Think: Higher Education, Students’ Unions and the Question of Conscience

The purpose of this piece is to contribute to a conversation between students’ unions and the existing discourse within higher education with the belief that students’ unions have an interesting and important contribution to make in that discourse. It is speculative; it moves from the suggested roles of higher education in the UK to the potential importance of students unions in the delivery of those roles.

The key note speech by Sir David Watson (a doyen of HE policy) at a conference on inclusion in HE (2012) spoke of the roles of HE for the development of moral, technical and social competences required in the world. He identified 10 historical roles from the emergence of universities in the medieval era to the present. This assertion of a set of roles prompts some questions about which of the roles are either supported by or are even exclusively carried out by students unions. Watson does not propose that Universities purposively carry out all of the roles he identifies, some have been subsumed over the ages but are still hidden in the ‘geological layers’ of the history of universities, and some may be ‘serendipitous’. I argue that some of the roles he ascribes to universities are actually deliberatively carried out by students unions, either by policies or strategies or within their purposes. You could say that if an organisation (or a person) does not purposively carry out a role then it is either not a role but an historical contingency, or there is a structural impact of universities rather than a functional position in society.

There are two issues then: are students unions carrying out some of the historical functions of universities, and some could be denied by the parent institution as a relevant to the secular post-modern university (e.g. the pursuit of religious identity via societies)? And do those functions which are in line with the universities’ purposes question the autonomy of students unions? A relevant concern is the growing reliance on the universities’ grants to students unions and are they given in the expectation of a delivery of services and ethos in line with the universities’ interests. The universities’ interests may not include all of the historical roles attributed by Watson. There could be a more explicit wish that a grant is given that does not contradict the aims of the university. As the UK universities become more corporately managed how do students unions maintain a democratic, collectivist purpose in a society which has lost many concrete forms of a participative society (against the democratic deficit in the UK, the decline in trade union membership and voter turnout, the loss of public utilities)?

A common refrain that students see themselves as consumers supports a non-collective view of HE. This is neither the view of the corporate management in universities nor of NUS and some evidence suggests that students’ demands for more teaching contact does not make them consumers. It is a perception expressed by anxious teaching staff, often under stress from their managers. Improving the student experience does not entail students as customers, both universities and students unions have in their own ways tried to improve the student experience prior to full fees or top up fees. The funding regime of universities has concentrated the minds greatly to improve and promote the ‘student experience’. Fees do not mean a priori customers or clients otherwise it is puzzling why international students, given their fee status, have not been seen as ‘customers’ for over 20 years. And the complaints made by students now are not dissimilar to those made for some time prior to becoming ‘customers’ with near full tuition fees (assessment turnaround and feedback, lecturer access).

One conclusion of the HEFCE research project on student leadership suggested that the increasing priority of students unions is representation at the level of courses, a focus on the teaching and learning delivery, and this change of priorities matches the concerns of the institutions. This conclusion is based on greater resources directed by students unions on this more focussed role and the perception of the membership as the main purpose of students unions. This change, if it is a change, is not surprising. I don’t think it is a change of purpose of students unions. It is a change of universities’ priorities, encouraged at best by the changes by QAA, the White Paper (2010), the NSS and the reduction of state funding support leading to the marketization of the sector.

The decline in the commercial operations in students unions (highly sensitive to location and student profile at the best of times) has not required a new venture called representation to fill the lacuna of purpose; it was always there, it just got more visible and better but not adequately resourced.

As we consider the pursuit of these alleged key roles of universities by students unions (and perhaps more explicitly than the universities themselves), the question of resources available is of course critical to the ability to carry out those roles. The funding for all students unions does mean they are spread wide and thin, although admitting that a variation in funding by over 100% per capita in the sector would be considered intolerable by universities, the grant funding to students unions is universally less than 1% of total institutional income. Another perspective is that students’ unions grants are (from a small sample considered) about half the campus cleaning costs (excluding residences). Important as a clean campus is, the small increase in funding to support representational work can and does have a significant impact.

The key roles that Watson identifies and students unions could and do pursue are: religious instruction and confirmation of faith, the ancient basis of the mediaeval universities; personal development (also called self-discovery, self creation – the top of the Mazlov pyramid); relationship with the wider world, culturally, politically; technical knowledge, the ability to function at levels of competence; accelerated maturation to grow up; a protected time as an interval in the career of life; that ‘mental gymnastics’ are performed which I take to be an ability to argue (I assume he means an intellectually challenging period). Watson does admit that all ‘the elements on the list (are) at least contested’.

