Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads

As former Agenda editorial boarders would doubtless admit, “theming” editions is never quite as easy as it seems at the time that the theme is picked. This one has been no different- “futuregazing” was the idea, but as ever it has come unstuck in the intervening days and months since the editorial board meeting that dreamed it up.

The truth is, certainly personally, I’m a little sick of looking into the future. I’m vaguely tired of hearing about the demography of students changing, pretty bored of hearing that technology will change how we do things, I’m indifferent at best at claims that traditional charities know better than us how to run themselves, and I’ve now seen Matt Hyde’s “Wave of Change” presentation so often that the mere mention of it makes me seasick.

So for “Endgame” this time around, partly prompted by Bols’ piece on engagement this issue, I decided to look into the past- to the first thing I ever wrote for Agenda back in the year 2000. As Loughborough’s Andy Parsons rightly pointed out to me a few weeks back, writing for Agenda was important for me back then, giving me a rare outlet for thoughts and opinions in a time when blogs and twitter accounts were still stuff of the future.

Called “Rights, Rationalities and the Mysterious Funnel”, it was of course badly written, poorly sub edited fare; an arrogant jumble of rants about the lack of “representation” in students’ unions and the need to get better at being radical. I guess the good news is that on one level, the battle feels like it’s been won. It’s hard to find a union that doesn’t see representation as being a crucial function- and as the QAA’s article in this edition makes clear, hard to find a university in denial too. The opening sessions of NUS’ APL course used to try to drive home the representative role of unions against a tide of opposition; now the point, widely accepted, slips by as much more complex concepts are handled by our talented elected political leaders.

But on another level I’m still pretty depressed. In that article, and on the NUS APL course (and its predecessor “Lead and Change”) we quote NUS’ President Digby Jacks in 1975 on a key representational dichotomy:

“Representation must never be seen, except in strategic and practical terms, as an end in itself. Too many union officers see it as a question of communication and merely sitting on the appropriate committee. The purpose of representation is to secure educational and institutional change”

I argued then that representation was being seen as an end in itself; promotional campaigns and training schemes for representation from unions concentrated on communication, or the student “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 was also to develop employability skills in students, which were at least different if not incompatible to securing educational and institutional change.

So hours before my Plenary at APL1 this summer, I set out to see if things had changed by surfing around 30 students’ union websites to see if I could identify any change. I was naturally dismayed. Of the 30 unions (chosen alphabetically from the delegate list on the course), only 7 mentioned representation at all on their front pages. Of those, all seven referred to representation as a process; course reps, voice or surveys; rather than the change being sought (or achieved) for students. The plenaries were huge fun- and pleasingly contained all the excuses that I used when presented with a similar critique of UWESU’s publications back in 1999. “We are new/only in office since July”, “We need to listen not tell”, “Representation will scare freshers, we need to let them in gently”, “Students are too diverse”, and my all time favourite, “Students aren’t interested in this sort of thing”

In a recent session at AMSU Conference, Nick Berg offered his own view as to the present state of affairs:

  • An over-emphasis on processes & inputs
  • Mainly about system not results
  • Mainly about course reps not students
  • Important visible student issues aren’t resolved e.g. poorly taught modules, poor treatment if students on specific courses, high drop-out
  • Important student experiences not brought to the surface
  • There is an acceptance of how university defines HE, quality, problem solving etc
  • Focus on university processes not students actual experiences & journeys
  • Appreciated by students more for principle than results
  • No real measurement of results
  • Very low public visibility of representation function
  • We don’t look like student representative organisations!
  • Lack of public education policy or goals
  • Lack of resources & time for student representation
  • Limited use of existing research & data, under-development research functions
  • Lack of transparency re fees paid and teaching & facilities provided in return
  • Much of students learning benefits hidden from them and not defined & taught by departments
  • Wide variation between faculties & departments – lottery

There is, of course, a theoretical basis for this. Crouch (1982) argues that “Some writers see two sorts of trade-union goals: substantive or money goals, which seek to improve the workers’ living and working conditions; and participation goals which aim to gain control over different aspects of the [organisation]. Members and leaders develop conflicting interests” which is one way to explain things. Others emphasize the inate pleasure of service delivery and administration over representation and campaigning- “at least you achieve something”.

