The voice of students' unions should be celebrated

Student representatives are essential to institutions and any power they have is hard-won, says Ben Vulliamy

April 10, 2018
Student voice

In an article titled "Is the voice of students’ unions too powerful?" published 26 March, Nick Hillman shares his views on student representation. It’s the sign of a good piece that it provokes discussion and Nick engaged with that well throughout the subsequent social media debate. He even challenged my union, the University of York Students’ Union, to write a reply about how we achieve an election turnout that is twice the national average. I will come to that, but first I must challenge some of the other points Nick made.

I was flattered but bemused that the piece implied that too much power sits with elected officers and students. Our members do not feel that way. In fact, much more commonly they suggest we don’t challenge the university enough and that the university doesn’t respond with substantive action.

Although prefixed by some positive endorsement of students’ rights and the quality of individual student leaders, the article questions the legitimacy of the student voice based on three key propositions. Nick argues:

  • That students are “barely adults and have little idea about how to protect and run organisations" and that "the benefits of students becoming involved in university management can be greater for the students than for their institutions”.
  • That the partnership between students and universities is “not a partnership of equals”.
  • That the transient nature of students undermines their contribution. He states: “Students are short-termist, when it is their institutions’ long-term futures that matter most.”


It’s remarkable to claim students’ naive minds are ripe for teaching quantum physics, medicine or economics but sufficiently undeveloped to contribute to a discussion on, for example, a fair and sustainable way to price accommodation. But that is one example of the sort of issues that our student representatives have engaged with this year. 

Apart from the fact that this argument is deeply patronising, it seems to perpetuate a view that institutions are not willing to engage with and listen to more diverse voices and needs.  

On the second point, I’m not sure what the concern is that the partnership is not one of equals. Nobody argues it is. Partnerships often more effectively bring together a diversity of opinion, experience or ability. The partnership between students and universities isn’t designed to be one of equals. Nick need not be alarmed by engaging with people who are different to him in outlook.

On the third point it is fair to say that students frequently feel frustrated by the pace of change at universities. Nobody would argue that universities consistently share the dynamism and hunger for change of their students – but this should be celebrated. Students’ willingness to secure positive outcomes for future generations is an asset, not a threat. 

At York, the first purpose-built teaching building (the excellent Spring Lane Building) was constructed after four years of student representatives asking for it. I have also seen an increase in counselling provision derived from work on a mental health strategy that three generations of union officers contributed to.

Nick concludes these three points by arguing that part of the solution is increasing election turnout – which he calls “woeful” – citing that in 2015, only one in six students bothered to vote for their representatives. 

Strangely, he doesn’t seem to articulate a concern that university management are selected by a comparatively minuscule and substantially less diverse body. 

So to answer Nick’s specific question to me, York enjoys almost one in three students voting. This makes us around twice the national average. In all of the last six years we have secured at least one in four students voting. This is achieved using targeted and tailored communications, youth engagement insight, digital innovation and positive application of citizenship principles about "giving back".

And our elections are tough. The hustings, the media interviews, video manifestoes and the intensive campaigning all make for a challenging scrutiny of policy proposals and character. 

But it is not the election that makes representatives effective and helps them articulate the views of students. It’s the research and data, the training and development, the surveys and focus groups, the course reps and liberation officers, the student media, the debates and conversations they have every day on social media, outside the library, in the bar and at the bus stop.

The quality is measured by the difference they make in the job. If Nick is welcome to come and see how we run our elections, but I think he would learn more by meeting our officers after they have spent a summer building the skills and relationships that help them to be effective.

Ben Vulliamy is the chief executive of the University of York Students' Union. 

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