I want to add two more contingent roles. One is accidental, it is based on where universities were founded by patronage or state planning (the civics and the former polytechnics respectively) and the other is a deliberative role of students unions within the institution. The former is a socio- economic role played in supporting the immediate community it is in. Even the Russell Group have this role before the global reach they have. This role is as an anchor institution in the economic regeneration of an inner city in decline or survival (pace Liverpool City Council strategy). Their perceived permanence as employer, their demand and supply of cultural capital, the support to the local economy and the multiplier effect of institutional support and students spend can have a great impact on the employment market and the local businesses.

This is an existential function not an epistemological or cultural phenomenon: it is the cash circulating around the local economy. This function may be explicit as in Liverpool’s case (partnership with three universities) and it may be of a relative impact according to size and the health of the local economy. London could be excluded here but even with large conurbations such Manchester and Leeds, universities will have an impact; and with Newcastle or Coventry the ‘HE business’ combined in those cities makes them close to the largest employers in their cities with students up to 15% of the local population. As anchor institutions the related influence on the locale is more than the fiscal impact but a social influence on the employment market too. Notwithstanding disputes in the sector over pay and conditions, the employment conditions set standards within the local community.

The second addition, the deliberative one that students unions carry out, is the participation role, the sense of membership, ownership of a representational organisation, a democratic process. This may appear a fragile role which is questioned about the legitimacy of the students union as a whole, its doubtful claims to its importance. (There are a lot of elisions and conflations about legitimacy, representative authenticity, or accuracy of the student voice; a small sample negates the whole enterprise, for example.) At least students unions are not a collection of services alone. They also carry within them the conflicts of interest with the universities that fund them. The doubts about legitimacy – the actual turnout for elections – should be put in the context of the worries about voter turnout in general elections by 18 to 25 year olds. The validity of a students union policy or opinion or campaign is measured against some Platonic ideal which is not and cannot be explored further (- it’s Platonic of course!).

The autonomous or quasi-autonomous nature (the latter because of the conflict between the Education Act and the Charities Act, and the major funding body) of students unions with their democratic processes of leadership entails supporting at least four of these key roles (personal development, the wider world, maturation and the tackling tough questions. It is plausible that students unions also support two other roles as contingent rather than central and deliberative functions: religious instruction and obtaining technical skills.

Perhaps the four key roles are obvious in how they are manifested – becoming representatives and climbing a ladder of participation to become accomplished leaders of large charities and negotiating with or contrary to universities’ management whilst often being members of the universities’ governance. Handling that conflict of interest is in itself a challenging accomplishment. For some taking such a role of leadership provides personal growth, an understanding of organisations, soft skills and the other key roles Watson identifies for universities, which does not necessarily cause a change in career paths, but many are changed and take otherwise unforeseen careers.

Students unions can touch, influence or develop more than a small cadre of leaders. The dynamic of well established ‘service provisions’ in students unions have an impact on many students. And we are now focussed on numbers as well as quality.

The parent institutions are keen to question the numbers of participation; at one time this was a question of legitimacy of students’ union voice (“Of course you speak for some students”) and is now turning to an added value for the student experience. Students’ union-based societies often reach thousands of students in a university. The functions of such society memberships are complex (in Watson’s terms of roles) and this is true of much of participation in students’ unions. A society membership provides opportunities for friendship, a community within the university, the pursuit of non-trivial interests which can lead to self-creation, acquiring soft and hard skills and with faith based societies a pursuit of religious instruction (which is much more than just that).

Some of the roles Watson ascribes need some qualifying because of the changing student profile and society. He does say that maturation is not relevant for mature students, their participation is a challenge for students unions in some aspects but not all parts of their functions (leadership roles are rare for mature students but they often have a greater need for union advice services). However, there are cultural qualifiers about maturation which suggests that Watson’s model of maturation is white mid 60’s teenagers; and there are political changes too with the concept of maturation (encapsulated in one aspect by saying universities had difficulties coming to terms with the lowering of the age of majority in the early 70s- see Harold Silver, Student Lives, SRHE). There is a tendency to consider students as a coherent group with some hedging around mature, postgraduate study and part timers.

