Away from the EU renegotiation, the important but less glamorous process of hammering out the details of the Government’s agenda continues apace. It’s interesting to note one particular point in the new Higher Education Green Paper from BIS:
23.Students’ unions play an important role representing student views and promoting the provision of academic and other services. There are numerous students’ unions across the UK and the Government recognises the constructive role they play in representing students’ interests. Government has in the past provided funding via the National Union of Students, including a Campus Cohesion Fund and support for voter registration.
24. The Government is currently taking steps through our trade union reforms to improve union practices and increase transparency around how funds are spent. In this consultation, we are asking for public views on the role of students’ unions and what further steps could be taken to increase transparency and accountability to individual members.
Question 20: What steps could be taken to increase the transparency of student unions and strengthen unions’ accountability to their student members?’
Given that the Government is looking at the activities of trade unions, particularly their strike actions and political campaigning work, it makes sense to look at unions on campus, too.
Students’ unions are of course notorious for their tendency to be hijacked by tiny cliques of hard left activists, who then use their funds and facilities to pursue causes which don’t interest or aid the vast majority of their peers, who are busy getting on with studying and/or partying. While the student population is no doubt more left-wing than the wider electorate, Nick Hillman wrote last month that somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent of students voted Conservative in May – a sizeable minority who go mostly unrepresented at present.
This isn’t a new issue – for decades Tory students of all stripes have hoped to break the stranglehold of Trots and others in their students’ unions. The last attempt to improve the situation was the Education Act 1994, which specified various democratic structures for such bodies. It will be interesting to see if this effort yields anything – opening up the unions’ books, for example, would be a good step, but ultimately direct accountability may rest on ordinary students themselves wanting to get involved in the weird world of university politics. That may prove to be a bridge too far.