The Imperfect University: Students and their Unions – Part II

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Changed days indeed

(As with the previous offering I suspect I’m going to be challenged on much of what follows.)

Part I of these two pieces looked at the changes in the National Union of Students as it almost completely changed its campaign foci to concentrate much more directly on supporting students on local issues shifting from oppositionalism and international policy concerns, occasional leftist posturing to more direct positioning on student experience matters.

Changes in many students’ unions seem to have taken place in parallel to these developments and as universities across the country continue to adapt to the brave new fees-driven world, all are seeking to respond more to student demands as identified through, among other things, the National Student Survey and looking to NUS for support on such matters.

A recent piece in the Huffington Post suggested that at the same time as student activism had been supplanted by ‘lad culture’, students’ unions had failed too:

lad-culture-screen

The decay isn’t only down to students. Student Unions are now anything but ‘Unions’. They are failing to protect the interest of students, nurture a hot bed of intellectual activity or help co-ordinate any meaningful student activism. Today, student unions are just shopping malls designed to extract money from the ‘student market’ and political apathy has made student democracy nothing more than a beautified popularity contest.

Are unions today really just shopping malls? Far from it. Whilst all unions have different characters, strongly conditioned by the local institutional context in which they operate, many have changed their approach in last decade or so from campaigning on external, national and international issues to being much more focused on the direct interests of students in their own institutions. Students’ unions have always had a slightly unusual relationship with their parent institutions as well – arguing and defending their independence fiercely while at the same time being inextricably intertwined with their host, which also provides the largest part of their funding.

A core role of unions is representing the student view to the university. Rather than revolution the consequences of student rebelliousness which ran from 1968 onwards resulted in much stronger representation on various university committees and this principle of representation has been sustained in all universities even across different governance models (within the UK).

However, representation in itself is insufficient. Having student members present at Senate and governing body meetings has arguably allowed universities to believe that this was the full extent of engagement with the union that was necessary. This can result in students’ unions being undervalued and having only superficial engagement with the university, largely confined to pitching up each year to argue for an incremental increase to the block grant. This is no longer adequate.

Another dimension of this lack of genuine engagement is the phenomenon of the naïve indulgence of the less productive examples of student behaviour, demonstrations, occupations and the like. This stems from a misguided and anachronistic 60s liberalism which views student campaigning activity as being just part of growing up (which of course it was for the overwhelmingly middle-class students of that time). However, this is really a failure to see the value and contemporary significance of the students’ union.
nus logo

A similar attitude is often seen in relation to union-run commercial activities, including bars, shops and catering outlets. This can all be happily ignored while such provision delivers good services to students and useful surpluses to the union. However, the last couple of decades have seen major changes in student social and drinking behaviour to which, by and large, students’ unions failed to respond until rather late in the day. The shift in student purchasing to off sales and decline in beer revenues meant that the cash cow, the traditional union bar, quickly turned into a dog and the failure to invest wisely during the good times left many unions exposed. Such services have to be run properly by professional staff. The idea that students should be permitted to “play” at managing services, catering, retail and bars as it is good training for them is just not sustainable, let alone in a time of austerity. Fortunately, many unions do now recognise this.

Beyond representation and some commercial activities, unions have to continue to deliver their other core functions of providing for the wide range of social, political, sporting and cultural student societies and offering necessary support to students on academic, disciplinary and accommodation issues (for example). Universities need to work much more closely with their unions to ensure a joined up, comprehensive, high quality student experience. The issue is not protection of traditional domains, it’s about collaborating to provide the services and facilities students expect. This is not just about shops and bars but covers broader issues including induction, student support, employability, student volunteering and fundraising to name but a few.

slide2

Things aren’t always as straightforward for students’ unions as running shops and bars though. Students’ union officers don’t always know what their members think or indeed choose to represent only a minority opinion as they pursue an overtly political agenda. In addition, they are usually only around for a year, making relationship building something of a challenge. This is where it is crucial to have a much deeper engagement between university staff and those at all levels of the union. A vibrant, democratically active union, with full involvement of students in all fora, from staff:student liaison committees to Senate, and with able and engaged staff working closely with university professional services is much more able to cope with the odd year with a difficult president.

At the same time as the student movement has been reorienting to focus on teaching and learning issues there has been a structural realignment in the governance of students’ unions. The changes arising from the Charities Act, which necessitated separate arrangements from those of the parent university, have legally pushed institutions and Students’ Unions further apart. This makes collaboration and partnership between unions and universities all the more urgent and vital to ensure we have a shared understanding of our contributions to a high quality student experience. Working together is in the mutual interest of unions and universities. It needs to happen at every level, it needs a range of structures to make it happen as well as formal underpinning through some form of meaningful memorandum of agreement. However, there has to be trust, mutual confidence and sharing of expertise too, including in the co-ordination of delivery of effective student services. In addition, clear open communication channels are critical, and not just at times of crisis.

