Just over two years ago, Peter Cadogan wrote in both Agenda and Network, an article which sought to 100k to the future for students” unions. It argued, amongst other things, that unions seek to refocus upon representation as a way to increase member involvement, clarify the role of staff and officers, and further develop the relationship between union and institution.
We might argue that little has changed since. It is questionable as to whether unions have truly begun to refocus upon what is often called the representation “function”. Meanwhile, involvement and accountability in our student organisations continues to decline and be a concern. This article seeks to develop some of the themes within that original article, and explores in depth the relationship between that “function” and other functions inside students’ unions. In this article, I wish to make a number of observations and suggestions. Firstly, I believe that it is still imperative to prioritize the representative function of students’ unions; both in terms Of campaigning activity, and in terms Of development Of representative systems. Secondly, I want to argue that the commonly held model of students’ unions having ‘operational- staff and ‘political-officers’ sides is flawed, continues to cause us problems, and is not suited to students’ unions because of their representative and campaigning role. Finally, I want to suggest that students’ unions original premise of locating power within the students body has been lost, and should be once again found in order to protect our future, and the future of our members. Defining the students’ union It’s just over six years since the 1994 Education act, and just over five since I first became involved in the student movement. In that time I’ve learnt a lot from officers, staff, and a whole host of entertaining individuals who hold some kind of power over students inside the educational world. But I’ve been becoming increasingly troubled about what I’ve found. What I’ve found most odd is that documents from the 70’s that justified the introduction of the full time, sabbatical Officer justified this in terms of the officer having more time to actually be a representative. So has nothing changed? Last year, when completing my final year’s dissertation on (you guessed it!) students’ unions, I came across a possible reason for my discontent… An “ideal” definition of what students’ unions do is, of course, very difficult, but this seems to sum it up: “To strive to meet the needs and promote the rights of students either through student controlled and owned services. or by agitating for others to meet those needs” What this definition does is effectively wrap up into one what has long been recognised as the “dual role” of students’ unions: service provision and representation. For example, “student controlled and owned services” might be the bar, ents programme or welfare service; ” agitating for others to meet those needs” might be representation on the library user’s group, or running a “stop the fees” campaign. This dual role has long been recognised and quoted as being one of the key strengths of the student movement in the UK, as opposed to Europe or the US v,/here the two functions are divorced. Here, students have direct democratic control over their services, and have the resources and back up to effectively campaign and represent each other. The two
functions together provide strength and ensure that students are better off as a result. Or are they? Rationalities I was always worried by the lack of campaigning and representation work going on inside students’ unions, and the apathy of students in general, and that became the focus of
my final year dissertation, called “Students are not Revolting” Amongst a host of theories on culture, hegemony and apathy/involvement, I came across a bank of research into trade unions carried out in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. It suggested that trade unions carried out two key, but conflicting functions – functions based on differing rationalities. The “representative” rationality was characterized by a multiplicity of communications methods and strategies to reach as many people as possible; holding back on decisions until the maximum amount of consultation; lots of democracy, committees, etc. It required the trade union leaders. and thus the organisation, to be representative Of members’ aspirations and wishes.
