receive information from any university department on matters affecting students to perform their accountability function.

In Austria, students from subject councils make up a decent proportion of every curriculum committee – ensuring that study options become more flexible, more interdisciplinary, meet their future career needs and offer the right balance of stretch and challenge.

In Poland, students have the right study programmes where at least 30 per cent of the credits are elective optionals – and when universities recruit anyone to a managerial position whose responsibilities include student affairs, there has to be consultation with the student government. Study regulations have to be agreed with the SU.

So important are the rights of students in Poland that their protests and strikes are specifically protected, with mediation rights. And in recognition that students are transitory and need assistance in enforcing their rights, every year its NUS organises a three day conference for student reps explaining both the legal frameworks and the mechanisms for using them – co-funded by the government and national regulatory bodies.

Big schools, little kids

We’ve never really been into rights for students in the UK. Pre-devolution, the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 barely mentioned students. England’s Higher Education and Research Act 2017 offered little other than Student Protection Plans that are doing nothing of the sort. Scotland’s Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 gives some limited rights to students to sit on key bodies. Pretty much all of the legislation and regulations have endless detail on how much home students can be charged, and almost nothing on what they get in return.

Probably the closest we have to rights for students is slowly emerging in Wales, where the under the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Act 2022 the new regulator will determine the effectiveness of a provider’s arrangements for supporting and promoting the welfare of its students and staff, and will be able to mandate a learner engagement code. But that’s likely to be legislation that reflects, rather than drives up support – and is unlikely to be executed in a way that a student could rely on in a complaint.

Outside of HE-specific legislation, a complex and confusing patchwork of provisions exist in theory in the legal briefing notes of expensive law firms, but barely help students in practice when there’s a problem. UK consumer protection law is supposed to ensure that students get what they were promised, but nobody seems interested in enforcing it. Equality law seems more often challenged by politicians in a culture war than enthusiastically enforced in universities. And in student accommodation, to the extent to which there’s been any consideration of students at all by officials and politicians, it’s usually been to ignore the profit-gouging asset-class purpose-built sector, and sideline the concerns of students in the private rented sector.

What students do have in the UK is an ombuds – in the form of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE) in England and Wales, and in the form of public services ombuds in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the case of the latter, there are few in the SU community that have any confidence in the way their bodies work. And while the former is well-respected, it’s a distant and “last resort” body whose “good practice framework” is increasingly ignored – operating in a system that is strategically calculated to exhaust, ignore and pay off anyone not prepared to run the Indiana-Jones style gauntlet of the often 18-month process.

In the (often-subsidised) restaurants, cafes and dining halls of the countries we’ve visited, we’ve often speculated on why it is that students get so few rights and guarantees in the UK. Luck and chance will have played a part, sector resistance (where pride in “autonomy” was frequently translated into “freedom to treat students badly”) was always around when Jim worked at NUS for a decade, and the country has for a long time felt like one obsessed with nostalgia for an era when students were homogenous, young, and at a big school.

That’s perhaps why, if we look at legislation on student organisations, while almost every European country has positive provision on role, funding and participation rights, here the Education Act 1994 was borne out of a distaste for students’ unions in an era that preposterously defined SUs as “the last closed shop” – and both the Education (No.2) Act 1986 and the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 funnel intergenerational fears about students into unworkable legislation rather than hope, pride and optimism in our young.

Some will say that any further definition of student rights is unnecessary, and that generally student surveys tell us that they are happy with their experience, and that students’ unions are afforded budgets for activities and participation rights in university governance that exceed those described above. And that may be true in the good times – but listening to SU officers describe how they’re being treated and consulted during this round of viscous cuts demonstrates the problem.

Universal rights aren’t about when there’s money around and everyone’s feeling benevolent. They’re about saying to citizens – especially those least likely to feel able to challenge others – here’s how we’re protecting you.

Best practice makes perfect

Sometimes it’s the little things. In Sweden, universities must provide students participating in, or who have completed, a module, with the opportunity to present their opinions about that module through an evaluation – which must then compile those evaluations and provide information to students about the results and actions prompted by those evaluations. It’s not “best practice” – it’s the law.

In Austria, students who are unable to study full time due to child care or similar care commitments are entitled to notify the university of the times at which they have special needs in respect of courses and examinations – and universities must take into account those needs in their course and examination timetabling, on the basis of the information supplied. And that’s a requirement – not the result of an access and participation project plan.

In Ukraine, students will soon be able to organise their study patterns to suit their specific circumstances, with the expectation that they achieve between 30 and 80 ECTS per year, allowing them to complete between three and six years, as demands of their personal lives permit. They will also be given the right to more curriculum flexibility, will be able to avoid specialising until their third year of study, and will be explicitly able to adopt an interdisciplinary approach to their study. By law, not as a result of a best practice project.

And sometimes it’s the principle. In Croatia, the country’s widely understood student standard covers basic needs like food, accommodation, work and cultural and sports activities. There’s always budget shenanigans and implementation detail to haggle over, but it at least sets out what students should be enjoying – allowing its reps to argue for programmes or allocations with confidence.

In the Netherlands, there’s a requirement that universities publish a decision-making participation scheme for students, a duty to provide financial support to student volunteers in student clubs and university bodies, and specific types of decision that have to be made with the consent of the student and staff councils that ensue. The world has not fallen in.

In Finland, students can obtain information on how assessment criteria have been applied to their grades, have the right to a safe learning environment, and have a right to a proper induction – leading to well established and sophisticated student tutoring schemes that we’ve looked at on the site before.

In Sweden, students have the right to representation whenever decisions are made or an inquiry undertaken that concerns them – and if such decisions are to be taken or inquiries conducted by one individual, a student representative must be informed and consulted in good time before the decision is made or the inquiry completed.

