This blog post also appears at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/voice-students-unions-too-powerful.
I am cowering as I write, for my views on how best to listen to students may not be popular.
Let me start with the less contentious parts. Of course students should help set the priorities of their universities. For instance, the complaints that students with black and minority ethnic backgrounds are being let down by traditional curricula and a lack of diversity among academic staff are too loud and persuasive to ignore. It is just one reason why higher education conferences only come alive when students present their views.
I also think students are lucky to have the current leaders of the NUS. The Government are crazy to treat anyone with any connection to student unions or the NUS as persona non grata. The NUS President, Shakira Martin, is a born communicator, with profound empathy for her members. As a white middle-aged man, I may not speak with much authority but the way she has passionately stood up for black students, Jewish students and others has been impressive to witness. The student movement would be hard pressed to find another such effective advocate.
I even accept the arguments of the National Audit Office and the new Minster for Universities, Sam Gyimah, that students should have real consumer power. Choosing a course is one of the most expensive and important decisions in life. Buyers should be well informed, looked after properly and receive what they have been promised. There are harrowing stories about what this can mean for academics and, as with everything in life, there are downsides as well as upsides. But the growing consumerisation, exposed yet again by the recent strike, is not overall or wholly a bad thing.
No truly successful university or policymaker ignores the ‘student voice’. Some of my own organisation’s most impactful publications – on topics including students’ mental health and cross-subsidies from tuition fees to research – have been written by students. They have brought insights that others have missed. So, individual student unions should be celebrated, students should have decent representation on university governing bodies and politicians of all stripes should seek to work with the NUS.
But, at this point, the argument about student power usually veers off in a silly direction. It is widely assumed that the student voice should be amplified and empowered so that it becomes at least as significant as the other interests inside a university. Mark Leach, the founder of the Wonkhe website, has recently called for: ‘Joint democratic participation in leadership and management, with equal membership for students, academics and professionals.’
To many people, that seems uncontroversial. But there are lots of reasons why it is not sensible. First, students go to higher education to grow and mature. The majority of new undergraduates are barely adults and have little idea about how to protect and run organisations with turnovers in the hundreds of millions of pounds. Whisper it quietly, but the benefits of students becoming involved in university management can be greater for the students than their institutions.
Secondly, while the cliché about learning being a partnership between the instructed and the instructors is undoubtedly true, it is not a partnership of equals. You would not enter higher education if you already knew as much as those who teach you. The flow of resources, whether from taxpayers or fees to universities and academics, merely reflects this reality.
Thirdly, most people are only at university for a brief period. This limits the contribution they can make and it affects what they care about. Students are short-termist when it is their institutions’ long-term futures that matter most. Surveys show students want resources spent on the here and now and not, for example, on new buildings. Higher education applicants, in contrast, like seeing half-built new facilities because they know they will reap the benefits. So reserving a high proportion of leadership and management responsibility for students could reduce the interests of other important groups, including future students.
The best way to improve student representation is not changing power structures, but raising levels of participation in existing structures – in particular, by improving the woeful turnout at students’ union elections. In 2015, just one-in-six students bothered to vote for their representatives.
Boosting the voice of students inside their institutions should only happen once we are certain students’ elected representatives truly reflect the settled will of their student bodies. Otherwise, there is a risk of putting unrepresentative students obsessed with arcane points of student union politics elected by a tiny part of their student bodies, into important leadership and management positions. That would be a nonsense.
Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute