Our sector: Crisis what crisis?

Mark Southwell (former Education Development Worker) & Bill Howe (former Student Advice and Development Manager); both worked at Leeds Metropolitan University Students’ Union in the late 90s and early 00s. In this classic article from the AMSU Agenda archives, Mark and Bill reflect on the past and predict the future. Did their predictions come true?

In this article we are going to offer some of our thoughts on why there is a need for students unions to evaluate their aims and objectives, to reflect upon the idea of what a students’ union should look like as we approach the 21st Century.

In our view students’ unions are increasingly becoming irrelevant to their membership. There is, we believe, a widening between the union as ‘representational body’ and the union as ‘social space’, an increasing gap between the rhetoric (that students’ unions are representational organisations) and the reality (that they are commercial enterprises).

So what is the evidence for our claims?

Firstly, students’ unions are a product of a particular period in British twentieth century history. The cultural, economic and social milieu that brought them into being has been irrevocably lost. We believe students’ unions, their objectives, the values that inform their work and the structures that define involvement are archaic, inflexible and need to be re-defined.

This erosion of relevance has led to a steady decline in the number of students who become involved with the democratic and committee processes of the unions. There are some notable exceptions, but overall the percentage of the student population who vote in elections is in decline, many unions have difficulty in engaging their members in their committee structures – few now regularly hold quorate General Meetings.

There are a number of reasons for this. The first is the decline of participation in formal politics throughout western Europe since the 1950’S. Some of this is to do with the end of the large-scale ideological conflict, associated with the cold war, but there are other reasons too.

Ewen MacAskill (The Guardian – 23/6/98) has argued that the reasons “people will not participate in formal politics are deep seated and permanent, to do perhaps with changes in life style and the balance of private and public space in peoples lives”.

This cultural shift has seen the emphasis in politics move from big political parties and union structures towards single issue campaigns, towards more inclusive and creative modes of working together. One only has to look at road protesters for a brilliant example of how political involvement is being re-defined. Their campaigns include such a variety of social classes, age, gender and ethnicity. The issues they contest have relevance beyond one group, but that isn’t all, significantly what distinguishes them is how they campaign. This may include forums like Public Inquiries and even demonstrations. But it also includes digging tunnels and living in trees. It includes the ‘Critical Mass’ cyclists; who gather in large numbers to cycle around most of our major cities every month slowing down rush hour traffic. It includes the ‘Reclaim the Streets’ protesters; with their party ethos and moveable feasts of sound systems, stalls and costumes. It is a form of involvement that is issue based, self defined and celebrates diversity.

Our view is that it is this creative use of lifestyle; the claiming and redefining of public and private space, with its emphasis on the individual and participation, which is where political involvement is being redefined. It is here, at the nexus between the individual and the organisation, between the values that inform a unions work and activities and services it provides, where students’ unions have failed to adapt and change. In other words, it is our view that students’ unions have failed, and are continuing to fail, to operate a holistic manner towards their membership.

They are failing because there is no recognition of the contradictions between exploiting their membership through the entertainment’s, bars and shops they provide whilst facilitating campaigns against the Governments’ new funding arrangements and student debt. If students’ unions are to survive in the next millennium then they need to cease treating their membership as products or consumers and engage them in symbiotic relationship that is responsive to their needs and desires, one that recognises, rather than denies, their individuality.

The second reason we believe that unions are failing to engage their membership has at its core the same root cause as the first; that unions are failing to consider their membership in an holistic way. Our view is that unions have failed to adapt to change in response to the demographic changes in higher education. As we have argues above, when students’ unions were initially established the population of higher education was predominately white middle to upper class males. The aims and objectives, the structures and values, that informed the creation of unions were a reflection of those white middle class men. Over the past 30 years we have seen significant demographic changes within higher education that challenges the homogeneity of the student population and make it increasingly difficult to define the archetypal ‘student’.


The expansion of higher education in the 1980’s with its subsequent demographic changes to the student population, the changes in learning and teaching strategies, along with the recent changes to student support and the introduction of fees, has changed what we mean when we use the term ‘student’. ‘Student’ does and will increasingly mean someone who is female, someone from an ethnic minority, someone who began their course in their late 20’s and above, someone who is disabled, someone who has worked, who has grown up and lives in the community where they study, someone who already has a system of support networks and social activities in place before they enter higher education.


This is the challenge facing students’ unions as we reach the millennium. How do we engage such a diverse range of individuals, with such a complete range of needs and desires? How do we speak to people, many of whom dismiss the students’ union as irrelevant to their study in higher education, in a way that offers more than consuming beer in our bars? How do we engage people in activities, which we promote as developing ‘key skills’, when, in all probability, they already have those skills? How do we increase participation when we ask people to attend meetings with interminable agenda’s and where they will witness the tedium of political hacks scoring points off each other?

These, for us, are the key questions that students’ unions face as we reach the millennium. They are the questions that many have continued to ignore, ostrich like, for over a decade. They are the questions that cannot be ignored much longer, if students’ unions are to survive in what we euphemistically call, the ‘market place’, that is now higher education. We can only welcome NUS’ initiative to engage unions in a debate about their future.

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