In Lithuania, universities must support an SU and and other organisations of students, provide premises and funds to finance their activities, and provide funds for cultural, sports and public activities of students. And in Croatia, universities are obliged to provide the SU and the elected student ombudsman with a place to work, co-finance their activities and provide them with administrative and technical assistance.

In Belgium each university has to have a Student Services Council, which separately governs student facilities (including the separate government budget line for) food, housing, social services, medical and psychological services, transport and student activities. Who would have thought that the governance and management of study programmes or estates schemes should be of a different character to governing the funding and programmes that meet students’ basic needs?

The frame game

We think it’s partly because of the way in which students are framed. Rather than the ugly idea of the institution as “provider”, universities are routinely described as communities in other countries – of which students are seen as an integral part. And universities frequently have formal obligations not just to teach, qualify, assess and produce – but to develop the social responsibility of students.

Estonia frames student organisations as helping in universities’ missions to support the development of the students into enterprising and responsible citizens. France frames students as integral members of the educational community, demonstrated through their active participation in councils. Finland explicitly describes universities’ mission to educate students in part to prepare them to serve their country and humanity at large.

This is not just about universities. Most countries give formal participation rights to students in national bodies, government committees and councils. In Slovenia, purpose-built student accommodation is defined as a public service – and while it can be run by universities, commercial companies can run it too as long as they hit key standards and they ensure the representation of student interests in management.

Students in most countries get subsidised public transport (discounts on prices that in any case are vastly cheaper than we see in the UK). Some systems incorporate preventative systematic health check-ups for students. Most give students the right to good careers support. And in countries without an NHS, students are routinely given both personal and health insurance. Given how utterly useless the NHS is for the young in the UK, there are few of us arguing positively for our system abroad.

Funding and credit systems play a part. We’ve noted here before that the UK appears to have pretty much the youngest undergraduates and the fastest completion time – via an archaic student finance system and university cultures that demand bachelors completion in three years when almost everyone else in Europe can take longer, allowing for setbacks, voluntary work and student diversity where we just don’t.

And the relative lack of institutional elitism (at least when it comes to admissions rather than research) coupled with a concern for pan-European mobility, means that pretty much every country has significantly more sophisticated (and legally guaranteed) course and credit transfer schemes than are present in the UK. Once they’ve enrolled, nobody traps students like UK universities manage to.

It’s also clear that PhD students enjoy much better rights elsewhere. Some are treated as staff and salaried. Many have the right – not a vague idea in a policy document – to switch supervisor. Many have bespoke rights laid out in law to challenge decisions and get appropriate support. It’s the sort of thing that happens when you actually consider students in your HE law, rather than retro-bodging equality or consumer law onto a sector where whose power dynamics don’t suit doing so.

What are we like?

Of course, not all of the examples above are universal, and not all of the rights are easy to enforce. All countries find that financing the entitlements they want their citizens to enjoy is hard, and most SUs in countries we’ve met argue that students sometimes get treated badly or find themselves in situations where they need the help of an SU officer.

But when we’ve been travelling around, we’ve often reflected that UK HE feels like it’s caught – between grand North American ambitions of scale, funding, and service provision, and European styles of regulation, bureaucracy and community. And we also think that even the mention of student “rights” in the UK can cause some to start muttering about marketisation and neoliberalism when what they really mean is “remember the old days when we had authority”.

In this Chronicle piece on the politics of campus protest over Israel/Palestine in the US, Gabriel Winant argues that student protest has always arisen from students’ inability to exercise meaningful sway over their institutions except through the “client” status that condemns them to a kind of conservatorship:

Meaningful deliberative participation in the governance of the campus community has been denied to students, faculty members, and staff, forcing them to shout if they wish to be heard. Then, when they do finally raise their voices, they are written off as shrill, fragile, and childish (a decade ago) or menacing, antisemitic, and terroristic (now).

When Winant argues that universities “do not compete to provide students the best possible education”, but rather to “keep their clients sufficiently satisfied”, we hear endless echoes – of those on our tours asking European counterparts whether they have data on how their volunteering schemes or committee positions or activities programmes improve the NSS or some other metric – and being met with blank faces. Because for the most part, student rights and citizenship isn’t something that has to prove its impact on recruitment or retention. It’s essential.

There are aspects of that that we think have infected our own students’ unions too. Democracy can be messy, having a wide breadth of representatives can be hard to maintain, and judging by the logos we see abroad, the need to “market” the professional “services” of the SU can sometimes feel more important than taking steps to ensure that students feel more connected their course, their community and their world – and able to argue out their interests democratically.

On each of the trips, we’ve discovered endless examples of the way in which giving students capacity, credits, responsibility and power generates positive change. We’ve seen astounding community volunteering projects, curriculum change initiatives that cause their experience to be more future-facing, and student support initiatives that start from the assumption that students want to, and can, support each other.

We’ve also asked the impressive student leaders that we meet whether the package of rights, protections and participation on display causes conflict, or encourages endless complaints. What they (and we) can say with clarity and confidence is that giving better, clearer and more enforceable rights to students is neither incompatible with academic excellence, and nor does it create an adversarial relationship between students and their university. Far from it.

Instead, treating students as assertive members of an academic community – with both obligations to others and reciprocal rights to take part, be heard, be treated well and to get what they promised – is not only an essential component of what students are supposed to get from higher education, it’s also the route to a healthier and more democratic society when they graduate, and one of the crucial ways in which higher education innovates and improves.

It’s not especially hard to do so, and wouldn’t cost the earth. On the assumption that it’s about to take office, Labour should develop a bespoke Student Rights Bill without delay.

Leave a Reply