Photo Credit: Rowan Gavin


It is a time of extraordinary potential for change in UK Higher Education. Labour’s promise to end tuition fees has defied the critics and united many behind Corbyn’s political project. But what will the implications for universities be if this comes to pass? And what can we do to leverage this progress? In this series, the Norwich Radical and Bright Green are bringing together perspectives from across the sector to explore these questions.

Students’ Unions are meant to defend students’ rights, fighting with and for them during their time at university and beyond. However, modern SUs are often dominated by corporate thinking, consumer culture and cosy collusion with university management. Radical, grassroots democracy is often muted or discouraged, channelled instead into more temperate, gradual and piecemeal avenues by Unions centralised in their functioning and timid in their approach.

We have witnessed the results of these toxic mentalities far too often during our time at university. From failing to sufficiently challenge universities to actually attempting to sack their own officers for running grassroots campaigns, many unions around the country are far from what they should be.

Whilst those of us that fight for the end of fees don’t like to admit it, the funding model that makes universities primarily reliant on tuition fees for income has led to some increases in universities paying attention to students, at least on some issues. These interactions are often muted, top-down, timid and at odds with what university life should be, but they do get us a foot in the door some of the time, on some of the issues. In a post-fees world, this consumer rhetoric won’t be there – SUs that have adapted and moulded their approach by cashing in on consumer tropes will need a new way of operating, one rooted in radical, grassroots, participatory democracy and activism.

One barrier to radical activism within SUs is that universities provide a significant part of their funding through ‘block grants’; decision-making can always be shaped by those holding the pursestrings. Union finance must be wrested from the grip of university managers, perhaps via stronger mandates from government that secure freedom of use for block grants and stronger student representation in financial decisions being made by universities. Alternative revenue streams should also be explored – many union bars perform at a loss, a wasted opportunity that could enable a level of independence for SUs (provided SUs keep to their responsibility of providing cheap food, drink and stationary for students). Commercially better-off SUs could also help those struggling with their finances, facilitated by NUS.

How unions operate needs to seriously change too. A series of recent reforms at Lincoln SU have seen us go from deciding policy at monthly meetings of an elected council to ‘as and when’ (i.e. much less frequent) all-student meetings, with volunteer officer reports now being voted on by the union exec instead of their constituent members. There has been a shift towards online voting (but not on ‘policy’), which has no real guarantee of representativeness or deliberation process and is controlled by the executive – they can reject online ‘SUggestions’ and ‘fast-track’ others to bypass the voting process. The effect has been to centralise democracy in the union. Almost every democratic decision is dominated in one way or another by the 5 elected full time officers, with very few checks and balances.

We need to be fighting for processes wrested free of officer control, broadening democracy and flattening hierarchies. Whilst the full time officers of a union have considerable mandates by virtue of being elected, this shouldn’t extend to allowing them to dominate all decision making. Representative bodies of students need to be meeting physically, on a regular, frequent basis, to set the direction of their unions and hold their officer teams to account. Online decision making can perhaps play a limited role in union business, but needs to create space for deliberation, be advertised well and not be controlled by a few individuals within the organisation – we should all have ownership of these processes.

The problem of the infantilisation of students, exemplified in the weakening of Lincoln SU’s democracy, is often driven by the presence of unelected Trustees on union Trustee Boards, who are sometimes even employed by the University. They are far more likely to take a top-down approach, centred on some corporate concept of a passive “student experience” and to defend their employer’s interests, sometimes in direct opposition to students. Their presence is often justified by the need for ‘expertise’, but this direct conflict of interest is rarely discussed. No Trade Union would have management representatives making up a third of their ruling body, so why should Students’ Unions?

This brings us to the problematic legal position of Students’ Unions. The Education Act 1994 delivered the first blow – it was intended to “stop students marching [against government policy] at the expense of the taxpayer”, rigidly defining the nature and purpose of SUs. It was eventually followed up by the Charities Act 2011, which in effect forced all Students’ Unions to register as charities. It is this last, most insidious legislative act that has done the most harm to the student movement. Under charity law, Trustee Boards are completely in control of SUs and can hold up all attempts to democratise process. Those in positions of authority, such as trustees, need to be directly elected by the students they represent, and their meetings need to be open and transparent. With the Charity Act now requiring all SUs to follow the same model, only legislation will be able to reverse the damage that has been done.

Charity law has three major stipulations that severely affect SUs. Charities must submit to the Charities Commission. They must not engage in ‘politics’ unless they can prove that an issue on which they are campaigning directly affects their members. They must not, under any circumstances, affiliate to any political parties or candidates. Current legislation means that students are effectively locked out of direct political representation and SUs are only able to offer up relatively toothless “pledges” that must be open for all politicians to sign (a tactic which has for obvious reasons been discredited since 2010). As soon as an officer is elected there is a concerted and deliberate attempt to indoctrinate them into compliance, terrifying them with regulations and the potential consequences of legal disputes. This hands considerable power to the union and university bureaucrats. We need to develop radical new legal models for SUs – one option is to make them into cooperatives rather than charities, so that all students have an equal share in the union and an equal say in its activities. However we replace them, inhibiting and unnecessary Trustees Boards must be discarded.

Alongside these legal problems, unions are acutely aware that all change at a university level has to be requested – students often lack actual formal power in university-wide matters, holding only a few committee positions at best. All change comes from the graces of university management, affecting what SUs feel they can ask for, how they ask for it and when, and reproducing the constant fear of ‘damaging working relationships’. This means that union reform ultimately has to take place within a wider set of changes that guarantee students (and staff) real influence over how universities operate, not just a small lobbying voice that may or may not be listened to.

Whilst most SUs still use democratic language and tell students that the union belongs to them, their actions often speak differently. A sense of ownership needs to be present in every aspect of union operations, constantly assessing whether its processes, actions and language reflect that the student body is its ultimate source of energy, power and authority. Some of this will require legislative changes in parliament, something Labour members need to consider. Some of it will require national leadership, guidance and coordination from NUS. Most of it, however, will require hard toil from activists running local campaigns. If Labour scrap tuition fees, these changes are made possible: let’s make sure we don’t miss our chance.

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