The BBC and Students’ Unions

“Students’ Unions and NUS are starting to become respected, if not respectable. This is an encouraging and positive trend; but they should pay heed to the warning not to do the opposite. Merely being respectable may make those involved feel better, but not being respected will lose the unique value of the voice of the student in education today”


One of the old “role and function” questions in the FE executive training pack was “Should ents always make a profit”. The answer we guide them to is a traditional YES and NO answer. Yes on the basis of being popular- many FE officers fail to properly research what is popular (often just asking mates) or overestimate ticket sales/underestimate costs. We assert that well run ents catering for the real needs of students will make money.

But then we say that sometimes events will lose money but are worth doing on the basis of diversity or special interests, and that this should be worked into the overall programme as part of the union’s overall plan to service its membership.

When I’ve done an R&F session with HE’s, I’ve often used a quick analogy to explain this in terms of BBC1 and BBC2. As a “public service” broadcaster that must compete but gets state funding, it must be popular and diverse, serving mass and specialist audiences. I therefore sometimes say to SU’s that in ents and bars terms, they need their BBC1 events and their BBC2 events- and that a mixture is healthy.

This is fine as it goes, but the rise of students’ union commercial services and the crossroads they are now at seems to me to resemble the problems the BBC faced in the mid 80’s to early 90’s. And the way students’ unions have structured “commercial” and “non commercial” services would also seem to me to have caused difficulty in seeing a “whole union” strategy to the mission of an SU.

To explain; one problem is that often “commercial services” are seen as places to “make money”, and non commercial as the place to “spend money”. The story goes- that BBC1 brings in the viewers and kudos to get state funding, and to sell on videos and syndicated episodes world-wide to fund the important “non commercial” stuff, like SU’s sell beer to fund welfare. But curiously, the split into “bars=commercial” and “membership services=non commercial” seems to me odd, as if the BBC would have said “TV=commercial, radio=non commercial”. It is to confuse and “box up” the delivery method with the purpose, to the ultimate denigration of both.

This was never a problem in the 80’s for SU’s- no one else was doing bars for students, so a mixture of amateurish populism, diversity, experimentation, and education/politics worked for SU’s bars/ents as it did for BBC output in its early days. But the crucial difference is that when professionalistion came about, it was put first into Bars via outside bars expertise, and then separately into membership services via outside expertise, from the commercial and voluntary sector worlds respectively. So whilst the BBC continues to attempt to be popular/commercial and diverse/educational in all delivery methods, we adopted a strange world where in a bar or ents event you were treated to rampant commercialism, and in the membership services end you were treated to benevolent paternalism. This arguably made bars and ents more popular but less diverse, bringing in cash but not core values or diversity, and membership services embodying core values and diversity but not populist delivery methods. Put simply, on BBC1 I might watch news and eastenders and on BBC2 a science programme and a comedy show; in an SU I have to go to a social/bar area for the eastenders and comedy, and into the membership services dept for science or news.

The long term development and envelopment of the strategy has led to homogenous, populist ents and invested in, but unpopular membership services. Whilst some unions retain cultural links between departments, it is undoubtable that more bars and ents are popular mass activity still and membership services still involve few people.

This leads to two things. Firstly, SU bars have no “marker” or “point of difference” for students, so they will happily surf elsewhere. They don’t feel like “theirs” and so will go to It’s a Scream or Wetherspoons- as viewers went from BBC1 to ITV in the 70’s and 80’s. Also, because of the relentless drive for populism and viewers in the 80’s, the BBC’s core funding came under threat from those who wanted to see more competition. We must remembers that SU’s retain heavy under regulation, special privileges (licences, vat exemption, locations) as did the BBC.