Many students these days really only want to play quidditch

Many students these days really only want to play Quidditch

Too often it seems unions do have too strong a focus on catering for 18 year-old UK full-time undergraduates (there is some pandering to ‘lad culture’) and struggle to adapt to part-time, mature and international student groups. This is linked to the British youth drinking culture, the freshers’ week phenomenon (other countries seem to manage a transition period without an emphasis on alcohol) and sports club initiations (again often drink-fuelled). There are positive cultural features too including major fundraising efforts, lots of volunteering activity and a general commitment to promoting socially responsible behaviour by students. And whilst a student charter, setting out rights and responsibilities may look an appealing prospect in this consumerist age, without proper partnership between the university and the union it is never really going to get past fine words.

Unions and NUS do deserve credit for focusing more on the student experience, starting with this early report back in 2008 which covered everything from accommodation to quality of teaching and from personalization to student finance and employment. More recently NUS has worked with QAA to produce a series of research reports on different dimensions of the student experience. This has inevitably impacted on the approach students’ unions take to working with their members and universities.

The Union that likes to give you more

 

Students’ unions have changed significantly in response to the radically altered higher education environment. although some of these changes are pushing unions and universities apart I believe is essential that we seek to counter this with greater convergence where possible. This depends on universities engaging properly at every level with their unions and recognising how important their contribution is to campus life and the student experience. In return, unions have to continue to engage seriously and consistently and recognise that there is significant common ground here. Whilst there will always be disagreements these should not perturb serious partnership working which is in the interest of the union, students and the university. These relationships were central to the analysis and recommendations Universities and their Unions (ISBN: 0 902683 78 0, LFHE, University of Warwick, 2006 Tom Bell, Paul Greatrix and Claire Horton) which sought to offer a set of pointers, suggestions, observations and comments and help universities and students’ unions to work together a bit better.

Students’ unions are more important and relevant to universities than they have ever been before. This is not because of the passing fancy of government or QAA but because meaningful student engagement is important to vital lively university life and a first rate student learning experience.

 

(Once again huge thanks to Aaron Porter for his extremely helpful comments on a draft of this piece.)

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The Imperfect University: Students and their Unions

TIU

Part I: How much power in the union?

(I suspect I’m going to be challenged on just about every aspect of what follows.)

Students’ unions and the National Union of Students, which recently celebrated its 90th birthday, have a long and distinctive history in UK higher and further education. There have been major shifts in recent years though, in both FE and HE. This piece will focus very much on higher education which is not to say FE isn’t hugely important – it is, and is reflected in the election of the first ever NUS President from FE – but rather is a topic for another day. The character of HE unions has changed significantly in the past decade in particular – whilst always concerned with the representational, support and extra-curricular aspects of student life they are now much more directly interested in and increasingly involved with the core issues of teaching and learning. A clear indication of this is that the National Student Survey (NSS) now includes a specific question on students’ unions. Whilst I think the NSS question itself is not terribly valuable it is symbolically important, signalling the value placed on the students’ union in the context of student satisfaction.

nus logo

I am a big fan of students’ unions and the student movement (as it is sometimes, perhaps rather inaccurately, known). Whilst they can often be challenging and make life difficult for university leaders, they nevertheless have huge amount to contribute to campus life. As an undergraduate at a disaffiliated university back in the 80s I was massively disappointed not to be a member of NUS but nevertheless greatly enjoyed local student unionism. NUS has a fascinating history, one which was largely non-political until the late 1960s when it dropped its non-political stance, and since then has leaned left to a greater or lesser extent. During most of the past 45 years or so though the political dimension of the Union has appeared to be its defining characteristic.

However, that has all changed in the past few years. NUS appears, quite remarkably, to have transformed itself from an organisation where the default activity was a demo and one where national conference and standing orders dictated activity to something which would be almost unrecognisable to those activists from previous decades. Now NUS is seen as a rather effective lobbying body and an organisation which is a sought after partner of government and national HE agencies rather than purely a voice of opposition. A recent piece in the Guardian, which previews a new piece of research by the Leadership Foundation, notes the much closer alignment which now exists between student leaders and university managers.

How did this come about? I honestly don’t know but I suspect that an awful lot is down to a succession of talented presidents and some excellent staff working together to deliver a strategic transformation born out of a realisation that after major defeats on fees a different approach was required in order to secure the union’s future existence. A major review of governance in NUS, which concluded in 2007, although it does not look on the face of it to be a huge departure from previous positions may in fact have been key here.

The mission and vision is perhaps not that surprising although the environmental concern is undoubtedly relatively new and demands for a “quality learning experience” has not appeared on many placards down the years:

 

Our mission

Our mission is to promote, defend and extend the rights of students and to develop and champion strong students’ unions.

Our vision

Our vision is of NUS as a pioneering, innovative and powerful campaigning organisation: the national voice of students.

We will fight barriers to education, empower students to shape both a quality learning experience and the world around them, supporting influential, democratic and well-resourced students’ unions.

Our ethics

NUS and students feel passionately about the environment.

Ethical and Environmental principles are core to our culture. These values underpin all of our work and have done for over 30 years.

 

The Union that keeps on giving

The Union that keeps on giving

In the year I graduated, when Vicky Phillps was President, some of the key issues for NUS were Apartheid, Israel/Palestine (that’s not changed), welfare reform and equality issues.

