Student unionism is broken, but Scotland could provide the solution

Student unionism is broken, but Scotland could provide the solution

by Max Young
article from Wednesday 23, September, 2020

ASK TEN Edinburgh University students milling around Bristo Square about their university experience. According to the National Student Survey, eight will say they are satisfied with their course. Nine will praise the staff. But ask those ten about their student association, and only four will say it is doing a good job. Only one of those ten will have voted in the most recent association elections. Those elections put into place the team of five full-time sabbatical officers, whose wages are part of a bill for 600 such people charged to taxpayers and students themselves of £165 million across the UK.  

These numbers are not an anomaly across the entire sector. Student unions enjoy levels of student satisfaction around thirty points lower than their corresponding universities throughout the UK. These institutions defy our long-held principle of freedom of association by forcing students to be members while they campaign on issues of social justice and “structural oppression” that are of little concern to the campus population itself.  

Sitting astride the moral high ground of their activist cause, these 600 full-time sabbatical officers  seek to control student activity by banning a truly bizarre array of costumes, food products, publications, party themes, and, perhaps strangest of all, hand gestures. All of this began with the notion of the “safe space” – an anti-intellectual idea that puts the power to limit free speech in the hands of anyone who claims they are made uncomfortable by the words of another.  

At an Edinburgh University Student Association (EUSA) meeting in 2016, a student was threatened with removal for raising her arms in disagreement with an accusation made about her, violating a policy that instructs attendees to refrain from “hand gestures which denote disagreement or in any other way indicating disagreement with a point or points being made”.  

She was later threatened with removal once again for shaking her head.  

Ask yourself: does the image of students forced to sit in silence with blank faces, hands in their laps while debating at the union give you confidence that universities are still melting pots of battling ideas?  

Student unions across the UK also employ full-time officers whose responsibility is “liberation” or “equality”. They have no specific remit for day-to-day activity. Instead, their job is to promote identity politics at council meetings, run specific campaigns, and push their agenda with the university staff. A typical description of their role is to “ensure students of all backgrounds and cultures, including those from marginalised groups, are represented on campus.” There are at least 120 full-time sabbatical officers in UK student unions concerned with liberation and equality.  

And yet these officers appear so busy with their work that many student unions employ sub-teams of part-time liberation officers to campaign further on issues such as decolonisation of university courses or liberation of supposedly marginalised groups on campus. At EUSA, which employs a team of five such part-time officers, they themselves must identify as and represent the following groups: Black & minority ethnic students, disabled students, LGBT+ students, trans and non-binary students, and women students. There is no evidence of the efficacy of these roles, nor of student enthusiasm for them. Turnout in elections for these posts is even lower than for other posts.  

And so these teams of officers, who claim to represent the entire student body with turnouts of ten per cent or even lower, pursue their agenda with gusto. The executive team of sabbatical officers at EUSA released a statement in July supporting the renaming of Edinburgh’s David Hume Tower on the grounds that the world-renowned philosopher, enlightenment thinker, and fervent supporter of the abolition of slavery, was a racist. Some will say that these student politicians and their ideology are inconsequential – that it is just noise after all. This is easy to refute: David Hume Tower is now known as 40 George Square by the University’s prerogative.  

Student unions consistently fail to maintain the support of their electorate, whose primary wants are cheap beer and a social space on campus. They spend taxpayer funds garnered through government grants and the student loans system on sabbatical officers obsessed with politicking and funding the increasingly radical and failing National Union of Students (NUS). There must be a solution – a way of running this system that benefits the students and the taxpayer.  

The clue in fact lies in Scotland, and is derived from a system of student representation that was part of arrangements for governance of the ancient universities established by the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889 in the then existing Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews. Functions were separated, so that there was a student representative council, a student union providing the social activities, and an athletics union dealing with sports. Most of these have now been combined into the bloated student associations we see today. 

At Glasgow University, however, the main institutions remain separate. In fact there are two student unions, the Glasgow University Union (GUU) and the Queen Margaret Union (QMU), (dating from the 1800s when there were separate institutions for men and women) as well as a separate Sports Association. The GUU does not have sabbatical officers. These unions are highly popular with students at Glasgow and should be examined carefully as a template for reform.  

My report with Bristol Postgraduate Lucky Dube for the Adam Smith Institute recommends that university grant funding be limited to recreational facilities, sports activities and academic representation by splitting these activities between separate bodies. The more political student representative council should be funded by student members alone and gain representation on university committees only if fifty per cent or more students vote in their elections. This will ensure that political representation of the student body as a whole is only provided if the demand is there. Student union funding of the NUS should also be ended – those who wish to be represented by the organisation should join it themselves. 

Free speech provisions should be strengthened by putting the legal obligations to ensure it solely on universities themselves, while the law should be strengthened such that student unions and societies must abide by a directive in law to maintain free expression.  

This is the flavour of the reforms that the report recommends – reforms which will, if implemented, serve to continue the rollback of increasingly dogmatic and censorious university campuses, and ensure that student unionism actually benefits students themselves.  

Max Young is a second-year undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh studying Russian and History. He has served as deputy editor of 1828, a neoliberal opinion website, and Free Market Conservatives, a pro-freedom pressure group. He is the co-author of the Adam Smith Institute briefing paper State of the Unions, which can be found here. 

Photos of University of Edinburgh Old College by Greg and of Teviot Row House (student union) by Leonid Andronov from Adobe Stock.

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