Students’ unions in the higher education marketplace

Megan Dunn, NUS president, on the need for universities and students unions to work in partnership

August 3, 2015

Student leaders are no strangers to the dilemma of whether to stand up for values that sit outside the mainstream and risk being labelled irrelevant, or work within the system in which we find ourselves and risk being perceived as complicit in the debasing of the mission of higher education.

An article published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, reported in Times Higher Education, highlights the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quandary faced by students’ unions.

The authors found that although the 10 students’ unions sampled staunchly critiqued the notion that students are consumers, a number of them were also running club nights and shops as a way of enhancing their independence from their institution, practices the authors viewed as consumerist. The authors concluded, rightly, that it is difficult to sustain one set of values in a system that is set up to encourage a quite different way of thinking.

I think there is more going on with students’ unions’ battle to work in partnership with universities than meets the eye. Such partnership challenges academics and universities to think about issues of power and authority in the classroom. It asks them to think about the immeasurable value to students and wider society of a higher education that includes opportunities to be critical about your own learning and the environments in which it takes place.

Older forms of student representation were based on the premise that students had a useful contribution to make as members of academic communities. Those forms assumed that, by and large, academic and student interests were in reasonably close alignment.

The market paradigm not only assumes that academic and student interests are at odds but ensures that this is what happens. It sets up relationships between students and higher education institutions that are based on extraction of value on both sides. In a market, students pursue good-quality learning experiences, while universities pursue their reputation. Student voice is only useful to institutions insofar as it contributes to their goals of looking good to the outside world (and to prospective students).

Partnership attempts to create a space where students and academics can pursue shared intellectual projects and goals despite a wider system that puts them at odds with each other.

The authors of the British Journal of Sociology of Education article do not make distinctions between students in general and the leaders of students’ unions as organisations, for whom these tensions are far more pressing. Consumer systems require that the interests of the consumer be represented and protected, particularly where there is such a striking power imbalance as is the case between universities and students.

For us to say that students shouldnt be treated by their institutions as “mere” consumers is not the same as pretending that we are not operating in a marketised environment. However much we may criticise that environment, our responsibilities to advocate for and represent students are inexorably informed by our larger context.

As such, the forms of partnership working between students’ unions and institutions – of which there are many fine examples – should not be confused with the forms of partnership that may flourish on academic courses. I would like to see more formal partnerships between students’ unions and higher education institutions whose terms make provision for the development of local partnership across all courses and learning spaces in the institution – as we suggest in our Framework for Partnership published, appropriately, in partnership with Universities UK.

It is also worth noting that students’ unions operate on a not-for-profit basis and subsume profits gained from running bars and shops back into the wider mission to represent and engage students. A pound of profit in the students’ union shop is guaranteed to come around in the form of student representative training, funding for student-led societies or campaigns.

So I will continue to advocate for partnership between students and academics and between students’ unions and institutions.

Every time I meet a student or staff member who has the passion and drive to create a different kind of education, and doesn’t just passively accept that students must now only be consumers, is a win on its own for me.

Megan Dunn is president of the National Union of Students.

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