Measuring Representational Effectiveness in Students’ Unions

I’m writing on the eve of Labour Party Conference. Quite apart from my general anxiety on how the stopfeesnow campaign is going, I’ve been reflecting on the debate inside politics about management v’s politics; Milburn writing that politics has become too “managerial” and so on.

This seems to chime in with my thoughts elucidated in my article about rationalities. For me, the quality agenda feels like it has stalled in the last 12 months. There are doubtless some students’ unions that have used the model effectively to critically examine their own practice in relation to their practices and services, but I only found the model partially useful. Whilst it took key indicators from the private and voluntary sector that looked at organisational effectiveness, for me its key failing was that it didn’t take into account the democratic nature and purpose of students’ unions, and the representational “function” that goes with it. It seemed to me that you could have a “quality” students’ union in the model, but still not inspire the members; achieve real change on their behalf; or improve democratic participation.

Inside all of that is the idea that an organisation can be “effective”. Presumably, we judge this against an organisation’s mission. This is easy in the private sector; the mission is to deliver return on investment. It’s a bit harder in the charity, voluntary or not for profit sector, because the mission is again fairly clear. But in our hybrid voluntary-educational-political world, it seems trickier. The wider the membership, the broader the mission.

The move to prioritise representation, called for by my old mentor Peter Cadogan, is clearly to be welcomed, if only as a sensible reaction to the recognition of the function by the QAA. Yet I am also reminded of the Digby Jacks (ex NUS President) quote: “Representation must never be seen as an end in itself. Too many union officers see it merely as communication or sitting on the appropriate committee. The purpose of representation is to secure educational and social change”

The big question for staff inside the movement has always been “Is it our role to help form and shape that agenda”, or merely to manage and administrate the changes that officers want to see? Put another way; are there any “politics” in students’ unions as organisations, or are the building, structures and staff free from politics to be injected by the officers? Civil servants or special advisors?

Couple that with the notion that students never ”join” students’ unions; they enrol, and you have a tentative at best “belonging” to a set of principles and values that govern students’ unionism. This makes “serving” or “providing” easy; these are not things up for debate in any easy way, given they appear to be logical, rational and for “all”. Yet “representing” brings with it unpalatable truths- that not everyone’s view can be represented; that the “collective truth” of the democratic process needs to be teased out; and that because it is “collective”, it is intrinsically different to other union “functions”.

To explain the conflict I offer this example. I recently saw a cold, sober stakeholder analysis done in a union on the “membership” which logically predicted the effects of the Government’s white paper on HE and built in anticipated effects to organisational planning- the division of teaching only universities from research intensives, the effects on student profile, etc. Yet concurrently the officers were campaigning for a different, better world- in opposition to the plans. The best this can be is a “contradiction” to be managed, the worst it can be is a management position that says “these unrealistic people that fundamentally control the union can tinker around with campaigns but basically we’re predicting precisely the opposite of what we’re campaigning for”.

If we take representation seriously, are we about creating quality structures for it to sit in, or genuinely ambitious outcomes? 

Which then brings us to strength and power. NUS now partly defines its mission as “developing strong students’ unions”. A lively internal debate revealed that many saw such definitions and efforts focussed around organisational weaknesses inside strong representative bodies- poor finances, management, etc. Perhaps as we enter 2003 the opposite is now true.

For power in a political sense is important. Where people don’t agree, and some people hold a position on a set of issues, their power in relation to others is important. “Effectiveness” focuses only on the power an organisation has internally to deliver a set of clear, undebatable objectives. Where the objective is woollier, where the membership is broader, and where the “delivery” is not external but external as a result of campaigning and representation, power might be a better term. It is useful to examine power; to look at both the extent to which students’ unions genuinely empower students to run their own organisation collectively, and the extent to which they embue power collectively in students to change the outside world. If these are not useful, then democracy in students’ unions becomes mere cosmetics.

In my article for Agenda in 2000, and a subsequent one earlier this year,  I hamfistedly attempted to explain the following model:


Unions’ organisational capacity has long been seen as shaped by the tensions between representational functions, and bureaucratic forms.

Child, Loveridge and Warner (1973) take this tension as central factors affecting union capacity. They then define administrative rationality as ‘the logic of a goal-implementation or operational system, while representative rationality is the logic of a goal-formation or policy-deliberating system’ (1973: 78). 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 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 characterized by carrying out tasks efficiently, employing experts, budgetary control, etc. It made the trade union efficient.

As illustrated in figure 1, they pose representational effectiveness against administrative effectiveness or rationality.

They essentially define union effectiveness as an outcome of good union representation and good union administration. They point out these goals are frequently in direct conflict though they are not always at odds. In their model (see figure 1), an effectively representative union will be driven from the bottom, while an administratively efficient large organisation will be driven from the top.