But given that to run an organisation that needed to actually carry out the tasks of representation, there was also an “administrative rationality” required. This was characterised by carrying out tasks efficiently, employing experts, budgetary control, etc. It made the trade union efficient. The problem was that many researchers saw the two functions as conflicting and incompatible. What if the trade union calling for a minimum wage could not afford to pay its own administrative staff that wage? Nuture vs nature
Excited by this, I set to work to find parallels between trade unions and students’ unions, especially given our focus on service provision in terms of welfare, bars, etc The first of these is what we might call the ‘nurture’ vs nature’ debate. The representative rationality suggests that the circumstances we face can, and should. be challenged and changed; the administrative rationality suggests that we should discover the current circumstances and serve them as best we can. Hence some will say that by “nature” students are apathetic, and so money spent on campaigns is pointless; others will argue that by engendering a sense of injustice, they can be nurtured into getting involved in a demonstration. A prime example of this conflict is the situation faced by students’ unions during the introduction of fees; should the focus be on non payment or lobbying and campaigning on the issue – nurture, or should it be on giving students information and advice about how and when to pay – nature? Whilst many did a mixture Of both, we must recognise that to students the two positions together seemed incongruous – the rationalities conflict. The Rationalities Conflict We might argue that in terms of these rationalities, the elected officer is wedded to the representative rationality – they represent students – and the notion of the volunteer is wedded to the administrative rationality. Increasingly. inside students’ unions, we seek to treat elected officers like sophisticated volunteers, despite the conflicting rationalities. The elected are chosen by students; the volunteer is selected by people who are largely no longer students. In terms of accountability, the volunteer and their colleagues are usually accountable to one person, setting objectives, etc; a kind of top-down accountability. The elected officer, on the other hand, could be held accountable to a multitude of people, usually the constituency that elected her. A kind of “bottom – up” accountability. Given these differences, it is clear that our training programmes, induction sessions, mentoring schemes, opportunity profiles and sabbatical contracts are, on the one hand, an attempt to recognise that. just like volunteers, elected officers are giving up their time to carry out their duties. However, they also largely fail to recognise the different rationalities involved. Some of our induction and training fails to address the issue of being accountable to a number of people, ie the electorate, and is actually based on models of top down accountability such as objectives setting and mentoring. Results and Work Linked to this is the debate between “results” and “work”. Some time ago at an area conference, a debate was held about the introduction of a ‘convenor terms and conditions statement’, essentially a sabbatical contract. In there was the usual stuff that many sabbaticals now have; holiday entitlement. normal hours of work, etc. The debate at the time was not just around how realistic it was. or who would actually be in a position to monitor whether was in at 9 and home at 5; it also was concerned with how you monitor performance in an elected officer. The representative rationality suggests that you judge by results – an officer says they will achieve x, and if they do they are validated in that achievement via the democratic channels. The administrative rationality, on the other hand, suggests that you judge by work – was she in today, can I have 2 days off, I worked till 8 0 clock tonight, have 3 hours off in lieu. Whilst for an organisation to run smoothly we might expect sabbaticals to actually Come into work, the reality is that electing someone, where the accountability is to tie many, by definition suggests we should judge officers by their results against their mandates and manifesto. If my one manifesto pledge as Athletic Union Officer is to close the Athletic Union, and I’ve done it by Christmas, then the only thing that should make me come into work any more is mandates from students at a General Meeting or student council. Plugging the Hole The dangerous thing that we have done is seek to solve a hole in one rationality by beefing up another. As democratic involvement in the representative rationality has decreased, so we have compounded the problem by plugging the hole using an administrative technique. Since officers are rarely given votes of no confidence any more, we have built in “contracts” despite the fact that they are paid office bearers, not members of staff. This in turn means that there is no political wili to get people to sign a petition or go to the general meeting to hold the vote, and so involvement and accountability decreases. In a couple of recent cases where a group of sabbaticals have tried to “sack” a fellow officer for these reasons, legal advice has confirmed that the notion of a contract for an officer is flawed; but a policy statement on terms and conditions more appropriate when taken through democratic channels. Let us take another example related to accountability, and the practice of plugging a representative gap with an administrative solution. I recently had a conversation with a couple of officers about the campaigns they were planning to run this year. They indicated that they had decided to run these campaigns on the basis of market and focus group research they had done, and suggested that this was far more successful than the student council nobody turned up to. On the one hand. they have a point; 500 students’ questionnaires and 50 detailed focus group results probably is more representative “than a bunch of hacks at student council”. The problem, of course, is about where control lies and how decisions are reached. The representative rationality suggests that debate should be had around some kind of position – ie the union is “against” top up fees. People debate both sides, and finally decide via a vote on what the union “believes” and what it wil do about it. Three things are apparent about this process – the members are in control and hold power over the officers (the officers may be defeated in the debate); the union takes a position on an issue; and often people can change their mind during a debate, when they have heard both sides of the story. Of course, often these debates are simplistic, but nevertheless that is the process.
Compare that with the administrative system of market research and focus groups into how to spend the campaigns budget. In this system, the officers hold power and control over the members – they can choose to ignore the research, or ask questions in a certain way, or to distort the findings. They theoretically don’t have to do what they are told. Secondly, often no “position” is taken on an issue; there is no published stance of belief from the organisation on what is right or wrong. Finally, few minds are changed during the process.
