Working with, not against

Students' unions now focus on cooperation, not opposition, says Paul Greatrix

March 15, 2012

Students' unions have a long and distinctive history in UK higher education, but their character has changed significantly in the past decade.

While they have always been concerned with student representation and support, and with the extracurricular aspects of student life, they are now much more directly interested in - and increasingly involved in - the core issue of teaching and learning.

Following the lead of the National Union of Students, which has displayed a new willingness to work with the government, students unions' have shifted from a position of general opposition to change (particularly on student finance) and campaigning on international policy matters (often combined with leftist posturing), to arguing for better libraries, improved IT, more class contact and improved feedback on assessed work.

When I was a student many years ago, student unionism was primarily concerned with fighting apartheid, denouncing Margaret Thatcher and supporting the miners. Debate was passionate and it all felt massively important, but unions rarely concerned themselves with day-to-day university life. How times have changed.

A clear indication of this shift is that, for the first time, this year's National Student Survey includes a question specifically about students' unions. While I think the question asked is, in itself, not terribly valuable (students are asked to rate how satisfied they are with the support, activities and academic representation provided by their students' union), it is symbolically important, signalling the value placed on students' unions in the context of student satisfaction.

I am a big fan of students' unions. Although they can often be challenging and make life difficult for university leaders, they have a huge amount to contribute to campus life and beyond - from students in fancy dress out fundraising for charity on a Saturday afternoon, to support for student recruitment and widening participation. Of course, one of their core roles is representing the student view to the university. However, if a university's involvement with its students' union is limited to representation on committees, this can create a superficial relationship, the students' union simply pitching up each year to argue for an incremental increase to its block grant.

In my view, universities need to work much more closely with their students' unions to ensure a comprehensive, high-quality student experience. This is about collaborating to provide the services and facilities that students expect.

There are a host of areas in which close cooperation pays dividends: induction, student support services, accommodation, sport, employability, student volunteering and fundraising, to name a few. As well as formal liaison committees and the involvement of student representatives in relevant working groups, there should be regular meetings between the vice-chancellor and other senior staff and the union, consultation with the union on major policy issues, collaboration on commercial services, and the union should be treated as a university department for funding purposes.

The relationship isn't always straightforward, however. Despite the general shift in students' unions' attitudes, universities can still encounter union officers who don't know what their students think or who choose to represent only a minority opinion as they pursue an overtly political agenda. And officers are usually only around for a year, making relationship-building something of a challenge.

This is why much deeper engagement between university staff and all levels of the union is so important. A vibrant, democratically active union, with full involvement in all aspects of university life is much more able to cope with the odd year with a difficult students' union president.

And while a government-inspired student charter setting out rights and responsibilities may look like an appealing prospect in this consumerist age, without a proper partnership between the university and the union it is never really going to get past fine words.

Students' unions have always had a slightly unusual relationship with their parent institutions, defending their independence fiercely while at the same time being inextricably intertwined with their host, which also provides the largest part of their funding.

The changes arising from the 2006 Charities Act - which required unions to have separate registration with the Charities Commission from the parent university and to establish their own boards of trustees for independent oversight - have pushed institutions and students' unions further apart. The fact that the Act has formalised a structural separation of unions makes it even more important for universities to work closely with students' unions to counter this.

In return, unions have to continue to participate seriously and consistently and they need to recognise that there is significant common ground. While there will always be disagreements, these should not perturb serious partnership working when it is in the interests of all concerned.

Many who hold senior positions in universities fondly recall their days of student demonstrations, occupations and intense political debate (I know I do), but things have moved on (and poachers have turned into gamekeepers). Students' unions are more important and relevant to universities than ever before. This is not because of government policies and promises to place students "at the heart of the system", but because meaningful student engagement is central to university life.

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