Governance, Power, Responsibility and Accountability in Students’ Unions

“What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”

Tony Benn

“Lets find a way to get officers relieved of management and day to day running and get them refocused, and perhaps reclassified, by extolling the virtues of trusteeship and representation.”

Peter Robertson

It’s a noble intent to let the managers manage. But if officers aren’t doing that, I suspect it’s not so simple just to hope that they “represent” or “act as a Trustee”. Here I will argue that there are real difficulties and complexities in both. I will also argue that getting this right is central to the notion legitimacy- itself central to the idea of a students’ union’s democratic environment, and certainly central to the continued ability to pull down public funding from Universities. The quality model alone will not suffice. Some of the considerations below may help.

Legitimacy The Role of Money- The Union that is “Run in Students’ Interests”

A legitimate membership organisation is run in the “interests” of its members. One of the roles of democracy in a member based organisation is supposed to be the determination and definition of interests. Not all individuals’ interests are the same – there must be a process which is able to determine the collective interests of a group of people – in our case the students in a particular institution via elections and other democratic fora.


Yet for all the chatter of democracy, in reality its money that talks. The decline in commercial revenues and the general unease inside students’ unions financially underlines this. Even if you were to believe that students’ unions thought about students first and themselves second, there is always the survival of the organisation to consider – indeed it is a legal duty for student officers posited as Trustees.

Money is important; to pursue interests you usually need some form of funding to carry out activity that can do the pursuing. This leads to two issues, how one attracts funding, and the interests that those funders are prepared to see their funds put to. Which student interests attract funding?

To a considerable extent, the “interests of students” are defined by the law and, due to grant funding, by Universities. The other major source of funding is through the customer – the “profit recycled into action” argument proposed by so many unions. But there is a difficulty.

Firstly when one serves a customer in a “not for profit”, the act and venue is in and of itself considered to a service “in the interests of the members”. But those interests are usually only met when the service is profitable. That’s not to argue that unions should prop up badly run and managed services on the basis of falsely assuming that “it’s providing a service”. It is to argue that the overall profitability of commercial services determine what the “interests” of those students are.

Similarly, to “attract” that funding (ie the surplus) unions must court and attract their customers. This leads to a disproportionate focus on those members likely also to be customers- full time, middle class undergraduates. Inevitably organisations will develop perceptions, knowledge and relationships with that set of people- who will, directly or indirectly, exert influence over what that surplus is spent on. Hence again the “interests” of the wider student body, even if not in “opposition” to the customer’s, are only met when they correlate with the interests full time, middle class undergraduates.

In consumer co-operatives, where trading is done “mutually” (we could reasonably adapt this concept at least for union commercial operations), it is argued that people are both customers of the operation and members of the operation, and there is an identity between the two. Roger Spear, author of a recent paper on Governance in Democratic Membership Based Organisations, explains that many consumer co-operatives have lost the “identity principle”, because many members are not consumers (they may have moved away, died etc) and many consumers are not members either because they lack the interest or the opportunity.

He argues that where the “identity principle” is strong, there is a beneficial correlation. Increase in customer activity improves the financial base; it translates into an increase in member activity improving the “legitimisation” of the organisation and vice versa.

Where the identity principle is weak, he argues there are two issues. Firstly those in control of the operation do not represent the customers, leading to poor commercial decisions and poor viaibility; and secondly, if membership is about more than merely “having a card” and more about the real definition of what we might call “active membership”, the scale of membership can be overstated leading to what looks like low participation rates, leading to poor democratic legitimacy. A democratically controlled mutual must be both viable and legitimate.

Is there a strong “identity principle” in students’ unions? If on the “customer” end the customers are mainly full time, middle class undergraduates, and on the membership end they never “sign up”, “Join” or “invest in” that membership (they merely enrol on a University course), the “identity principle” looks very weak in most students’ unions.

Participation Rates and Legitimacy

Participation rates are a key concern when doing “the legitimacy test”. Certainly many student officers I speak to express concern about the raw percentage of voters in an election (often without any real analysis of the demographics behind such data which would doubtless reveal a much higher percentage of full time undergraduates). Regardless of the demography, recent data on UK Consumer Co-Operatives, for example, shows a range of 1-5% of members participating in board elections. National societies aren’t much better with an average of 1.2% of members voting. Even membership based charities don’t fare much better, the postal-voting members of the national trust only manage to find 3.3% of their 2.7 million members prepared to return a ballot paper.

Active participation helps. Pestoff (1991) found that the greater the “contact surface” between an organisation and its members, the greater the participation. This would certainly help explain the numbers, and skewed demographics of union elections; it’s middle class full time undergraduates that are more likely to participate in activities and services ostensibly geared around them.

But 8-10% of demographically skewed members does not a legitimate organisation make regardless of the lower rates mentioned above, and the alignment of customer and student identities would certainly help students’ unions.