As a result, the activities of welfare officers provide us with a useful example. The representative rationality might suggest students passing a resolution about high rents and poor standards of accommodation, and mandating the officer to run a campaign that is by definition opposition. The administrative rationality might suggest that the officer picks up on this as an issue and tries to work with the university to make things better. The reality is more stark; the representative rationality suggests work on student hardship, benefits, accommodation standards; the administrative rationality suggests work on things like World Aids day. sexual health or meningitis awareness. Representative rationality involves students mandating an officer to change something that is affecting them- administrative involves an officer researching that students are unaware or need help, and then providing it. If you like, political vs non-political.
Political Versus Non-Political
This can come to a head often. Take the union which. for example, has accepted sponsorship from a company which is later found to be providing a poor service for students, or which has moral debates attached to it. Does the union continue to take the money (administrative rationality), or stop to demonstrate depth of feeling as part of the campaign?
I can think of countless examples, involving phone companies, Nestle, etc etc where the resultant compromise is often fundamentally uncomfortable and achieves little for students. Overall, Perhaps if officers were aware Of the rationalities at work, they might be better informed of the decision to take?
We need to remember that one of the theoretical notions behind the student movement was around a related political theory from Albert Hirschmann, who described how individuals who want to express their dissatisfaction with goods or services have two options: exit or voice.
Administrative rationality suggests that recipients of services have power when they “exit” by choosing another provider. But students do not have a choice of provider in terms of their university once they are there, and are in joint ownership of the union’s services and representation, so also cannot “exit”.
Therefore, the dissatisfaction must be expressed inside the educational world via Voice which both fits the sector and the need to protect different pes of recipient. What this tells us is that we should be keen to promote Ways in which that “voice” can be collectively expressed, rather than use some of the techniques used by her service providers simply try to expand non-exit
This leads me to a cautionary note about politics. Some who I have talked to have argued that this is little more left v right debate that has gone on inside the student movement since the dawn of time – that the left cry “campaign, occupy, General meetings” and the rest cry “student development, awareness campaigns”.
I have just one thing to point out at this stage – that the process of how things work is often only loosely relate to the content of the work that is done. The argument that those on the far left wing of our movement are the only true representatives because they cling to general meetings and oppositional campaigns as tactics for a defined goal is a carefully crafted political position, not irrefutable fact. Hopefully, the content of this piece shows this up; but if not, think fuel protestors…
This then-leads to the debate-around-the role of the organisation. or elected officer: the controversial word political. It continues to worry me that so few people inside the Student movement understand the notion that they are in a political environment. This is of course linked to accountability and the like, so on the one hand it’s about saying to officers that they are not “Party” political but political in terms of their actions.
But the notion that huge chunks of our organizations are not about politics at all is curious. None of us “leave the politics to the officers”. I don’t mean that staff often stitch things up (although…). What I am saying is that the member of training staff that delivers a two hour course representatives session is doing so because the the union has political position on the notion that students should be able to represent each other in the running of their courses.
Some people believe that students should not have this right – therefore, the staff member is carrying out something that is part of a political programme.
The implication is that the two functions can only survive together when they support each other – such that when a member of staff delivers a time management session based on market research, an elected officer can at the same time be campaigning for students to be given more time off, or a minimum wage such that they can spend less time behind the bar and more time being a course representative. The danger is that failing to recognize the two rationalities at work means that they conflict and confuse an officer or organisation in a dual role.
How might that confusion manifest itself? Even if we discard the individuals who take up positions, there are fundamental oppositions inside and between common sabbatical positions.
I hear of many staff concerned that commercial sewvices (or equivalent) officers “won’t let the managers manage” and want to be involved in operational issues. Can you blame them? They are suddenly in political charge of a set of functions that have been increasingly run along an administrative rationality (efficiency, budgetary control, profit margins, etc) as the 80’s and 90’s continued, The dual role is easier for a welfare officer – they see students and deal with casework (administrative) and Often then run campaigns on those issues (representative). They are elected to be representative, and trained to be administrative. But how does this work for the services officer. unless she works behind the bar and represents students’ concerns on the strategic issues.
My favorite example of this contradiction is when sabbatical teams fall out not because of their failure to adhere to Belbin, but because there is usually one or two officers who think of themselves as one of the rationalities, and the rest the other.