Whatever the theory, most students can still doubtless cite timetabling, complaints and appeals, teaching quality, facilities and learning resources as issues on their course. Yet they are also, I suspect, just as unlikely to identify the union as being a body that can, will or even should tackle these issues- either with them for them.

I said back in 2001 that that was probably for key reasons:

“Where unions do communicate with students, it is about services and opportunities, not educational issues. 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”


“We should refocus meetings and positions around areas of concerns to students to help change a student perception that the union is just a service provider among many. This may mean new structures, or changing the current ones, to be closer to students and courses and different modes of study. It might mean dropping “minister” sabbaticals that have student issues at the bottom of their list. It might mean banning of the discussion of budgets at union council meetings. It might mean admitting that we might be able to become more representative by being less democratic”


“Diversity brings opportunities for new forms of co-ordination and organisation. Can all LGB students meet together to discuss discrimination issues from across the institution under the auspices and support of “the union”, or does the “union” simply ask LGB students to elect an officer? Is there a forum for the students of a particular site, or hall, or course, to share concerns or problems, and then feel supported or motivated by the union sufficiently to take action to change those things?”

In his AMSU session, Nick went on to identify ways in which unions could take Representation- the Cinderella of students’ unions- and turn her into the belle of the ball. I strongly recommend a glance at the notes- his advice ranges from “Move from single staff model to multiple staff model” to “Invest in both original research and interpretation of research”; from “Emphasise public campaigning goals  & policy in a meaningful & tangible way for students” to “More sabbs who have served a representative apprenticeship rather than come through student staff, student activities or student politics”; from “More debate about the nature of education & its aspects with students and with reps”, to my all time favourite- “Less obsessing about course reps handbooks”

In the end, whenever I am asked the same questions about how to get postgraduate students more involved, or part timers in the door, I come over all Marty McFly; I end up having to reach into my views from the past to try to help with the future. Because it might just be that Postgraduates, Part Timers, Day Trippers and all the other non trads that I’m bored of worrying about will never get involved; or it may be that they have huge concerns about timetabling, teaching quality, facilities and the like- they just saw then and see now no evidence that their union is working to resolve them.

As one of our (well, your) union Presidents put it so eloquently over the summer, “To look at our website you’d think our union was a youth club but with drinking allowed, condoms supplied and someone to look after you. It’s doesn’t have anything to say about education but it does tell you what coins the launderette takes. That’s what I’m going to change this year”.

Just don’t blame NUS if it’s your Launderette’s profits that drop.


A selection of possible campaigning goals that unions could adopt

  • We will increase contact time for all students by at least 1 hour per week
  • We will ensure that the personal tutor system works for every student & that students have clear entitlement
  • We will ensure all teaching staff have recognised teaching qualifications, requisite language & others skills and that poor teaching is addressed rapidly
  • We will ensure that support services are accessible to all students including part-time students
  • All students to receive face-to-face feedback for at least their first assignment
  • All Hidden course costs to be calculated & published before the start of the year
  • We will ensure all courses use some variety of assessment methods and that students have choice in assessment method
  • We will ensure that students are treated with respect by all university staff and reduce lecturer lateness & cancellations
  • We will set up a website aimed directly at supporting & advising students considering dropping out
  • We will ensure that students are fully aware of options for early course transfer
  • We will improve the service received by students who are unhappy with their initial halls provision including social factors
  • We will increase the support and contact with students in the period between application acceptance & arrival at university
  • We will produce summary information for each faculty showing what students fees, & other university income is spent
  • We will campaign to see that excellent teachers are supported, recognised & rewarded

Adapted from Nick Berg’s AMSU Conference Session on Student Representation, July 2009


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