I've spent a lot of time on university campuses. I'm currently in my fifth year of higher education at my third university. I've served as a course rep, a part-time officer, ran campaigns, got involved in sports, set up societies and served on various committees. In that time, I've seen an awful lot of good come out of the student movement and seen important victories won: students' lives genuinely improved, inept or immoral university practices challenged and broader social issues tackled. I'm proud of the student movement and honoured to have campaigned alongside dedicated and passionate activists. But Students' Unions are in trouble.
A lot of ink has been shed describing the war on learning being conducted by the Conservatives: the incessant desire to marketise higher education with questionable ranking systems, ever-higher tuition fees and increased 'competition' from newer, dubious providers. Beyond swinging hypocritically between lamenting student 'apathy' or lambasting overly-militant campus agitators, however, little attention has been paid in the press to what the student response to all this has been- how such policies, pursued with such vigour, are impacting campus life and the experience of what it is to be a student.
Terry Eagleton recently described in the Guardian the most insidious impact of Tory HE reform: universities are losing their ability to critique and question, becoming little more than corporate training and research grounds, rather than vehicles to expand our understanding and challenge society. This is driven by the need to provide 'practical' knowledge with a clear link to financial return for both the university and the individual, now that students are paying customers entering a commercial contract, rather than dedicated scholars embarking on a journey of discovery. Nowhere is this reduction of the critical more evident than in the rise of tepid student unionism.
Williams, in her book 'Consuming Education' talks of how student empowerment is now channelled through corporate 'customer service' channels, reduced to a feedback form-style module evaluation or the NSS, rather than grass roots agitation. Now students are 'consumers' the political is supplanted by the commercial, collective action by the individual feedback and the radical and challenging by the tame and the predictable. With a new emphasis on marketing and 'student experience' in the HE sector, unions are brought on board and given more generous funding, but much of this new power and wealth is used on commercial and non-controversial ventures such as sports funding or a new bar- not politically radical actions that mobilise students around a common cause.
Chris Parr, writing for Times Higher highlights fears that there is a growing tendency for increased reliance on university funding to translate into interference from university senior management in the direction and priorities of unions. Whilst highlighting that some universities welcome the role of SU's being 'critical friends', former Southampton SU president Alex Bols is quoted in the article as saying "The union needs to work with the institution, and that might mean that it sometimes feels like it can't say what it wants." Others have highlighted how universities increasingly pay little attention to timid objections from unions, who instead then retreat to safer ground. NUS itself, drawing on wider concerns of how charities and NGO's have reduced activism to simply handing over money to 'professional activists', has warned how unions now stand at a 'Values Crossroads' in which "If they take a 'mile wide and inch deep' approach to membership engagement, keeping their members at arm's length and trying to deliver change 'professionally' for and not with the membership then they risk failing to mobilise their members to create real, transformational change".
I have seen this in my own span as a student time and again- refusal by politically unaware or uninterested officers to genuinely challenge the university when it's in the best interests of those that have elected them. From a president whose response to a campus move shrouded in secrecy and with deep flaws in its design being simply to repeat the mistruths and poorly though-out logic of the senior management; to an officer-team refusing to support a boycott of NSS, despite the disastrous uses it will be put to by the government; to another president using her statement on our university raising fees to praise the vice-chancellor who did nothing to stop it; to yet another officer shying away from boycotting module evaluations that our SU has to distribute but has no say in their construction 'because we're not NUS', me and my fellow students have been consistently let down by timid leadership. I remember one time as a part-time officer simply asking to speak to a member of staff about the decision to install sensors on staff desks: it took me weeks to get the contact info off my senior officer, and when I finally had it being reminded, numerous times, of our need to 'maintain good working relationships with the university'. Translation- don't rock the boat.
Students' Union presidents now proudly declare at conferences and write in opinion pieces that they are not 'political', the assumption seemingly being that ignoring important issues somehow helps students. Money is poured into funding sports, societies and ever-expanding commercial venues at the expense of campaigning and organising. Unions market themselves to their students now, rather than actually being their students (the very way we do this, focusing on how we can improve 'employability', undermines the collectivist principles student unions were founded upon). Increasingly, officers are being elected that simply see themselves as service providers, working for the university more than anything else.
But what, after all is said and done, does it matter whether unions are political or not? I've seen what it means. It means higher and higher tuition fees. It means overworked and underpaid academics, bolstered by exploited postgraduate teaching students. It means less student support where it really matters, hidden course costs, all-too evident extravagant marketing ventures that help no one and universities harming our society by investing in every unsavoury asset from fossil fuels to weapons manufacturers. Being political means we have priorities, it means we have values and it means we're willing to fight for them. It matters, deeply, whether a union is 'political' or not: it is the only way it can really protect student interests, and those of wider society too.
This battle for the souls of students' unions is emblematic of a broader battle going on for the soul of society: a raging war in which 'the political' is in retreat and the commodified and the commercial is in ascendancy. When an SU worries more about the sales of its green thai curry than its election turnout, or the latest line up in the club than its democratic procedures, student wellbeing will inevitably suffer. It's not that commercial and social aspects are unimportant to a union's work - the social capital and the revenue they provide are important precursors to political mobilisation - but when they are the only or even the primary focus of a union, something has gone seriously awry.
In the words of Herbert Spencer, the great aim of education is not knowledge but action - this is why, historically, universities have been hot beds of activism and drivers of social change. We cannot allow the changing conditions and relationships between student, university and government alter the heart of what it means to be a union. It is our job, as unions, to stand firm and hold onto a radical commitment, in an age where we're fed a message at every turn not to do so, to being political - to challenging university leaders, government and wider society where we have to, and doing so in a truly democratic, grass roots way - with students, not for them. If we lose this commitment, we lose everything.