A number of other contradictions spring to mind. The representative rationality encourages us to think of students’ unions as a collection of people – ie the members, as outlined in the constitution. Administrative rationality encourages us to think about unions in terms of a collection of functions – the welfare service, the bar, etc. By definition, when those differing ways of thinking about our organisations’ make up are promoted in any way through communications, it encourages students to think of themselves as either members or customers respectively, despite any tinkering around the edges we may do in mission statements or introductory speeches to students. The overriding conclusion that I always have, is that I feel like a member at my union bar; everywhere else, I feel like a customer. That is not just about creating the illusion Of ownership that has been so cleverly created by It’s a Scream and others; it is about the fact that I genuinely felt empowered to change that environment, and it ran and promoted itself along the lines of representative rationality.
The member is collectively powerful; the customer, largely powerless.
But so what? It is sometimes tempting to debate which rationality is actually better for students – the principled representative rationality, or the practical administrative rationality. It is worth noting at this stage that the loyalty and value I place on those organisations Of which I feel a member is higher than those Of which I am a customer, for many of the reasons outlined above around power and principle.
Principle versus Practice
But it’s not just about principle versus practice. Take the issue Of equal opportunities. Decision making by consensus and focus groups would not lead us to spending money on liberation campaigns. Representative rationality guarantees liberation representation for minority groups administrative does not. We might sum this up in the 0ld phrase “the interests of the public versus the public interest”. But this manifests itself in Other ways. The continuing decline Of women’s officers is not necessarily about sexism or even modernisation – it is simply a move from representative rationality to administrative again. Representative says the world is unequal and we need a women’s officer to represent the particular interests of women and to campaign to change that fundamentally unequal society. Administrative rationality says that as a service provider we must already be equal, and so create a man’s officer too.
The reality is that in terms of two functions of students’ unions, representatives and service providers, both arguments are right, and have always conflicted. It’s just that some people quote the first rationality as “best”, some the second as “modern and best”.
Locations of Power
One way for us to look at this might be again in terrns of locations Of power, We can argue that representative rationality might manifest itself in terms Of officers being primarily concerned with what is happening to the members – so agendas Of executive meetings or meetings with the university might talk about students’ issues and what the union is going to do about them.
Administrative rationality might mean those agendas are more concerned with the union as an organisation, its initiatives, finance and developments. When we focus upon administrative rationality, we find that elected officers are theoretically powerful in terms Of strategy. Their role becomes strategic and po icy making, with staff carrying out operational functions. The problem with this is that when we focus on that service provision, their power is actually significantly limited by Other factors. Most unions cannot simply change organisational course each year, so they get inducted into the “strategic plan”. But moreover, what a union can or cannot provide as a service is fairly well controlled by the parent institution in terms of grant and buildings. Indeed, the ’94 Act requires that oversight from the Governing Body. A union officer in reality can do little to alter services as a result.
They have little power, and thus so do their students. But where the officer and organisation works to a representative rationality, things are different. It is very difficult to stop a union executive or officer writing to the newspaper about an issue affecting students, or running a campaign. Far more power is located with students here. This may or may not explain why institutions have been happy for unions and officers to continue to expand service provision. but seek to control it in covert ways, such as the inspection of budgets and service level agreements. It actually means for them less challenge to their authority over students, because more of the representatives’ time is spent “running” the services.
So how can we plan for the future? If administrative rationality has taught me anything, it’s development planning. Since my principal concern is how we can move students’ unions into the future, we must we are now, as I have done also examine here we have come from.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that prior to the late 60s/early 70’s, students’ unions weren’t really very political at all, but actually ran a small set of services (mainly clubs and societies) along representative lines,’ a bit like an early trade union or social club. The political climate then led to large scale politicization of the student movement in the late 60’s and 70’s, with demands on student input and representation beginning to be accepted by universities, and larger scale political action by students in the face of a changing society. As I understand it, the great debate in the late 70’s was around whether unions should move into larger, professional service provision – some argued that in Order to be viable would limit the campaigning options of students’ unions and weaken the-representative end.
Others said that on the contrary, if unions don’t professionalize and focus on services, then they will be charged with wasting taxpayers money on bad services that others could do better, and wasting taxpayers money on highly political, often “leftwing”, campaigns.
And, Of course, both were right. The options on campaigning work have been limited. The cultural differences between rationalities means that some of our democratic structures and elections and accountability now do seem weak and often incongruous to the aims of our organizations.
