Source: Elly Walton
Two decades ago, in 1994, the Conservative government introduced legislation limiting the remit of students’ unions: their purpose was to serve “the general interests of its members as students”. Following the Charities Act 2006, students’ unions have been required to register with the Charity Commission and have had legal restrictions placed on what they can do. Over the years, this framework has been internalised by many students’ unions and by the National Union of Students, which has promoted a raft of corporate and trustee governance structures.
However, in a new era for higher education, in which the definitions of unions and universities are up for debate, the student movement must now engage in an urgent and sober reassessment of this shift. There is now a silent epidemic of obstruction and interference from managers and trustee boards, using technical means to influence the political direction of unions, or even to censor student activity on campus. The current crisis taking place in students’ union structures is quiet, but it is serious – and it may ultimately threaten their existence.
In the past decade, many unions have scrapped or sidelined a lot of the basic elements of student democracy, such as union councils and general meetings, replacing them with greater emphasis on surveys, market research and referendums. This new model has become orthodoxy, and even has its own accreditation system – the Students’ Union Evaluation Initiative, set up in 2006, largely by the Association of Managers of Student Unions – to track and reward the progress towards it. The most successful union in the SUEI scheme, Leeds University Union, recently implemented a “jury” style system, in which 16 randomly selected students decide on policy proposals submitted by students.
The foundational claim for this model was its ability to involve larger numbers of students, with online interaction and smarter research allowing for better engagement with different demographic groups. This has largely been an illusion, and in reality, real power in student unions has fallen into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Most students’ involvement in their union is now limited to voting passively or filling out surveys – all of which is mediated and interpreted by union managers and an all-powerful trustee board, comprising elected students and unelected externals selected for their expertise.
Where democratic meetings do create binding policy, they can be overruled. The current NUS model constitution for unincorporated student unions now gives trustees power to override any democratic policy decision that “has or may have” any implications whatsoever for the finances, governance, strategy or legal status of the union.
With powers this broad, many trustee boards have become a mechanism by which managers and sabbaticals can ignore or shut out the democratic process. In April at the University of Birmingham Guild of Students, for example, the trustee board decided to radically overhaul the union’s structures in a manner directly opposed to the wishes of its student council, and to abolish officers representing female, black, LGBT, disabled and mature and part-time students, among others – simply on the basis of personal opinion. Of the guild’s 14 trustees, just four are directly elected by students.
Just last month, University College London Union voted to fund a full-time officer on a one-off basis for the newly created National Union of Students London Area, which will represent London’s 800,000 students as of this month. Despite having the money and a mandate to move forward, the trustee board rescinded the policy.
The presence of powerful boards and external trustees was supposed to be a check and balance on the power of union general managers. However, this has created a tier of external trustees whose terms of office run for several years, meaning that the only source of continuity on trustee boards comes from members with no stake in day-to-day campaigning. In many unions, these externals form long-term outlooks with the incumbent management, in the process strengthening the power of unelected managers.
Regulation by the Charity Commission is having a profound impact on students’ ability to campaign on issues in the wider world. When King’s College London Students’ Union passed policy condemning Israeli military actions and committing itself to becoming part of a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, the union’s trustee board overturned the motion and stated that KCLSU resources would not be used to implement it or to promote the BDS movement. Students seeking to campaign on this and other international issues can expect to face further obstruction in years to come.
This year, the University of London Union, of which I am the president, is being shut down and abolished. ULU’s case may be unique, but the principle is not. In a marketised sector, in which universities view themselves more and more as businesses, university managers will have no interest in the existence of independent, critical students’ unions – let alone in subsidising their activities. In this context, students’ unions have a clear choice to make: to become passive consumer-rights advocates, or to come into ever-increasing conflict with their institutions.
If the student movement is to have any hope of keeping student unionism alive, it is vital that unions reject the logic imposed on them by legislation, and fight for a new regulatory system in which students can have power not by pandering to university administrations, but by mobilising students and politicising campuses.