What the BBC did was reassert and re-evaluate its values and role, but also retained its mass delivery methods of BBC Radio and TV as having popular elements, diverse elements, news and politics elements, and a drive to make the last 3 accessible in a popular way. SU’s, meanwhile, continue to argue that “bars” are commercial, and “membership services” are non commercial. Is there a role for subsidy of certain bars/ents activity? Should some membership services be “commercial”? And if not, why not? Is it because of historical accident, or the route from which specialist staff came, or models from outside,    or by design? And what is the role of campaigning, representation and democracy in all of this, or the role of news and politics at the BBC? This is what this is all about…

The “Special Role” of a state funded BBC

The concept to “scheduling hammocking” is also useful to us here. 20 years ago the BBC took the view that couch potatoes would sit and watch a channel for the whole evening, based on the paucity of the channels available and the lack of a remote control. This gave the BBC the opportunity to slot a political or news programme in between more popular films or soaps. It is also true to say that despite romantic “looks back”, both entertainment and “serious” shows lacked any real sophistication or accessibility- in truth, most of it was dire by today’s standards.

Our best analogy to this situation might be campaigns posters in bars, political or campaigning articles in student newspapers, or diversity in ents events within a program of “discos” and “cheese nights”. In a time when students had nowhere else to go and plenty of time to spend in or on the union, this approach worked as it did for the BBC. You might argue that students were never naturally political, but the lack of options and excess of time/money meant that the hammocking approach from the union to introducing and educating students on such things was possible and worked, without much sophistication.

Yet now we are in a curious situation. As the numbers of cable channels and the fracturing of society has occurred, and people in general watch less television as a whole, as have students begun to have less time and money, and identify less with the notion of being a “student”. Add this diversification to competition from others wishing to take up students’ time and money to turn a profit, and we see the challenge that the BBC has faced, with ITV and now Cable/Satellite broadcasters making ever more popular entertainment programmes.

Here we see an interesting development. The development of the ITV network still catered for and dealt with a “mass” of viewers, as do the It’s a Scream, Virginstudent and others that have encroached on the movement’s activities to “turn a buck”. What the BBC did not do was to try to naively say to its viewers “watch us or you’ll lose the important stuff we do”, as Students’ Unions have naively sometimes said to their members. It simply doesn’t work. What it did was to go through something of a lull as it tried to cope with competition from “mass” commercial providers in the 60’s and 70’s, and then start to define it’s old, dogmatic reithian delivery method values into something more modern.

Perhaps this is what student development and high quality ents events/bars have been in the 80’s and 90’s. Education, Information and Entertainment (all part of development) were the old Reithian values delivered in a rigidly dogmatic way, often with the “old guard” and traditionalists clinging to old strands or shows as if their death was to be the death of the BBC. Similarly in the student movement the demise of the ents sabb, the elected SU treasurer and the introduction of entry points to representation like “CV building and Skills” have seen some bemoan the death of core values. Yet the BBC successfully redefined its role in delivering values by making some programmes more accessible, innovating, and retaining educational and minority programming and its funding…(whilst perhaps sometimes pushing such programmes to the margins)

(One rider here- the missing values in the BBC when compared to Students’ Unions are democracy and the notion of mutuality- “By Students’, For Students”- while the analogy is useful to a point, the BBC unlike students’ unions has never pretended that the people run the show…)

Perhaps therefore one problem to note with students’ unions is that since they are democratically controlled, the members are suppoed to define and guarantee the mission. Values have always been missing from students’ unions as organisations internally, except the bland mission to be all things to all students (or “enhancing the student experience, as it is commonly known). In politically different times, motivated members demanded diversity, education, representation and information and often such people took lead of students’ unions to ensure such things continued- the continuation in analogous terms of the reithian mission. They often instinctively knew what they had to do to hang on in power and get elected- play populism for justification of them being there and getting public funding, and then playing education, representation and politics once in. The BBC has similarly always played the “popular” card when the compulsory licence fee has been under attack in order to continue to provide diversity and education (and quality within a framework of responsibility and values).

