Ask several people what the point of a Students’ Union is and it’s not unlikely that you’ll get completely different answers from each of them. Some will say that it’s a cheap bar; others will preach activism and campaigning. A few might even say that they serve no real purpose at all.
This debate has been raging for years, but even more so since the introduction of tuition fees. With students increasingly encouraged to think of themselves as consumers, the perceptions of Students’ Unions is changing. Once they were viewed as an essential part of the University experience but now, as the focus shifts towards value for money, more students want to know exactly what they’re getting from their Unions.
This is something that SUs have found difficult to accept. We’re lucky at Leeds in that over the last decade our Union has benefited greatly from terrific staff, well organised societies and a wide range of services. None of these things have come easily, but it does mean that when students start to ask what their getting from their money, the answers in Leeds at least are easy to come by. However, the fact that these questions are now being framed in terms of value for money that presents our biggest challenge.
Since their creation, Students’ Unions have always focused on doing what’s best for their members. But their actions weren’t undertaken in the name of value, the focus was actually on values. How can we enable students to change the world around them? How can we help them realise their full potential? How can we support them when they need it most? These are the questions that every Union should still be asking itself when deciding how to shape their approach. Unfortunately, it’s fast becoming far too easy to lose focus on the things that are important.
In an attempt to satisfy the value for money test, it can be extremely tempting for a Union to ditch the more radical and political elements as to avoid annoying students who don’t see the Union as much more than the shops and bars within it. They’d argue that there’s no need to spend money on campaigns, or support any cause that doesn’t drive down the price of a pint. But they’d be wrong.
Now more than ever it’s essential that we have active, political Students’ Unions that are not afraid to stand up for their members or campaign on issues that students care about. With a massive general election just around the corner, it’d be foolhardy not to make our voices heard or our views clear to the politicians that’ll be seeking the support of students on polling day. If we had chosen not to take such action in previous decades, we’d never have exposed Nick Clegg by getting him to sign the tuition fee pledge, or we wouldn’t have been able to play any role in the campaign against Apartheid in South Africa.
So, it falls to students across the UK to make sure that their Union doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Yes, it’s right that every penny of the Union’s resources should be spent wisely and properly. But that shouldn’t form the only basis on which we determine what our Union’s do. We have a proud history of making real changes for students and wider society. Now more than ever, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of this, and make campaigning on the bigger issues a priority.