My response to last week’s National Student Survey results focused on question 26, which is generally ignored by everyone but is actually the question which always seems to score the lowest results of all.
It is about the utility of student unions. It is, admittedly, an odd question that implies student unions are primarily about securing academic quality rather than all their other roles: improving students’ social life, campaigning, delivering welfare services and lots of other things – some of which are explored in the history of student unions that we published last year. The precise wording of the question, which students are asked to say if they agree with, is: ‘The students’ union (association or guild) effectively represents students’ academic interests’.
Yet Q26 is not such a bad question that it can go on being ignored altogether – and does anyone seriously believe that a different question about satisfaction with student unions would top the tree? That seems unlikely, given the turnover of elected officers and the poor financial position of many unions, but perhaps the Office for Students should test the proposition out.
Nationally, the student union movement is undergoing a crisis, which has led to the abolition of the International Students’ Officer post, among various ‘liberation’ posts. This is despite the best efforts of the strong outgoing NUS team, headed by Shakira Martin and Amatey Doku, who were always fantastic advocates for their members. They stemmed the problems but always had limited room for manoeuvre given the state of the organisation that they inherited.
Whenever anyone flags such issues, they get accused of attacking student unions. That is tiresome, but my goal is the opposite. Student unions are incredibly important to the student experience – for example, in reducing loneliness and improving well-being, in supporting students with housing and financial challenges, in delivering policy changes and in providing a voice to the voiceless. So they deserve proper support.
Student unions also deliver social capital. My own first forays into the world of politics and policy were through a student union, at Manchester University in the early 1990s, and – as a postgraduate – I was a delegate at the fiery 1999 NUS Annual Conference, which was the first after Tony Blair had (re)introduced student fees. As with so many people who work on higher education policy, it is possible that I would not be doing the job that I do without such experiences.
That doesn’t mean the student movement is perfect. Far from it. I have long thought it too willing to become bogged down in national and international politics that it can do next to nothing about. Such virtue-signalling has a three big opportunity costs. First, it takes time and effort away from other priorities. Secondly, it disengages the many students who do not identify as left-wing radicals. Thirdly, it is the gift that keeps on giving to journalists who want to want to take the mickey out of ‘snowflakes’. I much prefer the old approach of the NUS where party politics were kept at bay.
But just like being a member of a political party does not mean you support every position that your party takes, one doesn’t need to support every position of the student union movement (as far as a single position can ever be discerned) to believe we benefit from a strong student union movement. Even when the NUS were hosting huge protests over the introduction of £9,000 fees, Whitehall was still funding their anti-extremism work and talking to their elected officers about issues of shared interest.
Indeed, I have never met a senior university figure, such as a vice-chancellor of a chair of governors, who talks negatively about their student union. Governing body meetings are infinitely better with a student or two present to prick bubbles and conferences on higher education only really come alive when students are present. As students increasingly come from diverse backgrounds generally very different from the backgrounds of politicians, civil servants and senior academics, the role of student unions should be more important than ever before. Yet they are struggling.
So what can be done? One specific area where we need to do better as a sector is in the student experience of international students. In the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey, non-EU international students are least likely to say they feel they are receiving value-for-money. Hardly surprising, perhaps, given the higher fees they pay – each student deliver a cross-subsidy from their fees to research of around £8,000 during their time in the UK.
But it is undeniably in the interests of everyone in the higher education sector to improve the perceptions of international students. So my suggestion is this: the sector should consider putting its hand in its pocket to show its support for student unions by funding a new full-time International Students’ Officer at the NUS.
To avoid a moral hazard problem or a long-term conflict of interest, this should be strictly time-limited, perhaps on a five-year basis with the sector funding 100% of the costs in 2019/20, 80% in 2020/21, down to 20% in 2023/24 and 0% in the following year. Assuming the gross costs are £45,000 a year, this would cost a mere £75 for each of the 600 institutions with a student union in the NUS. If only universities were to pay, the figure would be around £350 – remember that they are making, on average, an £8,000 surplus from each international student that they educate.
If this were to happen, it would send a clear signal that the higher education sector recognises the value of student unions, wants to improve the perceptions of international students and believes the dictum that higher education is a partnership between institutions, staff and students.