Yet perhaps the elected officers failed to imbue their organisations internally with these values- retaining values in elected officers yet having staff in organisations as civil servants with no opinions. (This has always been a nonsense in students’ unions, and was simply a convenient model for permanent secretaries recruited from local government on the basis of resemblance and experience with democratic structures). With the BBC only too aware that the guarantee of diversity and education (and full state funding) would never come from the public alone, it had such values woven into its very fabric. For students’ unions, without the politically motivated leaders, it is a distinct possibility that values will be lost in the pursuit of bland “enhancing”, commercial protectionism and the desire to grab funding- from anywhere as long as it looks like it’s “enhancing” the student experience. What is needed is a new set of clearly defined values, and a defined role for students’ unions; inside the corporate ambition of the institution; core funded but attracting commercial and partner funding; and free to criticise and bite the hand that feeds it on the notion of independence, importance of role, diversity and populism. Without these, just as the BBC’s critics point to being forced to pay the licence fee and the unfairness of competing with entertainment on ITV and Cable/Satellite, so government and students will point again to students’ unions’ core funding and the unfair advantage given to SU bars, ents, locations, favours, licences, etc.

Across time new forms of competition have started to hit the BBC. Cable and Satellite have fractured the experiences of viewing and begun to “cherry pick” viewers & niches. Those hailing such developments have always said that this inevitably leads to quality- but recent rationalisation proves that what niche channels often do is fail commercially, dumb down or fracture.

Yet the “BBC Brand” arguably has elements of minority niche and populism that often starts to be influenced by minority and niche work. That in any case is the argument of the current Director General for the “strand” channels and the retention of BBC 1& 2 as mass and popular.

In this way students’ unions need to not just push the things they do that are popular, and “unite” (balls, freshers’ weeks, etc) but also the diversity inherent (certain societies, liberation, etc). Funding for such activity needs to protected, its development thought about and catered for, and judgements should be made on such “minority programming” on thresholds other than numbers or revenue. When officers ask if the union “has been a success”, they should do what the BBC does- 1) look at ratings within a scope of a quality threshold 2) look at what is done that can’t or won’t be done anywhere else and 3) look at how to turn 1) into 2) and 2) into 1) respectively. This is a moot argument for those saying women’s officers have no popular support amongst women in SU’s today. The BBC might argue that you don’t get that anywhere else and investing in development attempts to make such programming more accessible. Students’ Unions should probably do the same.

Representation & News

Perhaps missing from the analogy thus far is that of news and politics, and its role inside the BBC. Interest in politics, it is claimed, has waned inside the population. There is real concern now that young people simply do not watch such programming based on its labels and content. Representation and campaigning inside students’ unions may be useful to us here. Here it is argued (by many students as well as officers), that if students aren’t interested then we shouldn’t do it! Commercial companies certainly subscribe to this view. Yet not only is this argument a self-fulfilling prophecy, it also again forgets that an official role of students’ unions is that of representation and campaigning (imbued in constitutions), just as an official role of the BBC is news and politics (imbued in the charter).

Some things spring to mind. Firstly, the need to retain representation and campaigning is vital yet the development of the “organisation” as an employer, building, or VSO as opposed to a constitution may, as I have argued above, resulted in the failure of the organisation to imbue itself with such values. But also the BBC has adapted, and is continuing to adapt its coverage to make it accessible. Some detractors say that the BBC, as a state and compulsory funded body, should only do what is popular. Most decry this as nonsense and we should do the same for those who decry representation and campaigning in students’ unions- it still has a vital role to play (ironically in guaranteeing core funding!). But also students’ unions have arguably not ramped up the sophistication or accessibility of representation or democracy as the BBC has (and even it is having trouble), precisely because of the conceptual location of such work as being “with elected officers” rather than “within the organisation”. At least the BBC recognises a strategic problem and is trying to make politics accessible and less dogmatically, rigidly branded (the forthcoming “NHS day” springs to mind”. Students’ Unions have arguably failed totally; strategic plans refer to the development of the organisation, not the securing of political goals over 5 years. What strategic plan refers to how an SU will slowly win Grants not Fees, or Cheaper Accommodation?

