A (belated) defence of Students’ Unions
In a recent blog on the Guardian’s Education site, Nottingham graduate James Sanderson asserted that, judging by the fact that students can pay up to £200 towards their running costs during their degree, Students’ Unions probably weren’t worth your cash.
The article understandably provoked an immediate, instinctively defensive reaction from many of those involved in the Students’ Union movement. Poorly researched and far too short to cover the range of activities that modern SUs are engaged in, the temptation was to toss it to one side and move on.
However, to dismiss the article entirely would unfortunately be to dismiss the views of a large portion of the national student body; the arguments – hinging on the declining influence of Students’ Unions in University and Governmental decision-making as typified the unsuccessful tuition fee protests, and their apparent over-emphasis on minority concerns, such as “transexual toilets [sic]”, which “aren’t representative of the average student’s concerns” – come up again and again and are therefore deserving of some attention.
For those that are engaged with the Union on a regular basis – and I’m not just talking about the minority that turn up to AGMs or participate in the annual officer elections, but the thousands of students who join societies and sports clubs, get involved in Epigram or Burst radio, volunteer in the local community and raise funds for charity through RAG – the argument for paying £200 over the course of your degree is easy to make; for the price of a ‘designer coffee’ (the standard that all student finances seem to be measured against) every three weeks, you get access to a whole new world of exciting experiences and social interaction that most won’t have experienced before and will probably never experience again.
Plus, as an ex-editor-in-chief of Nottingham University’s student newspaper you’d think the blog’s author, having just been published in a national broadsheet, might be more appreciative of the career opportunities his Students’ Union experience has offered him!
According to our figures, this year around 10,000 individual students have signed up for Union activities like the ones mentioned above. Even if you take off around 20% for those students that join loads of societies at Fresh then never go to any of them (“yeah, like, I just joined Harry Potter Society… for the banter!!”) then the myth of a ‘disengaged majority’ of Bristol students seems untenable.
For the rest, the claim often made (as Mr. Sanderson points out) is that SUs are ineffective at fighting for students and their concerns. Taking Bristol as a case in point, this is patently not true.
This year, thanks to the Students’ Union we now have a cheaper food option on campus, extended library opening hours, as well as student approval on halls of residence rent-setting. Moreover, after lobbying pressure from UBU and numerous Bristol students, the University have decided to rewrite large sections of their access agreement with the Government in favour of cash bursaries.
These are not insignificant victories, and the issues are unquestionably relevant to huge numbers of students. But that’s not to say that Students’ Unions should solely concentrate on these big issues. Any membership organisation that does not take seriously the concerns of vulnerable minority groups cannot be said to fully represent the whole, so if by having a gender-neutral toilet we improve the lives of even a handful of students then it is clearly a vital investment. I for one am proud to work for an organisation that values equality and diversity so highly, promoting inclusivity and tolerance in all the work we do.
The tuition fee vote was not, as the article suggests, the final nail in the coffin for the student movement, but in fact a turning-point in University-Union relations. As the whole higher education sector enters uncertain territory and £9k fees become a reality, University managers are increasingly turning to Students’ Unions in order to find out the priorities of the student body. The Government may not be listening to students, but at a local level the relationship is stronger than ever.
Finally, I would ask you to imagine University life without a Students’ Union. No matter what personal opinions you may hold about how this particular Union is run, surely you can imagine a world where students are reduced to mere spectators? The fact is that many students in the world do not enjoy the same levels of representation and influence as us here in the UK, and there is certainly a tendency to take it for granted.
Although far from perfect, Students’ Unions are essential for improving your time at University and more relevant today than ever before. Maybe we just need to shout about it a little more.