David versus Goliath: The past, present and future of students’ unions in the UK

As students around the UK prepare to return to campus, it is worth reflecting on how they are perceived by the broader community. While often the targets of derision, this generation is facing unprecedented economic, personal and social challenges.

Throughout the history of higher education, students have formed unions to navigate the challenges faced when idealistic youth clashes with the establishment. They have used unions to advocate for each other, individually and collectively. They have developed them to enable social activity and develop skills and attributes outside of the classroom. And they have often used them to trade with each other, facilitating access to goods and services cheaply and with an ethical dimension.

Yet in truth, we know little about students’ unions in the UK. Almost every university has one, but there is a dearth of research or reliable data on their form, their role, or their successes. They are often seen and judged externally through a “student politics” lens as journalists crudely count the number of Labour MPs that have been presidents of the National Union of Students (NUS). But their contribution to civil society, business and, crucially, our higher education sector is poorly understood. Pioneering work at UCL, Portsmouth and Northumbria is only beginning to make use of students’ union archives to shine a light on their broad influence and contribution. Many of the major players in higher education today cut their teeth in students’ unions, but we would never know it.

Damned either way

They also attract criticism. Some argue that they are not radical any more, and those that are radical are unrepresentative and wasteful of (student-funded) resources. Others brand them as atypically left-wing and socially (il)liberal, helping generate a dangerous political monoculture on campus. Some argue that they have been fatally incorporated, acting as ‘dealers’ in the marketisation of higher education.

In our experience, student unions are damned if they and damned if they don’t.

But there is another side to the students’ union story. Debate over “in loco parentis” and student rights raged in the fifties. Tensions flared over the role of students in university governance in the seventies. In the eighties students and their unions were barely out of the news over debates about freedom of speech. And tensions between those who see individual advocacy through a rights-based approach as opposed to collective campaigning on the student condition continue today.

There is nothing new

To understand students’ unions – their role, contribution, critique, and opportunity – requires an understanding of their history. In our paper for HEPI, we trace the origins of student unions back to the dawn of higher education itself, illustrating that their enduring principles and core functions have always been contested yet have always been valuable to the endeavour of higher education. We cover key issues – student rights, massification, marketisation, freedom of speech and the co-production of educational outcomes- none of which are nearly as new as we might think they are.

Throughout recent history, students in the UK have built some of the most effective and innovative student organisations in the world. If we nurture them and enable them to thrive, the benefits could be huge. At their best, student unions can provide genuinely radical thinking. They can be quick and responsive to students’ needs – faster than any university governance system ever will. They can signal coming movements, issues and social concerns; act to ensure the student body feels connected and valued; be rich sources of intelligence, diversity and feedback; and be inexpensive ways of achieving positive outcomes.

Today and tomorrow

As well as looking at history, in our paper we also produce a short ‘state of play’, reviewing the status of student unions in 2018. And building on emerging practice from around the sector, we suggest future directions for student unions and others that might have an influence over them to ensure that the ambitions and opportunities they represent are more fully realised in the years ahead.

We also include suggestions for sector bodies and higher education providers. Crucially, the practice we observe most commonly in institutional cultures – the induction of student leaders into the culture, practice and workings of universities – could usefully be turned on its head. Student leaders occupy a unique position in emerging adulthood, where youthfulness mixes with rapidly developing concepts of responsibility. The best aspects of this, and the thing that makes working in students’ unions so rewarding, are remarkable.

Growing up or down?

Students are comfortable with difference and diversity. They are permanently curious, highly creative and unfailingly honest and direct with their feedback. They are full of praise, emotionally intelligent and prepared to be brave. They are focused on service to the student and always ask, ‘Why?’ In our view, these are qualities a good few university officials could do with developing. Perhaps we should do more to induct higher education leaders into that culture rather than attempting to do the opposite.

This post originally appeared on wonkhe.com. The full report is available on the HEPI website.

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