Student Union Reform Consultation, Response by the National Postgraduate Committee (1993)

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The National Postgraduate Committee welcomes the Government's interest in the running of Student Associations, and the Government's stated aims of increased choice and improved service provision. However, we believe that the reforms could be improved by the following amendments

  • Internal representation to be expanded to allow proactive campaigns on behalf of members
  • To allow more effective internal representation, campus unions should be able to cooperate in national networks as part of their core activities
  • Recognising the important educational benefits of student clubs and societies in general as well as in the area of sport, clubs and societies in general should be a core function. To prevent possible misuse, we would suggest that such clubs and societies be subject to the normal charitable rules on campaigning
  • Institutions should be able to nominate further services outwith the above area to be included in the core if they feel that it would be of benefit to their students
  • Institutions and their student associations should be free to choose the representative structure they feel is most appropriate given the local conditions and views of students, while being mindful of the need to act fairly and enfranchise all students.

Introduction

1 The National Postgraduate Committee would like to welcome the Government's consultation exercise on the reform of student associations, which it considers to be a very important part of the higher and further education experience. However, we would argue that while the Government's aims of increased choice and improved provision of student services are very laudable, we have grave doubts as to whether the structures as proposed in the consultation documents will realise these aims. The Committee is afraid that the proscriptive nature of the reforms may in fact work to reduce choice and service provision, and is also concerned that the changes work to remove the choice of the management of individual education institutions to provide the student services they feel are necessary in the way they would wish.

2 The National Postgraduate Committee is an organisation of postgraduate student officers from institutions with postgraduates throughout the country. It provides a networking function for addressing educational issues relating to postgraduates as postgraduate students.

General Points and Principles

The National Postgraduate Committee feels that the quality of higher education in the United Kingdom is very high, and considers student associations an essential part of the educational process. Associations also provide very valuable roles in student feedback and quality monitoring, as well as contributing to the culture of the institutions.

3 Institutions have over the years been very effective at locally deciding what is best for their students. The increasing market orientation of institutions, along with initiatives such as the Student Charter, is likely to impress these obligations even further. In addition, the Committee has noted Government's moves towards devolving power down to lower levels to make it more responsive to consumer demands, as in the case of local management of further education institutions. We are disappointed, therefore, that the Government's proposals do not allow the local institution to decide on the facilities required by their students (above a set minimum), and allow the institution the freedom to provide these services in the way it sees fit. Paragraph 5.ii suggests that institutions will be allowed to provide any services they like except through the campus union, and we fail to see the justification for this. Local institutions are the organisations best placed to assess the needs of their students and powers should not be removed from them in this way.

4 The Committee is also concerned as to the practicality of the proposed reforms, given the very varied nature of institutions, both with regard to their locations, size, missions, etc. Services regarded as necessities at one institution may be luxuries at another, and vice versa. Also, problems are likely to occur with regard to the definition of particular areas and their eligibility or otherwise for core status. For this reason, we feel that the reforms should be more flexible. Given local institutions' unique position to be able to assess their students' needs, we suggest that matters such as which services should be regarded as core and which methods of accountability are most suitable for their campus union should be left to the institution to decide.

5 The Committee is disappointed that the period of consultation on the proposals was over the summer. With all the other concerns new students have on returning to their institutions, it is difficult to gain the informed opinion of new students to the proposals. However, since graduate students normally work throughout the year, the NPC has been able to formulate its response from the views of postgraduates and postgraduate societies at a large number of institutions.

6 The Committee is concerned that the proposed reforms with their divisions between core and non core services, will be administratively cumbersome and thus expensive to administer. There is a danger that the administrative overheads will be such that it will become difficult to carry out tasks effectively, and maintain proper accountability to students.

7 Overall, the Committee is disappointed that the reforms seem to seek to restrict the activities of student associations rather than trying to use existing resources to the best of their ability.

8 A large number of postgraduate students come from overseas, and pay full fees which include a subscription to the student association. If such provision were curtailed, and students expected to pay for subscription to clubs and societies, the overseas fees should be reduced accordingly. Overseas students are much more likely to judge potential institutions on the overall educational experience, including social and welfare provisions. It would be very unfortunate if any perceived reduction in the ability of student associations to provide such 'external' services were to reduce the flow of good overseas students who do much for the education community in this country.

Although fees paid by foreign governments or individuals may be spent on non-core activities, this would not protect overseas from any reduction in the level of services.

Core Services

9 The Committee welcomes the Government's proposals to include internal representation, welfare, catering and sport within the core range of services, although we would like to see this area extended to include halls of residence committees, other clubs and societies, national representation and some other areas, such as trading, which could be decided at the level of the host institution. We would also wish to see slightly wider definitions of internal representation and welfare services than are currently envisaged.

