In a recent opinion article, Nick Hillman asked, “Is the voice of students’ unions too powerful?” (26 March). Of course there should be a discussion about the role of students and students’ unions in institutional decision-making, but the idea that the student voice is becoming too influential in institutions is absurd.
Institutions are doing more to engage students in their governance and decision-making, but for the most part this is but a listening exercise. In some instances, students and students’ unions can point to changes and tweaks that they have secured, but in reality they are not fundamentally altering the direction of institutions.
There is, thus, no case to answer at present that students are too powerful. Universities listen to students because they want to know what is being done well and what can be improved. It’s an important part of fostering a community and supporting students to direct their own learning.
As for Hillman’s point about low turnout in students’ union elections, yes, in many cases they need to improve. Fortunately, however, students’ unions don’t rely only on election turnout to foster engagement with students (course reps, surveys and focus groups are among a host of other ways to solicit and then convey students’ concerns to institutions). If we want to get shirty about turnouts, I’m much more concerned that turnout in many local council elections is less than one in five than I am about participation in students’ union elections.