In the late 12th century, students at the University of Bologna were not happy. They had a number of grievances, the most prominent of which was the amount of rent they were charged for their accommodation and the general hostility of city residents. They took their case to Frederick Barbarossa, whose chief ambition was to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Identifying students as a useful ally in his campaign, he listened to their concerns and granted them powers of self-government, placing the control of university affairs in the hand of an elected dominus rector who was in charge of hiring and firing academics.
Student representation has always been caught up in politics, and its development in the UK has seen students and their reps at the nexus of major higher education debates of the past century – including discussion on student rights, in loco parentis, massification, marketisation, freedom of speech and the co-production of educational outcomes. Students have always clamoured to act autonomously, to socialise, and to help each other counterbalance the power and authority of their institutions.
Keen to tackle mental health, Sam Gyimah has raised discussion of the relationship between students and their universities, but this has also long been the subject of debate – post-war students’ union officers were older than average and in many cases had been in command of men in battle, so rules covering male and female visitors, cleaning rotas and compulsory games led students to challenge the concept of college authorities acting in loco parentis (on behalf of parents) as early as the 1940s.
And while some view the introduction of fees as the catalyst for “student consumerism”, the concept has actually been around since the 1980s. Indeed, the now established legal concept of student consumer rights happened almost by accident after the NUS petitioned the old Office of Fair Trading over the link between non-academic debt (such as debts to a university library) and restrictions on obtaining a degree. Having had their interest piqued, the Competition and Markets Authority then carried out a wider review that resolved to look at multiple aspects of the legal relationship between students and universities as service providers.
Students’ unions are an important and valuable feature of UK higher education. But the rapid pace of change in society and higher education leaves them as vulnerable as any feature to obsolescence and irrelevance. As well as examining their history, in our new paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute, we set out a series of potential future directions and adjustments to core functions already being pioneered across the students’ union sector.
We think that students’ union activities should be the subject of access and participation planning. If extra-curricular activities are a central feature of the benefits of UK higher education, it cannot be right that we know little about differential recruitment and retention in them. We think that students’ unions should develop a deeper understanding of friendship at university and its impact upon success, dropout and graduate employment rates.
To ensure that they are effective, students’ unions should consider their research strategy to become more authentically representative, seeking to engage the breadth of student demography in formative discussions about their lives, their interests and the student experience with a focus on understanding what leads to positive or negative outcomes. And their advice centres should embrace the student protections and rights agenda by clarifying and promoting new rights emerging from consumer law, supporting students to make complaints and secure redress where justified.
We also think that universities and students’ unions should collaborate on a student employment strategy to improve the range, quality and pay of part-time work opportunities taken up by students.
Ministers and their advisers should relax their tendency to judge students’ unions strictly through a student politics lens. Students’ unions have the capacity and capability to deliver student outcomes and ensure that providers do too through local accountability. Policies that recognise and encourage this rather than berate them for their social or political bravery would help.
Ultimately, in an autonomous higher education system, it is providers’ actions that can do the most to realise these ambitions. At their best, students’ unions can provide genuinely radical thinking and can move fast to respond to students – faster than any university governance system ever will. They can signal coming movements and social concerns; act to ensure the student body feels connected and valued; and be rich sources of intelligence and feedback. Universities would do well to ensure that their unions are funded properly, and that their leaders are responsive to student representation.
Jim Dickinson is the former chief of staff at the University of East Anglia Students’ Union and is currently an associate editor at higher education organisation WonkHE.