Internal representation

10 The Committee is pleased to see the Government's recognition of this important area. However, in order to be fully effective, a campus union must be able to represent their members to the institution on matters legitimately raised by their members. Therefore, we would argue that an essential part of internal representation would be the ability of the association to initiate campaigns on issues raised by their members and not be restricted, as suggested in para. 10, to reacting to proposals from the host institution.

11 Halls of residence committees form an essential part of the representational structure, and as such should be included under this section.

National representation

12 Closely allied to the above issues is that of national representation. The National Postgraduate Committee's main role is as a source of information exchange between institutions, disseminating good practice and providing a resource for problem solving. Our codes of practice are the result of extensive study and consultation with a large number of different institutions, and we are consulted by Research Councils, funding councils and Government alike to give views on the postgraduate perspective of tertiary education. Our annual conference attracts speakers from these areas and also from the new Council for Graduate Education. Without the ability to exchange ideas on a national basis, the work we have been able to carry out in the past will be impossible; postgraduate societies, and education as a whole, will loose a valuable resource. The National Postgraduate Committee only considers educational issues, and we believe that all our activities fall within the welfare core as described in the consultation document.

13 In order to provide the best possible representation of their members and ensure a high quality of education, campus unions must be able to be aware of what is going on at other institutions, and organisations such as the National Postgraduate Committee must be able to carry out research on this basis.

Welfare

14 The Committee welcomes the Government's recognition of the importance of social and other facilities for postgraduates by including this in the proposed welfare core. Postgraduates are likely to work on their own or in small groups, and as a result isolation has been identified as one of the largest problems facing postgraduate students. Such isolation is reduced by social and other events organised by the Student Association. However, the Committee is concerned at some of the anomalies that could be created.

15 Strathclyde University Students Association held a research seminar to reduce isolation and give postgraduate students an opportunity to present their work. Such events would presumably be core. However, art exhibitions held by the Students Association at Glasgow School of Art the only opportunity many students have of presenting their work are open to both postgraduate and undergraduate students and would presumably be non core. If this were to happen to all events it would serve to further separate postgraduates from the main student body, which would be unfortunate.

16 There are also considerable difficulties involved in the definition of clubs some institutions, for example, have freshers fortnights, and there is the problem of clubs serving particular groups within a core area, such as a graduate debating society.

17 Clubs and societies form such an important part of the educational experience that we would suggest that all clubs and societies be included in the core. Such societies serve to broaden the learning the student receives, and in many cases make it more vocational. Even if it is accepted that spending on political clubs is a waste of resources, surveys suggest that less than 2% of funding go to such clubs, which is a very small 'leakage' rate. The Committee does not feel that it would be cost effective to go to the administrative difficulty of trying to differentiate between different clubs, and recommends that all clubs should be included in the core. Overt political activities would be curtailed by the restriction of campaigning to the charitable definition as suggested below.

18 The restriction to campaigning within existing national policies is likely to lead to confusion. For example, the NPC's work on research supervision guidelines, which has been welcomed by the research councils, could be regarded as a change in national policies as the guidelines are an extension of those originally published by the research councils. However, we cannot believe that it is the intention of the Government to exclude such work, and ministers' comments on consultations such as the Student Charter would seem to bear this out. We would therefore suggest that the readily accepted definition of campaigning over national policies used by the Charity Commissioners be adopted in this case.

19 A number of different surveys have been carried out into the welfare of postgraduate students, the results of which show that one of the main problems they face is one of isolation, in particular among research students. This problem is considerably reduced where there is an active postgraduate society. However, with the likely reduction in social association activities for other groups of students and the increased number of students studying on modular courses who will therefore not have the support of the traditional structure of classes, the Committee is concerned that the problems of isolation seen now amongst postgraduates may increase amongst undergraduates.

Trading

20 The Committee has noted that the Government considers that catering should be included as a core service as this is often provided as a service to students, but would point out that other forms of trading activity are also provided on this basis.

21 Many Associations rent out space in their buildings to commercial enterprises, both as a source of revenue and as a service to their members by making more facilities available to them. This is particularly important in institutions located out of town. Sometimes, however, such external commercial activities are not viable and most Higher Education associations undertake trading activities other than catering as a service to students. While such services are normally run to make a profit or at worst break even, they usually do this only because indirect costs such as heat and rent are charged on a no cost or marginal cost basis. For example, Dundee University Students Association rents out space to John Smiths booksellers, but York University Students Union, located far from the town centre and with no other institution nearby, has to run a bookshop itself. It feels that this is an essential service to students, and we would argue that as such it should be regarded as core. However, it is obviously very difficult to make global definitions as to what type of trading activity would need to be core, as this would vary between institutions. We would suggest therefore that the host institution is the best judge of which trading activities should be considered to be core, and they should be given powers accordingly.