Fundamentally, people did Start to question the value for money in the block grant during Cuts and expansion, and in the early ’90s a Conservative Government accused the movement Of using taxpayers money to run anti government campaigns. This led to what I call the “Great Settlement” that is the 1994 Education Act; which guaranteed a Governing body Overseeing and charity law to ensure prudence in the running of the organisation (ie administrative rationality) but also democracy and accountability (in the regulations about elections and referenda)
But there is an argument that we, during that time and since it, have taken a path that is a little too cautious; that favours the administrative function above the representative one; and that constantly fears another threat from a conservative government.
Firstly, take the example of course representatives. Students’ unions had argued for students to be represented on University committees for many years, with the primary motivation that students would have a say in the running of the university, and thus would be better able to promote a political programme Of equality Of opportunity, etc.
The “Student Developrnent” explosion in the ’80’s and ’90’s then meant that money was available for training and supporting such representatives, as long as we promoted the educational aspect to get the funding. Hence students’ unions primary motivation was the representation itself; our funder was the educational experience and skills development. Representative Rationality vs Administrative Rationality, Yet it would seem to me that we have wasted this trick, this settlement, this paradox, by only investing in and supporting the student development and skills development angle, rather than really investing in and supporting content of representation and methods of having policies, reasoned debate, and argument.
A University Quality Manager said to me only last week “The problem with these representatives you train is that they have nothing to say, but they say that very well”. For students’ unions, dangerously, Student Development has become an end in itself, rather than something you might get out Of defending students’ rights, or promoting equality and access.
Secondly, the model that has grown up around how our unions should be organised, curiously suggests, that General Managers, and virtually all staff below them, should be employed only within the administrative function. Where Permanent Secretaries were once “the guardians Of the constitution”, they are now recruited largely on their ability to manage a large operation, Often primarily on their commercial acumen – fundamentally missing out the needs Of members and protect accountability and democracy of the elected officers. That’s not to suggest that General Managers should start voting in General Meetings -it’s about the idea that the role of staff can often be about supporting the representative rationality, not just the administrative one. The idea that the officers can take care of” that side of the pyramid” all by themselves, is one which is perpetuated, but not necessarily by definition right.
It is a model of accountability that was popular in local councils; we was correct to assume that unions are democratically controlled service providers that needed staff; but in another way failed to recognise that councillors usually can get lots of experience over a long period Of time and so need less support on the representative end, and that unions a so are democratically controlled change agents or pressure groups(unlike local councils), and need support to carry out those functions effectively.
But it is not just the lack Of support for “the representative function” that our current model beholds. It also represents problems with the Way in which we have kept the two functions together inside the same organisations. In the US where the two functions are separated into different organisations, the student who wants to run the bar tries to
(Fig T: The Funnel. This model does not describe the average working day or a mode’ to run a students’ union by; most willattempt far more interaction. But if conflict arises, this is the fundamental mode of command; this is the written stuff, of JobDescriptions and Constitutions. – we often see this in play if money is tight etc. Increasingly, the argument goes, because of theirinteraction with staff rather than students their dependency on feedback and praise from staff rather than students, and thedepartmentalisation of portfolio, sabbaticals have begun to sink into the bottom half of the funnel, leading to conflict betweenthem and staff, and between them and other student officers, volunteers, etc)
get employed; the student who wants to challenge the principal gets elected. In a small HE union here, a student can do both, as they might have done in the 60’s. With the expansion of our organisations in the UK in terms of size over the 80’s and 90’s, we have simply expanded levels and layers of control inside both functions, such that in theory, a student who thinks that the bar staff should wear red ribbons for world aids day must get elected as a union councilor, pass a resolution, have it discussed at the exec, the president passes it to the General Manager, who passes it down through the channels to the bar staff.
Whilst in reality we try to be less formal about that process, it is theoretically in place and little has come along to replace it. The two rationalities now only meet at the top of the pyramid. a kind of President-Genera lManager glue designed to protect the settlement in the 94 Act.
Meanwhile there is declining investment in the representative rationality, both in terms of resources, and also ideology and culture, and then we wonder why people don’t vote, don’t get involved in campaigns and don’t believe in the collectivism of NUS rather than the individualism of Virgin Student and shop around for their pints! The conflict fails to materialise in small unions precisely because the two functions, whilst separate, are still able to interact – largely because people know each other and those “levels” are less developed.
