In defence of Student Unions

by Sam Fowles

Reading Jack Rivlin’s recent blog for the Telegraph I thought, from the vitriol spewed upon his unfortunate subjects, he must be writing about something truly repulsive. An international trollers collective perhaps, or at least the Liberal Democrats. But he wasn’t. He was writing about student unions or, as the charming Mr Rivlin describes them, “sandal wearing prigs” (why is footwear so offensive to him?) who “while away a 35 hour week reading the Leveson report and ordering personalised fleeces”. As a former sabbatical officer at St Andrews students’ union I feel somewhat obliged to stick up for my former colleagues.

Mr Rivlin claims that students unions are unrepresentative because their officers are elected by only a tiny proportion of the student body. This is a common criticism and one I found often used against me. However, this was almost always by  those busy closing down academic departments or pricing the poor out of higher education. The fact is: it’s just not true. While Mr Rivlin makes hay of the 8% turnout at UEA, he neglects to mention any other examples. At Imperial the turnout in 2012 was 32%, at Huddersfield it regularly hits over 20% and at my own St Andrews our most recent turnout was 51%.

To put this in context, the turnout for the London Mayoral election was 37.8% and Police and Crime Commissioners only managed to pull out 15% (The X-factor final reached 28%). I agree we have a problem with apathy but its neither confined to nor most prevalent in student elections.

But the main point of Mr Rivlin’s article is that students’ unions do joyless and pointless things such as (his chosen example) UEA banning the six nations from their bar because it’s sponsored by RBS. You know it’s his main point because he works up to it with apoplexy worthy of the Daily Mail. Now let’s be honest, it’s a ludicrous decision and, as the sort of student who was eating all three meals a day in the union bar during the 2007 rugby world cup (not during my term as a sabbatical officer), I would have been one of the first to protest.

But this is hardly a representative sample of the work that union officers do. To start with, the average working week in term time is often closer to 60 hours than 35 and, as officers organise the events that other students enjoy in their time off, weekends are often a rare luxury. The majority of officers are not “killjoys” or “busybodies”, but students who are involved in university life and want to improve it. Believe it or not this generally amounts to a little more than cheap beer and lots of parties (apparently Mr Rivlin’s only experience of student life) but music, drama, sport and, yes, politics.

While I was an officer I campaigned to end gender discrimination in some of St Andrews’ oldest traditions, won new bursary commitments from the university management and, along with my fellow officers, oversaw a multi million pound redevelopment of the union building (which was also, incidentally, the largest and cheapest bar and club in town).

But student politics has a wider importance. It is a vital part of the unique experience of education that only a university can provide. It is a place where students must debate ideas, not in the theoretical realms of debating societies, but with real impacts. These impacts are often minor but they are real nonetheless.

Early on in my term of office I helped a student through a disciplinary hearing and was able to prevent him getting kicked out of halls. Now this was probably irrelevant to everyone except that student but I’d sooner say spend my day stopping a kid becoming homeless than bitching on my blog.

I learned an indescribable amount from my year as a union officer and I know my former colleagues would say the same thing. The tragedy is not that too many people are involved in student politics but that too few take that opportunity.

The students at UEA did just that. Yes, they came to, what I believe is, a ridiculous decision, but they did so through being engaged in public issues and passionate about their ideas. It seems to me that these are qualities that we should look for in as many students as possible. The only thing we achieve by scorning passion and commitment is that more people are put off engaging and those election turnouts, national as well as student, continue to tumble.

Sam Fowles is a former sabbatical officer at the university of St.Andrews and blogs at

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2 Responses to “In defence of Student Unions”

  1. Ex-Labour says:

    In my university days the student union reps were typical loony lefties. Seems like nothing has chnaged based on the UEA decision.

  2. swatantra says:

    I always thought that being Pres of the NUS was a necessary step to a pollitical career. And any students worth their salt will protest about … well anything. So it would be wrong to descibe them as simply part of the ‘loony’ left.

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