What role do students’ unions play in today’s HE system?

By Rachel Brooks

Students’ unions have a long history in the UK, with the first having been established at St Andrew’s University in Scotland in 1864. Historically, they have tended to carry out a range of functions for their members including: organising social activities; providing support on a range of academic and welfare issues; representing students both individually and collectively; and campaigning on local and national issues – although the relative importance of these functions has differed over time.

Despite radical changes to the UK higher education sector over recent years, the role of the students’ union, within this shifting landscape has remained largely unexplored. With the aim of starting to redress this gap, over the past couple of years, Kate Byford, Katherine Sela and I have conducted a UK-wide survey of students’ union officers and two focus groups at each of ten case-study higher education institutions – one with students’ union leaders and the other with senior managers of the institution. The data we have generated, through these methods, suggest strongly that the role of students’ unions has changed significantly over the last decade.

Increasing importance of the representative function

Firstly, we found that a large majority of our respondents believed that the ‘representative’ function (i.e. representing the views and concerns of all sections of the student body) of students’ unions had become increasingly important and that, in many cases, this has been associated with a decline in the importance of other functions such as more ‘activist’ pursuits (e.g. campaigning on national and local issues) and the provision of services to students (through, for example, advice and guidance sessions and/or as part of commercial activities). Although this shift was welcomed by many of those who took part in our research, a significant minority of our respondents did raise some concerns about this new focus. For example, one of the focus groups comprised of senior managers commented: ‘I think what we’re probably articulating is a pattern where the student union influence [on the university] ….  has just eroded and eroded and eroded and is being distilled down to this kind of pivotal role around representation and so on and that just leads to all the questions around, you know, what’s it there for, what’s it doing and that kind of thing and so on.’

Increasing importance of non-elected officers

Secondly, alongside a shift towards prioritising representation, many participants described how permanent staff within the students’ union had come to take on more power, sometimes at the expense of those who had been elected. The senior managers at one of our case study institutions were typical of many in noting that there had been a ‘shift of balance of our contacts’ away from elected officers and towards those in long-term roles. They described how there were now fewer sabbatical officer roles, and financial responsibility had been transferred from elected officers to the senior manager of the students’ union. For a large majority of respondents, such changes were seen in broadly positive terms, as providing greater continuity from year to year, and better support structures for those in elected positions (who typically occupy their role for one year only), particularly at the start of their term of office. Not all respondents were, however, entirely comfortable with this change in roles, with some believing that it sometimes made it harder for those in elected roles to advance their own agenda. Indeed, one of our respondents commented: ‘I know that some [elected] officers have found it difficult challenging the [students’ union] senior leadership team, who have naturally all come from leadership roles and are leaders themselves, to say actually, “This is the representational voice of students….and this is the direction we’d like to go with please”.’

Relationships with senior management

Finally, many of those who took part in the research believed that the relationship between students’ union officers and senior institutional managers had changed over time, and that there was now a new willingness on both sides to engage in constructive ways. This change was typically explained by pointing to developments in the external environment, particularly the increase in tuition fees and the insertion of the question about the performance of students’ unions into the annual National Student Survey. Students’ union officers at one of our case study institutions, for example, claimed that their senior managers ‘know they have to respond to the customers’, while senior managers at another university stated explicitly that the students’ union had become increasingly important because of the emphasis that had come to be placed on the ‘student voice’ ‘for a variety of reasons, not least the NSS and its influence on league tables’. Nevertheless, while a majority of respondents from both students’ unions and senior management described closer, more co-operative and less adversarial relationships, this was rarely thought to have been associated with any significant shift of power away from institutional leaders.

What is the significance of these changes?

The strong evidence of an increased focus on the representative role of students’ unions, and the importance attributed to this by many respondents provides some support for the arguments made by scholars that the student voice has become increasingly ‘domesticated’. By focussing on representation, students’ union officers inevitably foreground issues that affect the day-to-day lives of students rather than broader political or social concerns that may be more aligned with an ‘activist’ agenda. Moreover, the increasing convergence between the values and priorities of students’ unions and senior management (as a result of similar pressures coming to bear on both parties), suggests that fewer spaces are now available within higher education institutions from which to offer a radical challenge to either local or national policy.

While students’ unions may provide an important space within higher education institutions for like-minded people to get together and pursue collaborative projects, our research has provided little evidence to support the argument that has been made by Crossley and Ibrahimthat they play a significant role in facilitating political engagement, or inculcating a more ‘activist’ orientation. Our data suggest that the space of the students’ union was important for bringing students together, but typically for the purpose of representing other students and/or delivering services and events in the wider institution. In line with Sabri’s argument, we suggest that student ‘voice’ was articulated primarily in relation to concerns about ‘the student experience’ rather than any more political agendas.

The increasingly powerful role, within students’ unions, of permanent members of staff also raises questions about Crossley and Ibrahim’s thesis, as elected officers (in some institutions) come to have less contact with senior managers, and strategic priorities are increasingly shaped by those without a democratic mandate.  Nevertheless, in relating our data to broader themes about political engagement, it is important to emphasise that we are not claiming that the voice of all students has been ‘domesticated’. Indeed, evidence of recent student occupations in the UK suggests that there remain some spaces within higher education – even if not within the day-to-day practices of students’ unions – within which more radical critiques can be articulated and students can engage politically.

Many of our students’ union respondents believed they did have a significant influence on the senior management within their institution, and certainly felt that they were listened to by senior staff more than their counterparts had been in the past. Nevertheless, they were also clear about the limits to their influence, with almost all those who took part in the focus groups believing that, ultimately, power lay with senior managers. The evidence discussed above also suggests that the power of those holding elected positions was being eroded within students’ unions by the increasing importance of permanent members of staff.  Furthermore, the focus on ‘local’ issues, as a consequence of the foregrounding of the representative role with the remit of both the students’ union as a whole and that of individual officers, suggests that the arena within which power and influence can be exerted is limited. We thus conclude by suggesting that, here, there are broad parallels with the critiques that have been made in other areas – for example, in relation to school councils and youth parliaments – that initiatives to give ‘voice’ often fail to facilitate genuine political expression or enable real power to be exercised.


This blogpost is based on the following article, which was published earlier in the year: Brooks, R., Byford, K. and Sela, K. (2014) The Changing Role of Students’ Unions within Contemporary Higher Education, Journal of Education Policy (Advance online access).

We are very grateful to the National Union of Students and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education for funding this research. However, the views expressed in this blogpost are our own.


Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies