In whose 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 (or resolution of competing) interests.

Not all individuals’ interests are the same- so a process must be gone through 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.

We normally look at participation rates or diversity when we hunt for legitimacy. We’re less comfortable in examining the role that money, rather than students play in determining student interests. The decline in commercial revenues and the general unease inside students’ unions financially underlines this. Even if we accept that students’ unions think 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 that funding, and the interests that the funders are prepared to see their funds put to.

Apart from a few add-ons, there are only really two forms of income for students’ unions. The first is block grant funding from a University. Increasingly we see parent institutions (under the auspices of concerns about public money) seeking to control the ways in which their money is spent.

Some of this is about compliance- a restriction that guarantees students’ “freedom from” harm; or a restriction on a union’s “freedom to” carry out activity. These compliance “strings” on funding represent a restriction on a union’s activity and thus potential narrowing of what can be determined to be in students’ interests.

Money can also control what is “in the interests of students” in other ways. Students’ Unions naturally feel the need, especially when seeking a funding increase, to frame their calls for funding within the objectives of their parent institution. This firstly means that the law of “partnership building” inevitably sees students’ unions as less oppositional than they might be if they were not in hock to the parent body for money. But more importantly it means that the interests of students- or at least the range of interests from which students can democratically choose to prioritise- are determined by an institutional definition or subset.

Even if we discard the old fashioned idea that students and universities have opposing interests (although manifestly in some circumstances they often do), the range of interests from which to choose is bound to be different. Sometimes only where the two collide- and a deal of time is often invested by a union in achieving alignment- is funding released.

It is certainly true to say that a great number of students have a great number of interests that are not met or considered by students’ unions either because compliance prevents it, or because institutions would never fund it.So a considerable extent, the “interests of students” are defined by the law, moral perceptions and by Universities’ projected image(s). The other major source of funding is through the customer- the “profit recycled into action” argument proposed by so many unions. But again 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 conception 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- those in control of the operation do not represent the customers, leading to poor commercial decisions; and 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. This gets insulated against by a natural swing toward the customer’s interests, or the member’s interests, when in fact neither help improve a democratically controlled mutual that 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” and indeed legitimacy in general looks like something for us to work on in coming years.

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