Most small HE unions I know have fewer problems in terms of perception and involvement not just because communication is easier, but also for that reason. The irony is that it didn’t have to be this way. Firstly, we have “modernised” students’ unions simply by beefing up the administrative rationality function to plug holes in a declining democratic participation level. Effective training Of officers doesn’t solve too few candidates and too few voters. Focus groups do not solve no-one wanting to come to student council. What we could have done, and should now do, is make a concerted effort to modernise the representative function; changing its language, image, and processes, whilst keeping the principles Of debate, political position taking and students having power over the officer.
This means investment in democracy, staff support for campaigns, General Manager’s supporting both functions, etc But we might also argue that the way we have sought to develop the administrative functions of service provision for students has taken a fundamental wrong turn. Representative rationality argues that the means is just as important as the end. We should be principled in the way we do things, not unprincipled as long as the end result is fine – for the end result is so unpredictable and changing. Administrative rationality, on the other hand, argues that as long as the end result is good, then do it how it needs to be done. Hence this rationality says “yes” to bribing students into a General Meeting with pints and prizes, because at least in the end the meeting could be run.
What’s interesting about this is that if the ’94 Act forced the justification of union funding around its role as educational, then it was a prime opportunity to let the means justify the end, rather than the other way around. We could have reacted by turning more and more staff positions over to employed students, and turned virtually all permanent staff into student development practitioners (ie the bar manager is not employed on the basis of commercial acumen but how well he/she can coach students who actually run the bar, do the ordering, etc).
In other words, there are no professional staff per se; only staff supporting students in being experts, managers, etc, at all levels of the organisation. Whilst this is starting to happen in some areas, there is still a long way to go – and its beauty is that one it’s cheaper, two it’s more educational for more students, and three more power is left with the student than the organisation. In not adopting to this strategy wholesale, we now face the prospect of institutions once again turning around to us and saying “we can do that better than you, we’ll have the funding”. Just take a look at what has happened in FE. Whereas in HE we successfully kept the funding available for student development activities, it was recognised that extra-curricular activities were too important to leave to this added layer of unpredictable beurocracy called students’ unions – and now the function is virtually totally controlled by the FE institutions themselves in the name of Curriculum Enrichment.
Where is Our argument that welfare or sport or bars should stay within students’ unions? If most of our staff in the area are permanent not student, then we don’t have the educational argument; if few students vote or take part in democratic processes we don’t have the “by students, for students” argument, so there is really little stopping them.
The wonder is that unions continue to run things “efficiently” along these administrative rationalites and still “waste money” on elected officers and the added layer of bureaucracy. A General Manager once said to me that if the institution ever tried to take the bars and entertainments off him, he’d tell them to “stick to the knitting”. As we’ve found in FE, the “knitting” is increasingly extra as well as core curricular activities.
Support not Services
In specifics around staff, we must remember that the original purpose of staff inside students’ unions was to support students delivering services and representing each other. It is arguable that most staff inside students’ unions no longer do either – excepting administration and finance staff. The hierarchical model suggests that they support ‘the sabbaticals'(a long way from being students, not least because we all spend three months over the summer telling them NOT to be students!). So now most staff provide services for students directly rather than supporting students who do so. In this way, a students’ marker of difference between students’ unions and rival service providers has been lost. Their actual experience of services (whatever the conceptual elected officer framework) is identical to that of elsewhere.
In other words, in the future, the functions which normally run along an administrative rationality must be increasingly run along a representative one too – effectively adding to and manipulating the ‘performance targets’ and social auditing that we currently see. It means that we must develop systems that ape the small scale democracy involved in the running of a small yet successful social club. The raison d’etre of running a bar needs to match the constitutional requirement of providing social space’, as well as cash for the welfare unit.
Our measurement should be safety of space and sense of control, as well as GP. The advice center’s raison d’etre needs to return to having a mission to doing itself out of a job via representation based on casework. as well as Of being measured in terms of customer satisfaction or member awareness.
These representative rationalities are our only true points Of difference from other service providers. On the representative side we must not only genuinely invest time, intellect and development in our democratic structures. but also significantly raise our game in terms of delivering better things for students. We need to remember how to say’ NO’ as well as •partnership’.