The “ideal” union would be an “A” union- a hard thing to achieve, given it must be democratic and involving as well as efficient and managed well. A “B” union would be highly democratic, but perhaps with poor financial control, little in the way of effective HR policy or a lack of delegation to experts. A “C” union might have a tightly controlled sabbatical and management team with no truer involvement in democratic decision making, poor election turnouts, etc. A “D” union would simply fail on all counts.

The model is useful for conceptualising the possible effects of growing size (and presumably, age) which might see a union might move from position A to B. With growing administrative efficiency, it might then move to C, and then with even greater size (and age) to D4.

The representation/administration dichotomy is useful for considering the dynamic ‘life-cycle’ of unions in relation to their representativeness and administrative complexity. It is certainly easy to see most students’ unions as having moved slowly from A to B, and some (dare we say it) through to C and D.

A vivid example of the dichotomy has come up recently in the region. A Union has closed its nightline over the summer, and the officers have now faced criticism and are thus developing a strategy for handling this and need arguments and advice. The General Manager’s advice has been on the terms of Truseedom, firmly within the administrative rationality- focussing on the health and safety, legal and financial issues involved in running a nightline. My advice has focussed on the arguments within the representative rationality- what kind of advice service do the members want? How can you influence them toward a democratic goal in policy terms? Resource allocation to make it safe is a political issue, etc. Theoretically the advice is not in conflict, but it can seem that way- especially if the officers “choose” an uninformed debate at council or a politics-free Trustee imposition rather than combine. In a non-political organisation- private or public-quango, or voluntary sector- of course only the Trustee administrative rationality would be important.

The question is, was and is still: what can we do about it? Some argue that because students don’t want to debate such issues, are more consumerist and have changed, then we should not bother, focus on market research, etc. I would argue differently- that not only is it important to reinvigorate democratic and collective control over institutions, it is also the only option when we look at what the union does when it represents students to others rather than within its own operation – a focus on the latter which has been reflected in the movement for a year or so now.

Representational Effectiveness

Many organisations have been attempting to improve their representational effectiveness- and the idea that students’ unions should look critically at this has been promoted by many. The “representation v services” debate was key to last year’s joint day and in many ways is an echo of the rationality conflict described earlier. I argue here that to measure the effectiveness of “representativeness” is crucially different to the models already offered and adapted for administrative rationality.

Trade unions have also been looking at the issue, and we have adapted a model for our purposes. This is a model offering a specific conception of the sources of students’ union power and effectiveness. It places the mobilisation of different resources at the centre of the analysis of union power, arguing that the success of local students’ unions crucially depends on their power and that this power is the result of a variety of particular resources that can be mobilized to alter the terms of its relationship with other actors, organisations or services (ie the University, Government, etc)

In the framework, power is multi-dimensional, resource based, profoundly contextual and lies at the very heart of collective social relations. It points to traditional sources of unions’ resource-power, and argues that students’ unions must mobilise three specific sources of power: agenda, internal solidarity and external solidarity

It defines three sources of union power, which are placed in a non-hierarchal relationship to each other (see figure 4).



First, it names ‘agenda’ or discursive power as the capacity of local unions to shape and put forward their own agenda.

Secondly, it names ‘internal solidarity’ which refers to the local cohesion of the union in the college: the mechanisms developed in the college to ensure democracy and collective cohesion amongst students, including members’ participation, student representative presence and structures, and communication between general students and their representatives.

The final source is called ‘external solidarity’ referring to the capacity of local unions to work with their communities and to build horizontal and vertical coordination with other unions’ on both a local and national level.

It argues that the articulation of a credible union agenda is of growing importance in a world where students’ unions’ potential and actual constituency is increasingly diverse.

The assertion of an alternative agenda of possibility, constitutes the mobilisation of an important union resource. This source of power, of interest definition, has been recognised by others as an important first step in mobilisation

The Apathy Staircase has also modelled the ‘cognitive liberation’ of people from a belief in the legitimacy of the status quo, from which they may begin to develop a sense of the possibility of liberation from an injustice. It is this creation of an agenda of possibility, of a collectively shared sense of injustice that the model highlights as an important source of union power. In essense, can the union point out the injustices and then paint a “better world” for students?