Maturation is an acutely relativistic concept. It may mean the ability to live ‘independently’, to take on responsibilities such as paying the rent, signing contracts, etc. The relativism of maturation is not merely cultural (e.g. the pull of the Asian family ties and responsibilities) but socio-economic and in some cases clinical too. A mass higher education closely approximates to UK society at large but does not mirror society. The failures in recruitment in Russell Group universities should be seen as just that – failures and certainly not redistributing social justice (e.g. the stunning case of the number of black British at Bristol reported by the old style CRE when under Trevor Phillips). However, even where there is a large proportion of international students on campus and thus reducing the potential mirroring UK society in its student profile, the city in which a university is based may have over 50 languages spoken. The LSE probably has the greatest proportion of international students of universities in the UK and it is in, of course, one of the most diverse cities in the world (which includes within in it the fifth largest French city!).

Watson considers the religious doctrinal role as ancient or limited to specialist colleges, seminaries or the religious based institutions in the USA. The additional value of religious societies (world faiths) within a secular institution is self –identity and expression, engaging with the wider world, globalisation, security and the challenge of a multi faith society. Perhaps religious doctrine has always been based on that wide ranging set of conditions. Even Thomas Aquinas was moved (or probably instructed) to address the challenges from Islam in Spain (while using their translations of Aristotle) as a geo-political cultural propaganda exercise as well doctrinal elucidation. Plus ca change anyone…?

So where and how does a university practice these roles, the social goods, which have been accumulated over the centuries? Is Watson’s claim for the range of roles a sort of existential assumption: they do this because the institutions are there. He does want to make the roles a form of ethical challenge, to make them explicit as a sort of corporate conscience (an inner dialogue?). Are the concerns about the development of the curriculum – and there is a group of difficulties from designing out plagiarism, including employability and entrepreneurial skills, internationalising the curriculum – a way to fulfil some of the roles Watson believes universities can and should fulfil?

We rightly assume that professional abilities and competences are the exclusive roles of the university. Students in Civil Engineering should be able to design drainage systems that don’t flood or bridges that don’t fall down, medical students know where the pancreas is and what it does, etc. An engineering graduate, for example, can and should be recognised by her chosen professional body to practice. Students unions should not be modest about their contribution to the growth of knowledge – student officials can learn many new competences from employment law compliance, to reading spread sheets, creating a business plan, project management, statistical surveys and much more. That is their contribution to the growth of the individual. The collective or social contribution is that students learn from each other (obviously) and that new social forms are created – from cultural expression to campaigning. Watson equates empirical knowledge competences in the sciences with the search for authenticity in the arts as equal goals for the role of providing educational growth – I hesitate to say ‘knowledge’ – but it is in the students union context where knowledge/education is socialised and not based on the individual student’s growth; it is inimical to the concept of student as consumer. I have considered teaching and learning as logically separate categories: being taught x does not necessarily entail learning x; the learner may have found a number of ways to learn or fail to learn x. (This is one reason why students cannot be customers.) In the socialised learning context in students unions, learning is more complex and interesting because it is socialised, a multiplicity of approaches are made by participants in their joint enterprises.

Does the rest of the stuff outside the curriculum and administration (the processing of students) just happen as by blows of studying and perhaps some of this other stuff is inadvertently sub contracted to students unions? Are universities aware that these roles have been taken on by students unions? Much as Watson’s description turns into a prescriptive call to a sort of conscience for higher eduaction is interesting, I wonder if it is possible for universities to have a dialogue with students unions about their respective contribution to the Watsonian roles on campus. I have suggested above that students unions do make a significant contribution to the ethos of a university (some more than others, but that is a matter of degree and resources available rather than of core purpose and strategy). That contribution is worth considering in qualitative as well as the normal quantitative ways.

Students unions should have a greater interest in and effort into the dialogue over their universities strategic plans and as representing the main interested party. That dialogue needs support from within the students union and the university (active Listening courses anyone?). The resources available to students unions are small in the scale of resources in universities and the ability to meet the challenge of students being put in the centre of the university experience requires a serious commitment from universities beyond a grant half that of the cleaning the campus. The critical contribution that students unions can and do make is of a type which is under greater pressure in our society and more urgently required in universities to fulfil their roles: the ability of individuals to play a part in, or in practice to create, ‘civil society’ as a democratic, participative social project in the face of a globalised economy, corporate power. That may not sound like a very supportive role for improving employability, but that is where we are now.


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