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Adam Smith Inst - The state of the (student) unions

The report, from the free market Adam Smith Institute, argues that student unions are perceived as ineffective by students, lack democratic legitimacy, and undermine freedom of association and expression. Extraordinarily, it finds that student unions that receive higher block grants from universities tend to be poorer performing in the National Student Survey. 

Student unions have played a critical role in the worsening free speech crisis on campus in recent years: banning speakers they don’t like, blocking the sale of particular publications, failing to prevent or encouraging violence at meetings, seeking to approve speeches in advance, blocking the formation of free speech societies, imposing rules on how meetings should be conducted, barring certain groups on whim from freshers’ fairs, and deterring speakers by imposing complex bureaucratic procedures on them.

The report proposes that student unions should be split into different components dealing with recreational,sports and academic functions, with only those receiving university funding – itself made up in large part by taxpayers’ money. The political part should become optional, funded by students who opt to join. Such  bodies should only receive official recognition if more than half of students become members. 

The report also argues that if the National Union of Students (NUS) wishes to gather funds from students it should do so from individual students and not draw on monies compulsorily gathered by student unions from the taxpayer and students. 

Free speech, a central tenet of universities in the Western world, has come under intense threat in recent years. Universities should bolster the rights of students and speakers to speak their mind. No student representative body of any type should have any involvement in regulating the rights to free speech on campus. The authors argue that the responsibility for implementing legal requirements should rest solely with universities, not extremist student unions, and that the provisions in law regarding free speech should be strengthened to prevent universities or other bodies using procedural mechanisms to restrict speech others may find distasteful. 

The Office for Students (OfS) should become the main regulator of student bodies, representative and otherwise, in respect of both free speech and other matters. The OfS should also oversee the transition to the new arrangements proposed.

Student unions are in the business of promoting engagement through freebies, the report alleges, trying to induce higher turnouts by providing free pizza, discounts at student shops, and even free ice creams — using student money to try and give the unions more legitimacy. Turnout though, remains low, with the average turnout at a British student union election just 11%. 

Elections at universities for their representatives to the NUS are of even less interest. At Aberdeen University just 79 people (or 0.5% of the student body) voted for their university’s representatives. At UCL just 0.9% did. The average across UK universities is just 3.2%.

Student unions are highly political organisations with little claim to a democratic mandate. The report looks at a number of egregious examples including campaigns to abolish the Prevent counter-terrorism programm, and to push for decolonisation, demilitarisation, boycott of Israel and divestment from fossil fuel, arms and tobacco.

In 2018, the Manchester University Students’ Union decided that students shouldn’t be allowed to read verses from Rudyard Kiplng’s poem ‘If’, frequently voted the nation’s favourite poem, which the university had painted on a wall. Fatima Abid, the general secretary of Manchester’s student union, said that after seeing the Kipling poem on the wall, student leaders immediately decided that it must be taken down. They proceeded to vandalise it. The Oxford University student union sought to censor textbooks and lectures.

Bans have been pushed on types of food (including the sale of beef at the LSE, Edinburgh, and the UEA), fancy dress (at Kent, Oxford, and Edinburgh), speakers like Julie Bindel and Peter Hitchens, registration of new student societies (including the Nietzsche Society at UCL, or the Protection of Unborn Children at Glasgow), and even bans on clapping (Oxford and Manchester) or the waving of arms at Edinburgh.

The free market think tank suggests that student unions should be refocussed on the key functions that benefit students with just four activities deserving of compulsory funding, proposing 15 solutions to address ineffectiveness, extremist activities, and lack of democratic legitimacy in the student union system, including:

  • splitting a student union into social activities, a sports association, and an academic council, elected through a system of class and faculty representatives rather than centrally;
  • limiting funding from university grants to social, recreational and entertainment activities; student societies; sports; and academic representation.
  • making student societies independent from unions and directly supported by universities and members;
  • returning excess funds to students;
  • allowing establishment of broader student representative councils, but with voluntary membership and without compulsory student funding;
  • preventing pass-through funding of student or taxpayer money to national bodies, like the NUS; 
  • not allowing student bodies to limit freedom of expression; and strengthening provisions in law to prevent universities from limiting freedom of expression, including by using procedural mechanisms to frustrate freedom of expression or passing along security costs to student societies.

Report author Max Young:

“For too long, a tiny minority of extremists have imposed their will on the student body. The reforms we propose, by depoliticising student unions, will make universities much more pleasant and productive places to study. Free of censorship and aggressive hectoring, students will be able to get on with enjoying the university experience and sharing ideas freely.

Foreword author Robert Halfon MP, Chair, House of Commons Education Committee:

“Across our universities and colleges, far too often, freedom of expression and intellectual curiosity on campus are being deeply eroded because of minority political activism.

“The range of policy proposals set out in this report deserves careful consideration. The suggestion that the old Scottish approach of split functions could provide a useful model is certainly an intriguing one. By making the political part of student unions voluntary, ordinary students would no longer be required to finance political activities of which they did not approve. At the same time, resources could be focussed on those functions that students do appreciate, such as decent social and recreational facilities, better student sports, and more effective academic representation.

“These are interesting ideas and certainly worthy of further debate.”

Sajid Javid MP:

“British universities are meant to be places of open debate and intellectual freedom. Their proud tradition of liberalism is foundational for bringing students into contact with new and challenging ideas.

“That tradition is under threat. In Student Unions across the UK, an intolerant minority is seeking to silence those they disagree with under the banner of no-platforming and safe spaces. Their campaign of censorship is an assault on one of our most precious and fundamental rights – freedom of speech.

“Championing students by protecting legal free speech should be one of the higher education sector’s top priorities. I’m pleased the Adam Smith Institute has chosen to focus on this important issue.”

Andrew Lewer MP:

"Having served as a university governor for nine years, I am particularly interested to read this thought provoking report on reform of Student Unions. Although some SUs are relatively benign, many others are not and this Report both explains how this can come about under the current rules and puts forward some stimulating proposals for improvement. Identity politics, 'woke' and 'cancel culture' represent serious threats to our freedoms as a nation and taking them on must be taken equally seriously."

Notes to editors:  

For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Matt Kilcoyne: | 07904 099599.

The Adam Smith Institute is a free market, neoliberal think tank based in London. It advocates classically liberal public policies to create a richer, freer world.

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