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Students’ unions in a changing world

  • 22 January 2018
  • By Diana Beech

The following text is a transcript of a presentation made earlier today by HEPI Director of Policy and Advocacy, Dr Diana Beech, at the National Union of Students’ Chief Executive Networking Event at Leeds University Union.

I have today been asked to outline the key trends and changes in higher education that could affect the way students’ unions support and represent students over the next five to ten years. Before I move on to addressing this question, however, I first wish to commend the National Union of Students (NUS) and individual students’ unions on the excellent work they do in our institutions around the country. It is important to acknowledge this because the recent barrage of negative press stories about universities could easily lead to those at the coalface of our higher education institutions becoming demoralised and feeling their efforts are being severely overlooked. So, I should like to assure you all now that they are not.

Students’ unions are a key feature of the UK university landscape. They continually strive to improve the student experience and shine a much-needed spotlight on the welfare of our young people – something which the annual HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey has shown to be integral to improving learning gain, not to mention creating ‘positive’ university environments. Students’ unions also ensure the non-academic side of university life is as rewarding for students as the formal learning experience, offering a wealth of recreational activities, volunteering opportunities or simply a supportive space to mingle with others.

There are, however, three things which threaten to change the way students’ unions support and represent students over coming years:

The first of these relates to the risk of there being less funding per student in English higher education in the future. Just over a week ago, we witnessed a change of Secretary of State in the Department for Education, as well as a change of Universities Minister. Speculation is rife that this reshuffle was made to pave the way for a major review of the student finance system in England, first announced by Prime Minister Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference in October. The mood music from students over the past six months certainly suggests they would favour any potential cuts to the current level of tuition fees – best shown, perhaps, by their overwhelming support for Labour in the General Election last June, following the Party’s pledge to axe tuition fees altogether.

Cutting tuition fees may not, however, be the magic solution for students that many perceive it to be. Lower or even free tuition fees would ultimately mean less money for universities, which have become reliant on surpluses from tuition fees to provide their first-class services and facilities, including students’ unions. Any cuts to fees would not only mean universities would have less money to invest in teaching, but also less money to put toward mental health support, student accommodation or other extra-curricular activities – all the things that I have just highlighted as being essential to the work of students’ unions. Campaigning for a better maintenance package for students would be a logical way to protect funding for students’ services, while also ensuring those students who need it get the financial support they deserve.

The second issue to bear in mind pertains to the changing nature of the student community. If we are to assume that student numbers will continue to grow in England as they have done in recent years, we can reasonably expect there will be more ‘first in family’ students embarking on higher education. As interviews with these so-called ‘first-generation’ students show, they bring with them a different set of expectations and, therefore, require more support settling into their new environments, getting to grips with independent learning and even managing their finances. Students’ unions can be key to this ‘settling in’ process and may well find themselves having to tailor their support and services more to first-generation students over the coming years as the student population expands.

The third and final point I wish to mention has to do with the topic of free speech. This is currently rising high on the political agenda, as the Joint Committee for Human Rights continues its inquiry into freedom of speech in universities. The more this issue is investigated, the more it draws into question the relationship between universities on the one hand and students’ unions on the other. As Jonathan Rosenhead explains in an article for the Times Higher Education, under the newly created Office for Students (OfS), if students’ unions decide to ‘no platform’ a speaker and are seen to curtail free speech, then their universities (as ‘parent’ institutions) can be fined, suspended or de-registered – even though students’ unions are technically independent bodies with their own codes and protocols.

With more at stake for English universities than ever before under the new regulatory regime, students’ unions could come under increasing pressure to conform to the protocols of their host institutions if they wish to safeguard future funding. After all, it is the universities that control the purse strings and students’ unions will need to find ways to represent students – and ensure a variety of voices are heard – in a way that ensures their funding will not simply be ‘switched off’ by their parent institutions.

In sum, if students’ unions want to continue their excellent work up and down the country – and it is essential for enhancing the student experience that they do so – then now is the time to be making plans for how to do this in an era of potential funding cuts, a changing student demographic and a heightened awareness of the need for free speech.

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