Factions and Legitimacy

Factional control and its undesirability are oft cited at NUS. Yet such coalitions or factions are often seen as strength of legitimacy in corporate models of governance; voting blocks like that of institutional investors in conventional shareholding companies exert concentrated influence, and provide checks on managerial power or ineffectual boards.

Representation, and Accountability

The notion of representation is fundamental to the legitimacy of democratic “government”. I, and many of you, may wish that more union officers were out carrying out the “function” of representation, but we need to be clear on what that means, how it works and what kinds of processes it entails.

A common debate revolves around two archetypal forms of representation, the delegate and the trustee models

In the delegate model, public forms of accountability are argued, the mandate is laid down, and then a representative is publicly tested against that mandate in a debating forum. In the Trustee model, accountability is said to be achieved on a scrutiny model, a panel of the “people” or “lower level” reps ask detailed questions of officials. This is true of the model between officers and managers and is now oft advocated as the ideal way of holding officers to account via scrutiny committees of council or random, focus grouped students.

But even scrutiny, it is argued, is a redundant concept. Many have argued that forms of scrutiny of elected officials inside students’ unions would do much to enhance their legitimacy. But what do the scrutineers scrutinise?

They could test the actions and behaviours of the elected against a minimum code of standards, but this in and of itself does not indicate success or failure, merely compliance. When measuring performance, the models used to evaluate performance of officials too often stem from organisational performance indicators rather than the indicators vested in the lives of the electorate.

The reality is that there are a number of versions of accountability at play…

Market Accountability

If people come in through the door it must be good. Success or failure is judged in turnover terms. This is the prevalent model promulgated by commercial managers. It does prove “popularity”, but often screens out diversity. Strippers and 50p vodka shots would provide good results under market accountability, but something more complex is needed in students’ unions

Survey Accountability

The favourite of the newly elected and fresh out of ideas Finance and Service Officer. A survey is done on “satisfaction”. Has the advantage of providing “scientific” results, but often it only proves how well the questions are framed, and only measures the notoriously tricky notion of “satisfaction”. Who fills these things in anyway? It also usually ignores non customers (how many universities justify halls price increases saying they’ve surveyed existing students in halls. What about those who never could afford to come!)

Scrutiny Accountability

A small groups of elected representatives carefully scrutinise the work of the committee or staff and then declare the result. It is popular now in local councils. This has the advantage of getting a group closely involved and examining decisions with sophisticated grasp of detail. But it proves little and students are generally not interested in such work or pronouncements.

Moral Accountability

Done by loud and principled union officers or University officials. Usually used to object to something, “Strippers in the Union! Good Lord…” given people rarely positively promote a set of moral codes this doesn’t address the key issues and is often a mere soapbox for those who shout loudest.

Political Accountability

Refers to the constraints placed on the behaviour of officials by organisations and constituencies with the power to apply sanctions on them. Accountability rests largely on the effectiveness of the sanctions and the capacity of accountability institutions have to monitor the actions, decisions, and private interests of public officials. It involves an active and public mix of all the forms identified above. Given this, it needs by definition to centre on particular locations or services because doing “political accountability” for whole organisations is too complex for average people.

What is a representative organisation?

So, students unions are supposed to be representative organisations. But does this mean that they are of them themselves representative, or that they represent students to others? We would of course like to think both.

“Too many union officers see representation as a question of communication and merely sitting on the appropriate committee. The purpose of representation is to secure educational and institutional change” Digby Jacks 1975

It is arguable that representation is now seen as an end in itself; many promotional campaigns and training schemes for representation from unions concentrate on communication, or using your voice. In fact, with the student development boom of the 90’s (largely an exercise in justification and funding of students’ unions rather than a concern for the lot of students), the purpose of representation is now also to develop employability skills in students, which are at least different if not incompatible to securing educational and institutional change.

The question is, what needs to change? What are students concerned about that students’ unions and course reps could espouse? It would be a cop out to suggest that we don’t know without asking, and that therefore we should simply talk to students about their concerns, develop a sense of injustice, get them or their representatives to debate positions, and then act on those positions, although there is considerable merit (and novelty) in the suggestion!

In 1971 NUS negotiated a statement with the teaching unions on student rights in the classroom, which included;

  1. All staff and students should be made aware of the objectives of the course
  2. Students should know when they are being assessed
  3. Assessment should be seen as a separate activity from grading
  4. There should be reasonable spacing between examination papers
  5. A clear appeals procedure should be established
  6. All institutions to accept the principle of automatic resit
  7. Students should be notified privately of results

Since then, NUS and students’ unions have also developed concerns with equality (anonymous marking), timetabling, modularisation, complaints procedures etc to varying degrees of success.

Yet the overriding perception in 2005 is that whilst some of those 1971 demands have been addressed in some parts of some institutions, there are many still to be met. Most students would doubtless be able to cite timetabling, complaints and appeals, teaching style and quality and learning resources as issues on their course. Yet they are less likely to be as similar across the institution. The reasons are many-fold, not least the diversity of modes of study and interest in each.