We should support our representatives and campaigns with real resources and research, as well as the agenda of training and skills that our universities push us toward. To not do so would be to squandour our success during the debate of the 1994 Act -that we got away with still representing students, campaigning for them, saying ‘NO’, by telling everyone that as part of all that we delivered valuable services and skills.
My fear is that now we say we deliver services and skills, and that as part of that we also represent students. Our tail, waved at Government and Institutions, has started to wag the dog.
We must support and invest representation. We must redefine our services totally around student development and once again become experts at giving students control over their services with appropriate, professional support. So we must support and invest representation. We must redefine our services totally around student development and once again become experts at giving students control over their services with appropriate, professional support. But we must still address the issues of conflict between the rationalities inside our organisations. I have argued that we can choose to let them destroy each other (so that no campaigning work is done and services are taken away from students’ control) or let them provide each other with strength, as the •94 Act and history gave us an opportunity to do.
On one level, the common theme within both representation and services inside students’ unions is about being student run, student led, student controlled. My proposed solutions above reflect a desire to bring students back to the debating table and instructing their elected officers (returning power to them representatively) and giving students more power and control over their services – so culturally, some of the work is done with those solutions.
But on a practical level we must seek to decentralise power(perhaps at multi site institutions), think again about the “six sabbatical officer” model and re-evaluate the extent to which the functions can interact. The idea that the skills you get out of student development are more important than the activity itself should be reversed into students themselves setting the agenda on development – nurture, not nature. And that, perhaps, is the most fundamental question of all; do we recognise and simply react to the idea that education is now just skills training for the workplace, or do we as students’ unions seek to wrest control Of the agenda and argue for what we think education could and should be about?
Some argue that we should become like the new, modern, local councils, with scrutiny committees and elected cabinets. This helps, but fails to address the issues of member involvement and the fact that they are democratic service providers – we provide services AND agitate for others to do
Some argue that we should reform ourselves in the way that the labour party has done, by involving students in discussion and policy fora. Aside from sniping about how policy forums work in practice, the principle problem with this is that it changed itself from a pressure group, oppositional, to a group that looked like a Government. Students’ unions are no tabout to shed themselves of the oft-oppositional representative function. and so this might only work for reforrn of service provision – not the campaigning stuff. Some say that the size of our organisations is now such that we should split the representative function off from services instead of trying to fix something that can’t be fixed. This would then involve NUSSL and AMSIJ morphing into a professional trade body for student services departments inside universities, and NUS becoming an individual membership body concerned only with representation in a similar way to trade unions.
On the face of it, this model is attractive; but the example of the Europeans and America is that the representative function is significantly weakened and the service provision function, whilst more efficient becomes too faceless, unresponsive and corporate, There are pockets Of practice that might point us toward the future. One is at the University of Plymouth Students’ Union. Four sites merged into one university in 1990: the four unions didn’t. The three smaller unions all are small enough such that the rationality conflict does not rear its head; so that must be protected. At the same time, the ’94 Act demands one students’ union, not four, and a set of globally elected trustees. We are currently working with them to effectively manage the contradiction – such that four sabbatical trustees at the centre will work to “manage” the overall organisationin such a way as to protect the interests of local democracy and accountability at the sites.
So the organisation will employ the staff centrally, but those staff and the union’s other centrally managed resources will employed and evaluated on the extent to which they support the work of elected (non trustee) site sabbaticals and executives and their focally, democratically controlled mandates and activities. Locally controlled, centrally managed is how we run clubs and societies; why not sites, and in the future other functions inside our organisations?
If we fail to address some of these issues, we pay a zero sum game.
I offer no easy solutions to all of this, suffice to say that if we fail to address some Of these issues, we pay a zero sum game. The increasing “professionalisation” of the administrative function inside NUS, NUSSL and AMSU, along with the lack of attention paid to “politics” is a process which, in the end leads to a very different student movement, where service provision is no longer run by students, having been split off into student services departments of universities and the representative function is stuck in the dogma and structures of the 60’s, poorly funded and weak. If you really want a story, trace back the popular language of the movement from the late 60’s to now. From demanding student power, to student run, to student controlled, to student led, to student input, to student consultation both in terms of education itself and now students’ unions. Our purpose and point, both in terms of service provision and representation, was always about students running the show, how they wanted things to be run. We should, then, be careful not to become the very people that the movement used to attack. Anyone read Animal Farm recently…?