Code of practice for campus student unions

22 With regard to the proposed Code of Practice for Student Unions, the Committee is agreed that associations should be accountable and be seen to be accountable; most of the proposals are already carried out by the majority of associations. The Committee is, however, concerned that the code is very proscriptive in nature and does therefore not give great enough allowance to the particular needs of individual institutions. Again we would stress that the detail should be left to individual institutions.

23 With regard to the issues of democratic procedures, the Committee is extremely worried that it was proposed that the host institution would be able to change the constitution of the campus union. This is a much more radical step than the institution being able to approve changes to the constitution proposed by the students themselves, a system which operates at many institutions already and which we find acceptable. The Committee is concerned that the Constitution of the student union must be primarily a matter for the student body themselves; the Committee questions the ability of a campus union to represent its members to the institution if the institution, rather than the members, controls the constitution.

24 Similarly, the Committee feels that the internal decision making structures of the union are a matter for its members and its host institution, and that detailed Government guidelines in this area are unnecessary. At some institutions, general meetings are still well attended and provide an effective feedback mechanism. The host institution should be able to use its judgement and where such arrangements work and are desired by students they should be allowed to continue. Also, while we agree that referenda have a place in the operation of unions, the level of quoracy should be decided at the level of the individual institution. For example, under the current proposals, at most institutions postgraduates could not call a referendum even if every postgraduate signed a petition.

25 On the subject of affiliations to national bodies, the Committee feels that

a where a club or society wishes to use its own money for affiliations, such affiliations should be a matter for them to decide

b where a club or society wishes to use general pooled funds for affiliations, this should be decided by the next higher level of decision making (eg. societies council)

c) while it is important to reconsider affiliations by the union as a whole on a yearly basis, this might best be done by the Student Representative Council, with referenda at less frequent intervals. In the case of organisations such as ourselves, the cost of organising a cross campus referendum would be considerably greater than the annual membership fee.

26 In all cases, when the money of a particular group is being spent on affiliations it should be for that group, not the general body of students, to decide on the affiliation. The consultation paper accepts this point for all decisions except that of affiliation to national bodies, and we fail to see the justification for this distinction.

27 Unfortunately experience suggests that the level of quoracy of 33% is unlikely to be achieved. The Committee feels that this requirement should be removed, since the lack of a quoracy requirement at subsequent ballots, combined with the possibility that election fatigue will set in, might result in the election of a more determined but less popular candidate.

28 The Committee is also concerned that it is intended to suppress a candidate's political affiliations. Since such an action would be unlikely to have an effect on the behaviour of the candidate when in office, the Committee feels that it is most important for this information to be available to students so that they can make an informed choice.

Affiliations to national organisations

29 In the covering papers to the consultation notes, the Secretary of State proposes that affiliations of national organisations should be non core. The Committee fails to see the justification for this, and feels that a club or society, having been allocated money in a fair and accountable way, should be free to spend that money as it sees fit.

30 The Committee notes that affiliations to the BUSF are to be considered core under the sports heading, and welcomes recognition of the importance of a national coordinating body in this case. However, the Committee sees its relationship to the quality of postgraduate education to be similar to that between sports clubs and the BUSF, and fails to see any case for the arbitrary distinction between the two bodies.

31 The Government's stated aim is to prevent the use of public funds for political campaigning. The NPC undertakes no political campaigning, and feels that it would be unfortunate if it were to be penalised due to the generality of the Government's proposals.

32 The National Postgraduate Committee is a non political body operating on a very small budget of just under 10,000, and only addresses issues relating to the educational welfare of postgraduates. Most of the work of the Committee is undertaken by volunteers, but we do employ an elected sabbatical to provide a coordinating function. If all affiliations become non core, the valuable help that the NPC provides to postgraduate societies in the operation of the core work would have to be paid for by individual members of postgraduate societies. However, very little of the NPC's work goes to benefit postgraduates as individuals, as our work on educational practices will affect all postgraduates whether they are members or not. In some cases, such as our work to combat isolation through publications like 'The Postgraduate Book', the benefit to non members will be greater than to members who would be by definition well informed. We do not think it fair that students who are not the primary beneficiaries of the NPC should be asked to pay for it, and feel that membership fees of organisations which assist in the provision of core services should themselves be core.