Yet with expansion of higher education and students’ unions, there is less and less resource going into research and organisation around educational rights and issues. The job of a President is complex enough, the likelihood of being able to understand the complexities of nursing placements or postgraduate timetabling low. Indeed, many students’ unions have just one sabbatical officer looking at educational issues, often combining the portfolio with being a President or Welfare Officer. Staff support usually goes into individual casework or skills development. Students’ Unions and the resource of support for reps is by definition funded on the premise of skills, training and welfare rather than researching students’ views and developing policy platforms around them.

So on one level, it is arguable that students’ unions need to develop opportunities and support for “organisation” & “co-ordination” around issues of concern to students. Some people would argue that this is what their students’ council or general meeting or executive is there for, yet this is also flawed. To most students, the activities of their students’ council or general meeting or executive are hidden. The content of what is discussed, (rather than the urge to get involved), is rarely reported in the magazine, put on posters, headlined on the website, or showcased at Freshers’. The reasons for this are two fold; firstly because the union often has no tangible positions on issues or results of action/campaigns to shout about, and secondly because “issues of concern to students” are so rarely discussed at these meetings.

A quick glance at 25 copies of minutes of executive and council minutes reveals that “ordinary student” concern are virtually never raised or discussed, replaced instead by “organisational” concern. Much more time is spent discussing bar opening hours or the summer ball by most executives or councils than timetabling or student rights. The only time that this changes is when something drastic happens (eg a huge accommodation shortage) or when, again, the meeting discusses apathy (specifically lack of involvement in structures), rather than issues (what the structures are designed to address).

The point here is that where unions do communicate with students, it is on the above terms rather than representation terms that they often do this. The first screen on a union website rarely tells me how they’re changing things in the college or standing up for students’ rights. Ironically, this is where the union does have an exclusive role (as opposed to the competing providers), and where my input and involvement will help to change things, possibly radically.

It is this that then leads to disillusionment or apathy with the union or its campaigns. If students do not see the union as a force for change, or as a way of organising that change, they are unlikely to invest their time and effort in its structures or campaigns. It is like asking people to go into a supermarket and walk the aisles when there is no food on the shelves and where the competitors home-deliver. For students to really care about institution-wide or national concerns takes time and their involvement.

Close involvement with issues at this level where the student or rep uses the union to change things (or at least attempt to) leads to union-wide democratic or campaigns involvement. The very process of discussing an issue with a head of faculty, or getting the union behind your concern or group via a piece of policy at council or GM expands that student or rep’s horizon’s to other problems, or possibilities, inside the union. Politics is about the art of the possible and seeing the union “umbrella” as having the possibility to change things encourages taking on bigger things like the government and student funding, or the VC over sports facilities.

If nothing else, pure trusteedom relegates the notion of democracy down to either an end in itself (a way of making a decision) or a way of bolting on legitimacy. It ignores the fact that democracy is supposed to be a way of resolving competing or differing interests, ironic given that differing interests are key to a more diverse community, and furthermore fails to recognise a wider, educational benefit of democracy.

Key to this is outcomes. Students’ unions under the trustee model must demonstrate valuable outcomes; they are, after all, recipients of public money. Yet they are also democratically run membership organisations, owned by their members and theoretically collectively controlled. When democracy is an organisational “value” we can become confused as to its nature; is it a system for deciding and producing the outcomes, or a demonstrable outcome in itself?

To quote Kat Fletcher “In reality, the most important ‘outcome of democracy’ is the democratic approach itself. It is a mistake to think of democracy as a mere instrumental means to some external goal. Nor is democracy primarily a decision-making procedure. Rather, democratic participation is vital to the development of human personality. Democracy educationally empowers individuals to participate in shaping the social conditions that make human growth possible for all. Democratic participation fosters individuals who are tolerant of differences, sensitive to the interests and projects of others, better equipped to engage in moral discourse and judgment, and more prone to critique their own purposes and preferences. Commitment to democratic participation leads individuals to think in terms of possible criticisms and alternate views and to conceive of their own interests not in narrow, exclusionary ways but in ways that take account of the interests and views of others.”

Without this “value” put into practice and measured (and more deeply understood), we might as well abandon student control of students’ unions altogether.


Since I’ve been a regional officer, there’s been much talk in AMSU of “sabbagers”- the need to convince officers to take their hands of the management of the union, and instead either become a representative or become a trustee. I’m not arguing for the status quo, I never would. But it sometimes sounds more like we just want them to leave us alone. Outside of the goldfish bowl, scrutiny is hardly making people excited about local government (however quickly my bins get emptied). Governance is moving and changing away from finance and figures to resolving interest differences as people realise that measurement can be meaningless. And on the rare occasions I am fair to my representatives in Government, it dawns on me that my powerlessness must, in the end, be linked to theirs.


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