Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union (QUBSU) is one of the only students’ unions in the UK and Ireland that isn’t autonomous or independent from its institution. In the context of unions in England and Wales, there is a legislative requirement through the Education Act of 1994 for the formal recognition, protection and above all else, the independence of higher education students’ unions. Scotland also has very similar and arguably more robust laws. None of these provisions extend legally to higher education institutions in the North of Ireland. However, this does not, and should not, preclude universities and colleges from granting independence to their students’ union.
From an outside perspective, it may be initially unclear why this is a conversation even worth having. In the past, it has attracted the somewhat predictable response of “surely there are more important or pressing issues”? Perhaps surprisingly, I can understand why some may hold that belief. But if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, this is something which has the potential to shape and alter a students’ union’s ability to fully and effectively represent its membership of students. At its core, it is about the fundamental right to self-govern and self-organise without any interference from those who have no mandate to do so.
Imagine the example of a trade union. Take a healthcare professional who has a dispute with their employer. They turn to their trade union for advice, for support, for representation and for advocacy. Now imagine that the trade union is directly embedded into the same structures as their employer. It is nonsensical. What if that trade union wants to run an awareness campaign on employees knowing their rights? Or a campaign on knowing how to effect change in the workplace? Imagine those campaigns being “approved” or “unapproved” by the employer, either formally or informally. These examples aren’t intended to be a perfect mirroring of students’ unions, but you get the idea. It filters into areas beyond representation. A non-independent students’ union has real and substantial implications for managing affairs which relate to finances, human resources, trusteeship and even health and safety.
Democracy is also another key principle of students’ unions. Independence, or lack thereof, has proven to be challenging for a number of years
Democracy is also another key principle of students’ unions. Independence, or lack thereof, has proven to be challenging for a number of years. In particular, there are examples where the university’s governing body has overturned the democratic wishes of QUBSU’s council to remove the requirement to be in “good academic standing” to stand for elected office in the union. This is something which they have no mandate to do. In Great Britain, governing bodies review students’ union constitutions for “fairness and transparency”. What could be fairer than allowing each and every student to stand for office, instead of imposing discriminatory prerequisites?
When looking at the core purpose and core functions of students’ unions, they exist primarily to “promote, extend and defend the rights of students”. That is a task which is ongoing, dynamic and permanent. Most of all, it is a task which deserves to be carried out without interference from the institution. The students’ union, either via its elected leadership or grassroots members, is the genuine and authentic voice of students.
Some students may not necessarily be experts in university jargon or in the higher education sector, but the one thing that they are experts in is being a student – academically and non-academically. I have heard numerous staff members say “students want x, y and z”, but no matter how well intentioned it may be, unless you’re a student yourself or basing your statement on empirical data, you’re ultimately making assumptions.
That genuine student voice coming through is so crucial because students’ unions are also there to hold their institution to account. Students hold their students’ union to account, and the students’ union holds its university to account. This doesn’t have to be “negative” accountability, and more often than not it isn’t. The goal is primarily to improve the student experience, and ultimately to improve the overall institution. It’s the common goal that we’re all there for, and in that sense, that is why being the “critical friend” is so important.
While the discussion around autonomy may seem a bit adversarial, I fundamentally believe it’s not. Rather, it is better aligned to the theory of partnership – university staff, academics and senior management working collaboratively when required to improve students’ lives and learning experiences. In essence, it’s entirely possible to achieve a strong working relationship between the institution and the union, while simultaneously retaining the core values of autonomy and independence.
This debate is one that isn’t confined to QUBSU. More and more students’ unions around Ireland are having their autonomy challenged, limited or damaged. National unions are therefore joining the conversation, and it is uplifting to receive support and solidarity on behalf of these organisations.
The National Union of Students (NUS) is assisting students’ unions in further education institutions with the fight for independence. Indeed, at the 2017 Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Congress, delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of amending the constitution so that USI “shall defend the rights of students’ unions to be autonomous, democratic, student led organisations”.
Students’ unions must strongly and unconditionally advocate for the organisation’s inalienable entitlement to self-govern
A separate motion also mandated for the creation of an autonomy sub-committee, which is actively looking at a range of solutions that should enshrine these values in students’ unions. Until such a time as that is realised, students’ unions must strongly and unconditionally advocate for the organisation’s inalienable entitlement to self-govern. At least for now, the fight for autonomy and independence is everyone’s fight.
The narrative around autonomy and independence is, therefore, as much principled as it is practical. Universities and colleges should completely and unreservedly trust their students’ unions to manage their own affairs and advocate for students’ interests without implicit undertones of distrust or paranoia. Instead of asking “why should the students’ union move towards independence?”, the burden of proof should be reversed and the question rephrased to become: “why shouldn’t they?”