NUS could not have been further from influencing government on any of these (although this is not to say that contribution to Anti-Apartheid was not significant, it was) but look at where we are now. NUS seems to be a keen supporter of the following:

  • The Key Information Set – a key element of the marketisation of higher education
  • Unistats
  • The Office of the Independent Adjudicator
  • Which? University
  • The new Student Engagement unit
  • The HEFCE-funded Student Green Fund
  • QAA involvement with students as active members of review teams
  • And, perhaps most significantly, the National Student Survey, now with an extra question about Students’ Unions thanks to NUS lobbying.

This support for a government-inspired survey of students would seem on the face of it to be a bit of a surprise but speaking to the Telegraph back in September 2012, Liam Burns, then NUS President said:

We have supported and worked with the NSS since it began in 2005 as a tool for securing improvement to student experience. Although in that time progress has not been as rapid as we would have liked, particularly in areas such as assessment and feedback, results have continued to improve year on year and they must continue to do so.

In addition, NUS is keenly supporting the Office of Fair Trading which has recently undertaken an investigation into alleged unfair terms imposed by universities on students and wider examination of the operation of the market in undergraduate student recruitment.

In all of these cases, it would not be unfair to suggest that the NUS view is closer to that of the current Government than to that of many university vice-chancellors (although they are a diverse bunch). Indeed at times it is indistinguishable and NUS officers these days often look like they are best mates with the Universities Minister and appear to have easy access to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

BFF?

BFF?

This coziness is reinforced by the section of NUS website modestly entitled ‘Our impact on history’:

NUS sits on the boards of HEFCE, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OFFA) and UCAS.

Where there is an advisory board, strategic committee or working group, there is NUS, working alongside the sector to present the views of students and ensure their interests are taken into account.

Students are now intimately engaged in every aspect of quality: students act as peer reviewers for institutional review, and students’ unions are invited to submit a student-written submission as part of evidence submitted on the quality of an institution’s provision.

The Quality Assurance Agency has a student sounding board, and is currently funding projects based within NUS to enhance student engagement in quality enhancement at course level.

The Higher Education Academy has worked with NUS for the last two years, undertaking a major project on student engagement – exploring how students can act to shape their educational environment through provision of feedback and representation.

NUS is also working with HEA to deliver student-led teaching awards at institutions around the UK, helping students to recognise excellence in teaching.

NUS is developing its relationship with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Fearful of the impact on students of the new fees and student support regime, NUS successfully worked with OFFA to ensure students’ unions would be consulted in the creation of institutional access agreements.

 

Beyond these big current policy agenda NUS seems to offer much more in the way of activities in support of students’ unions, their core operations and the training and development of students’ union officers. Moreover its professional staff seems to be much more concerned with developing policies, practice and services which will directly help students rather than any broader political activity.

Not so long ago all of this would have been seen by many NUS members as a betrayal of the organisation and its principles (and no doubt sparked some kind of demonstration or occupation of somewhere). So is student activism dead as a recent piece in the Huffington Post proposed?

Student activism was once a force to be reckoned with. It changed the world, visibly and profoundly. It was the catalysts that lead to the end of the Vietnam War, it pressured governments to finally stop supporting apartheid and it forced the world to start addressing institutionalized racism. But today, in the face of genuine and widely felt grievances, students are impotent and apathetic. Universities are businesses, education is job training and a degree is a holiday.

Not everyone loves NUS

Not everyone loves NUS

Has student political activity been replaced by “lad culture” as this author suggests? No, but there has nevertheless been quite an extraordinary change in the student political arena in a relatively short period of time. (This is not to say that “lad culture” is not an issue nor that it is not being taken seriously as this NUS campaign and recent summit demonstrate.)

Fundamentally it seems to me to be down to a recognition that NUS is there to serve all of its members and represent their interests rather than simply campaign for or against matters determined by a highly politicised executive. A more cynical observer though may suggest that NUS appears to have been at least partially co-opted into successive governments’ higher education agenda and to have been seduced by the BIS “students at the heart of the system” line. Even if this were true though it is undoubtedly a profound shift which has taken place.

Changes in students’ unions seem to have taken place in parallel to these developments and we will look at these in the second part of this piece.

(Enormous thanks to Aaron Porter for his extremely helpful comments on a draft of this piece.)

Why Students’ Unions Matter

Students’ unions are important for many reasons

I’ve got a piece in the Times Higher Education about some of the reasons I think students’ unions are important:

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.

And the change is for the better. The full piece is available via Times Higher Education. (Thank you THE for asking me to do the piece.)

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Tories take new line on Students’ Unions

Follow up to earlier post on Willetts speech.

After his widely reported statements on fees, David Willetts also commented (generally not noticed by the press) on Students’ Unions:

“We value student unions. We salute them and what they achieve for and on behalf of students. Without them, universities would be much poorer institutions, as would the employers, causes and political parties who take on their alumni.”

Bit of a change there then. Perhaps he is fortunate that most SU members of today don’t remember the introduction of the 1994 Education Act or the then government’s (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts prior to that date to require voluntary opt-in membership for these now hugely valued bodies.