Students' Unions and the White Paper

Deputy President (Welfare)

Those who know me well will remember my frustration in the run up to the response deadline for the Higher Education Green Paper. There were a lot of late nights, mini meltdowns and strong cups of coffee; it's safe to say that I slept for a very long time after I submitted the response, which can be found here in full. 

This week, the Government's response was released in the form of a white paper - Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching, Excellen, Social Mobility & Student Choice. As you can imagine my blood pressure hit the ceiling when I found out.

I'm currently in the process of wading through the White Paper and starting to formulate some thoughts around it. Doubtless we will be responding to the White Paper, and any students are welcome to get in touch with me to feed into this response - I've already come across plenty of Imperial students on Facebook with some strong feelings, but I want any response to take on board the views of a broad a cross section of Imperial students as possible. 

In the Green Paper there was a very small section, just a few short but ominous paragraphs about students' unions. The general feeling back in November was that this was alluding to a restriction or clamping down on the freedom of unions. So far the White Paper has also been disturbingly quiet about students' unions. 

The power of unions should not be underestimated, and although the student movement is going through a turbulent period, we cannot forget what amazing things have been achieved by Imperial College Union, NUS, and students' unions across the country. I think our response goes some way to illustrating that.

Our Question 20 Response

Imperial College Union strongly opposes any attempt by the Government to further regulate the activities of students’ unions. The purpose of students’ unions is to ensure that the needs and interests of students are upheld at institutional, local and national levels; any attempt to stifle this will be met with powerful opposition from across the students’ union sector.

Imperial College Union, like many students’ unions, holds independent charitable status; as such the comparison with trade unions is wholly inappropriate, and frankly misguided. Students’ unions are already regulated effectively, by our parent Institution through the Education Act 1994, and by the Charity Commission in Charity law. These regulations, combined with the inherent requirement on the Union as a democratic membership organisation means that Students’ Unions are significantly transparent and accountable. These are values to which we and the entire sector are deeply committed to upholding. There is therefore no need for students’ unions to be brought under the trade union umbrella.

The funding we receive from Imperial College London is mutually agreed by both parties and based on the additional benefits the presence of a strong students’ union affords its members: the students of Imperial College London. We provide a huge volume of opportunities to our members which the university cannot offer. These include volunteering opportunities and leadership experience through our Student Development department and over 340 clubs and societies, giving students an outlet from the intensive demands of their degrees, as well as opportunities to gain management experience by running clubs and societies. We provide students with a vast array of opportunities for personal and professional development through all of our democratically elected volunteer roles as well as by employing students up to managerial levels in our bars and retail outlets. We would like to remind the Government how many successful and eminent politicians cut their teeth in the world of students’ unions. Clearly we are capable of providing our members with a huge number of opportunities to develop new skills and improve their employability. Restricting our ability to do so will be contrary to the Government’s aim of improving the value of graduates to employers.

We have an incredibly strong and productive partnership with Imperial College London, which is also detailed in the College’s own response to this Green Paper. Student representatives have input on almost all decision making boards at Imperial College London, including College Council and College Senate. Elected student representatives chair staff-student committees and studentfacing project boards at departmental, faculty and institutional levels. Moreover, Imperial College Union and Imperial College London organise and chair joint committees annually where elected student representatives can work directly with members of College’s senior leadership to address major items of feedback.

As another example of this strong partnership, Imperial College Union is delivering a high degree of student scrutiny at every stage of the appointment of Imperial College’s new Vice Provost (Education). This includes student officers being entrusted to independently organise and execute an interview panel for the candidates.

As further examples, we can present the Government with numerous cases of our collaboration with Imperial College London for the benefit of our students, including:

  • As cited in Imperial College London’s response, in early 2015 we worked closely with the College to develop several different pricing structures for rents in halls of residence. These options were then democratically voted on by our Union Council, resulting in our preferred option being implemented.
  • Imperial College London offers a highly generous and robust bursary package to its home undergraduate students, the structure of which was developed in conjunction with Imperial College Union.

Imperial College Union and Imperial College London therefore strongly caution the Government against introducing reforms which may threaten constructive relationships of this kind.

These sorts of relationships also make an extremely strong case for the Government to work collaboratively with students’ unions throughout the country and the National Union of Students. As is being actively demonstrated constantly at Imperial, working together is a far more productive means to ensuring the needs of students are met than the more adversarial style of working threatened by the reforms proposed in the Green Paper.

If the Government truly intends to uphold the needs of students, as stated in the Green Paper and the proposals for the Office for Students, it must commit to genuine student engagement in the style of Imperial College Union and Imperial College London.





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