Yet the BBC did this by being popular, diverse and still being political/values based. Students’ Unions have perhaps become popular and sophisticated in the entertainment world, retained some vestiges of adapted diversity (whilst controversially pushing it to the margins), but have failed to capitalise on the continued securing of core funding to push their representative and campaigning role. The truth is, despite the BBC often criticising the government in the “interests of the people”, the Government is more scared of the BBC than the BBC is of it. Likewise, ultimately in 1994 the Student Movement was  more scared of the Government than the other way around. In a period, then, of unlikely attacks from a Labour Government (but commercial pressures and a drive for efficiency), Students’ Unions should now properly invest in professional support for campaigning and representation, seek funding and outside recognition for such work, and try hard to innovate and involve students in new and accessible ways. This will take money, time and effc ort on behalf of General managers, AMSU and NUS working together, instead of leaving “politics” to sabbs and NUS. Just as when I look at a BBC schedule I can see elements of all its values, I should be able to look at Freshers’ Week and see more than just Saturday night on ITV.

(One rider here- the missing values in the BBC when compared to Students’ Unions are democracy and the notion of mutuality- “By Students’, For Students”- while the analogy is useful to a point, the BBC unlike students’ unions has never pretended that the people run the show…) 

The Overall Structural Relationship, and 1994

Finally, the overall structural relationship. The “people” own the BBC, but only insofar as the people elect the parliament that make the decisions about funding an independent BBC. The Government sets the values and charter, the BBC then tries to please both the people and the parliament itself to survive.

For students’ unions, perhaps the continued formal integration of representation and service provision is as much a problem as a solution. Bars, ents and welfare need values and ethics, not democracy. And representation and campaigning needs democracy, not efficiency and “unpopular = reductionism”

As political parties start to argue for state funded political parties and a state funded parliament, so should SU’s. They would then get far more investment and support and research and professionalism, something needed against a background of a falling interest in such things. It would then “own” its service company employing the staff and recruiting the volunteers, set policies on it as the parliament sets the charter for the BBC, and would do two wonderful things- strengthen the policy direction on it through a strengthened students’ council, parliament etc, but free the service company from the shackles of slow democracy to properly involve, educate, entertain and engage. It could even criticise the SU now and again. The SU would be free to concentrate on its proper role of democratic representation, and sometimes use the service provider as the Government uses the BBC to get its message across. The service provider would have diversity and plurality written into its charter and aims, etc. The service provider would be free to strike commercial deals, but be careful to retain state funding, playing the fine balancing act of people’s and parliament’s support that the BBC does. But importantly, the broadcaster broadcasts and the politician represents. Is this such a bad model for the student movement?


And finally to NUS. When money is tight, people either attempt to increase income, or reduce expenditure, and thus NUS (as the BBC) often gets chopped up on the back of a cigarette packet to suit the particular use or whim of the owner of said cigarette packet at any given time. Just as I cannot fully appreciate the value of the breadth of the BBC’s output, It is tempting for me to argue for paying only for what I want- why a big tax for a big corporation? Yet those who say NUS is too big are wrong. Many argue the BBC is too big. But the BBC has argued that it should still get a chunk of guaranteed ring fenced tax funding whilst being more efficient to reach ever more diverse viewers in new ways. This is right for the BBC- save money and deliver more on what you’ve got- as it is for NUS. The breadth of its activity is important to defend both for reasons of plurality, and also for the defence of principle- do Value for Money studies on “the affiliation fee” and you quickly open us all up to Value for Money studies on the block grant- which again would rob SU’s of the plurality (or potential plurality) that they have, as the BBC does.  There are still challenges that NUS has to face in making politics and campaigning relevant that need funding, but given that the Government still allows public monies to flow into an organisation that often criticises it, we should not be overly critical.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s