Is the voice of students’ unions too powerful?

As the National Union of Students conference in Glasgow begins on 27 March, Nick Hillman ponders if the student voice is becoming too powerful in universities

March 26, 2018
Woman with megaphone
Source: iStock/Alamy

I am cowering as I write, for my views on how best to listen to students may not be popular.

Let me start with the less contentious parts. Of course students should help set the priorities of their universities. For instance, the complaints that students with black and minority ethnic backgrounds are being let down by traditional curricula and a lack of diversity among academic staff are too loud and persuasive to ignore. It is just one reason why higher education conferences only come alive when students present their views.

I also think students are lucky to have the current leaders of the National Union of Students. The government is crazy to treat anyone with any connection to students’ unions or the NUS as persona non grata. The NUS president Shakira Martin is a born communicator with profound empathy for her members. As a white, middle-aged man, I may not speak with much authority but the way she has passionately stood up for black students, Jewish students and others has been impressive to witness. The student movement would be hard pressed to find another such effective advocate.

I even accept the arguments of the National Audit Office and the new minister for universities, Sam Gyimah, that students should have real consumer power. Choosing a course is one of the most expensive and important decisions in life. Buyers should be well informed, looked after properly and receive what they have been promised.

There are harrowing stories about what this can mean for academics and, as with everything in life, there are downsides as well as upsides. But the growing consumerisation, exposed yet again by the recent strike, is not overall or wholly a bad thing.

No truly successful university or policymaker ignores the “student voice”. Some of my own organisation’s most impactful publications – on topics including students’ mental health and cross-subsidies from tuition fees to research – have been written by students. They have brought insights that others have missed. So, individual students’ unions should be celebrated, students should have decent representation on university governing bodies and politicians of all stripes should seek to work with the NUS.

But, at this point, the argument about student power usually veers off in a silly direction. It is widely assumed that the student voice should be amplified and empowered so that it becomes at least as significant as the other interests inside a university.

Mark Leach, the founder of the Wonkhe website, has recently called for: “joint democratic participation in leadership and management, with equal membership for students, academics and professionals”.

To many people, that may seem uncontroversial. But there are lots of reasons why it is not sensible.

First, students go to higher education to grow and mature. The majority of new undergraduates are barely adults and have little idea about how to protect and run organisations with turnovers in the hundreds of millions of pounds. Whisper it quietly, but the benefits of students becoming involved in university management can be greater for the students than for their institutions.

Second, while the cliché about learning being a partnership between the instructed and the instructors is undoubtedly true, it is not a partnership of equals. You would not enter higher education if you already knew as much as those who teach you. The flow of resources, whether from taxpayers or fees to universities and academics, merely reflects this reality.

Third, most people are at university for only a brief period. This limits the contribution they can make and it affects what they care about. Students are short-termist, when it is their institutions’ long-term futures that matter most. Surveys show that students want resources spent on the here and now and not, for example, on new buildings.

Higher education applicants, in contrast, like seeing half-built new facilities because they know they will reap the benefits. So reserving a high proportion of leadership and management responsibility for students could reduce the interests of other important groups, including future students.

The best way to improve student representation is not to change power structures but to raise levels of participation in existing structures – in particular, by improving the woeful turnout at students’ union elections. In 2015, just one-in-six students bothered to vote for their representatives.

Boosting the voice of students inside their institutions should happen only once we are certain that students’ elected representatives truly reflect the settled will of their student bodies. Otherwise, there is a risk of putting unrepresentative students obsessed with arcane points of students’ union politics, elected by a tiny part of their student bodies, into important leadership and management positions. That would be a nonsense.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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Reader's comments (3)

Of course there should be a discussion about the role of students and students' unions in institutional decision making, but the idea that student voice is becoming too influential in institutions is absurd. Yes, institutions are doing more to engage students in their governance and decision making, but for the most part this is largely a listening exercise. In some instances, students & SUs can point to changes and tweaks they have secured, but in reality students are not fundamentally altering the direction of institutions in any dramatic way. To that end, in my view there is no case to answer at present that students are therefore too powerful. Universities listen to students because they want feedback on what is being done well, and what could be improved. It's an important part of fostering a community, and supporting students to direct their own learning. And as for the point about turnout in SU elections, yes in many cases they need to improve but fortunately SUs don't just rely on election turnout to foster engagement with students (course reps, surveys, focus groups and a host other ways to listen to and then convey the student voice to institutions). If we want to get shirty about turnouts, I'm much more concerned about the fact that turnout in many local council elections is less than 1 in 5, than I am about SU election turnout!
Please... https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/nov/29/bath-university-vice-chancellor-says-she-is-not-embarrassed-by-468k-pay-controversy https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/26/plymouth-university-fire-spending-hundreds-thousands-pounds/ https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/bangor-universitys-250000-make-over-11393937 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/university-financial-health-check-2017-future-prospects https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/nov/15/six-uk-universities-break-advertising-rules-with-pitches-to-students But yes, students are "short-termist, when it is their institutions’ long-term futures that matter most" and it is only management who care about future students. And of course staff elections to University Council always has such high-turn out... As for the lines "The majority of new undergraduates are barely adults" and the silly directions and arcane points they make, have you been in a University Committee recently?
What would you suggest to increase student voter turn out in SU elections? Because I'm sure that any support universities wants to offer their SU's to achieve this would be greatly received! You make some valid points but descend into nonsense at the end of your article, you begin by saying all the things that SUs would agree with, yes students should be involved in decision making, and then somehow attempt to relate this to excessive students' unions power? Perhaps you should be looking more internally at how universities can effectively engage students to meaningfully add input, surely there is a role for the university to play here in coaching students on how they can make change at these higher levels, the answer is not to dismiss the student voice, or more accurately to your point, dismiss students' unions. This sounds like an article written by someone who has an agenda to get rid of SUs, not someone who wants to embrace the student voice meaningfully.

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