In assessing this in a students’ union, I might look for a positive answer to these sorts of statements…

  • Does the Union has a clear set of priorities relating to the principles for the year ahead?
  • Does the union understand the rights of students and does it have a desire to defend and improve said rights at all levels?
  • Are Students actively engaged in the process for setting priorities and strategies for the achievement of principles in union activity?
  • Is Debate and conflict recognised and valued as being part of the democratic process of the above?
  • Is Collective action encouraged and often taken?
  • In agitating for students’ rights, does the union operate locally to provide (cure) as well as collectively to represent to change (prevention)

The capacity to articulate a credible union agenda closely connects with the second pillar of union power: internal solidarity. The model argues that local union democracy is a critical component of greater students’ union strength and power. It theorises that internal solidarity (the presence of representatives, their democratic participation and influence in the union, active education and policy development programs with student activists) is a key variable in a union’s capacity to effect Educational change:

Democracy has never been a more important power resource. In essence, students’ unions are compelled to be democratic because it is local democracy that underpins the emergence of new collective identities, new union policies and, ultimately, the cohesion of the union as an institution on which its power depends

In assessing this in a students’ union, I might look for a positive answer to these sorts of statements…


  • The Union has a “membership” induction strategy that promotes the concepts and notions of belonging to a membership organisation
  • The Union’s values and principles and applied inside the expectations upon member behaviour- punitive action is prepared to be taken
  • The Union and its officers are clearly held to account for their actions by the members and their representatives
  • The Union elections are seen as a key way for the members to inform and set the priorities and future direction for the union
  • The Union actively defends the use of collective action in the face of calls to adopt other “safer” strategies through its officers, activists, volunteers and staff
  • Those underrepresented in the union are obvious and a strategy is in place to ensure increased involvement

The third power lever in the model is that of external solidarity.

It contrasts the experiences of unions caught in ‘a spiral of isolation’ with those that have built strong community alliances, and national and local students’ union links. This external articulation – both within and beyond unionism – consolidates power.

In assessing this in a students’ union, I might look for…

  • Attendance at NUS Conference
  • Active Participation in the policy proposal structures of NUS
  • Working with other unions on areas of common interest
  • Working with local Voluntary Sector Organisations
  • Takes up NUS services to improve its work

The model argues for more research about the key factors that shape each of these union power resources.

The model constructs students’ union power as contingent upon circumstances.

There is no simple ‘objective’ measure of the success of union officers and other student representatives; not only does the overall evaluation of material outcomes requires qualitative judgement, but achievements must be viewed as relative to what is potentially attainable.

Alongside a students’ union’s capacity to acquire relevant ‘intelligence’ about any situation, and its capacity to formulate a strategy, the model sees a union’s ability to implement such strategy appropriately (its ‘competence’) as important effects upon union capacity and power.


Towards a tool for measuring representational effectiveness

I have attempted to adapt the model to students’ unions, and provide a list of considerations for students’ unions wishing to improve their representative effectiveness. In each case, a respondent or group is invited to assess both the existence of a strategy or structure, and the extent to which that strategy or structure works. There is also an opportunity to look at the allocation of resource- this may be meeting/mental time, hard cash and budgets, or staff and or officer support for a process. The model does not seek to address issues around who should do what or roles. Finally it is important that people consider the areas both quantatively and qualitatively.

For example, for democratic participation, it would be possible for a union that has a set of election regulations and procedures, and an involvement strategy supported by staff and officers highly in the “elections” section for existence of a strategy or structure. A union where there is merely a set of regulations but no plan may score lower, as may a union where staff support for elections is discouraged/held with suspicion.

As to whether the strategy or structure works, both quantative and qualitative judgements must be made. 1500 people may vote in an election when bribed with a beer token, but if just 500 voted in another union after pouring over the manifestos, which was the “better” election? Similarly, 1500 voters may be regarded as “low” by a union with 20,000 members, but set against the fact that students enrol and not just join, national election participation and the resource allocation, is 1500 so bad?

The other thing to add is that the lists are mere suggestions. There may be other ways to measure the factors identified, and some unions may wish to expand on the areas listed or debate the context and meanings of each. What is important is that unions consider each of the categories as being equally crucial to union representational effectiveness, and examine critically their own practice in relation to each.

To have a look at a draft of what the model might look like please visit and follow the link to Agenda 78

A Conclusion of Sorts

A general manager said to me recently that “collectively empowering students” via students’ unions was just a “70’s pipe dream”, and that we’re “different now”. Certainly, the political landscape has changed. Consensus on mission is less clear in the membership. Chasing funding is more important than ideas. But have students’ unions really lost from themselves what is a deeply held purpose – to collectively empower students to take control of their own lives and future, to teach people about politics and what it means to use one’s voice and sometimes lose? I hope not. For both in terms of within the union’s services, and where the union seeks to change others’ provision via representation & campaigning, power is still important. Imbuing it in the hands of students seems to me to feel as important as the products of that power in use. Taking it away from students in the name of efficiency and management sense will almost certainly culturally remove power from external representational efforts.

Late October is closing in as I re-edit. Sabbatical teams across the region are starting to find working together and achieving things tough. In those terms and the terms of the article, I am reminded of a passage…

“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which”


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