Orders of the Day — Student Unions (Funding)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:41 pm on 10th March 1988.

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Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire 11:41 pm, 10th March 1988

I am delighted to have this opportunity to initiate a debate on the important subject of the financing of student unions, a subject which has been of concern for some years to hon. Members, to the Government, to students, indeed to everyone interested in the proper use of public funds and individual rights.

Concern has focused recently, perhaps particularly, on the compulsory membership of the National Union of Students. I draw the attention of the House to early-day motion 449 sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) and endorsed by 213 other hon. Members. That motion welcomes the Employment Act 1987 with its measures to reverse closed shop arrangements, but notes that hundreds of thousands of students will still have no choice over whether or not they join the National Union of Students; and hopes that the Secretary of State for Education and Science will take steps to rectify this anomalous position as soon as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) raised this issue during business questions on 25 February last and the Leader of the House said it would be appropriate for hon. Members to table an amendment to the Education Reform Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and others have done just that, tabling a new clause to the Bill to move to a system of opting into membership of the NUS or other national student bodies. It would be premature to expect the Minister to leap to his feet tonight and announce that the Government intend to accept that new clause; we shall have to wait for the issue to be debated for him to do that.

I was a voluntary member of a students' union at the university of St. Andrews, where I was also president of the students' representative council, a separate organisation. That structure has some attractions, to which I will come later.

Students' unions north and south of the border began as voluntary organisations, as private clubs giving facilities to members. But as the concept of the student grant developed, membership dues were increasingly paid for most students by grant-giving bodies. Those bodies, the Scottish Education Department and local authorities in England and Wales naturally questioned those payments as not being strictly necessary. The response to that was to make membership compulsory. When that happened, of course there was automatic payment of fees for those who wished to join the students' union, and the union had the bonus that membership was compulsory for those who did not wish to join or were indifferent to joining.

That change had two inevitable effects. First, it made the students' unions much more free of any real need to satisfy their membership. Secondly, the fee, in effect, was negotiated by the union and the university or college authorities. It was paid for by the taxpayers and ratepayers. Inevitably, the fees went up.

Change was inevitable, and in 1980 the Government announced that in future the unions would be financed from the general funds of the university or college. That meant that the student union allocation was competing with other demands from departmental budgets. It was hoped that financial realism and the need for the universities and colleges to provide proper institutional oversight would lead to wholly satisfactory arrangements.

It is my contention that that was a fundamental mistake by the Government because it broke the link between the membership of students' unions and their income. One of the books on the subject noted the consequence that The responsibility that should be at the root of any democracy has been entirely removed. Members have no financial responsibility for what the union spends or how it spends it. The income of the National Union of Students, which in 1986–87 amounted to about £1·84 million, was from the taxpayer through block membership by student unions. That means, as the early-day motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock points out, that perhaps hundreds of thousands of students who have no wish to do so are forced to be members of the NUS, but, on the other side of the equation, many individual students may wish to be members of the NUS but if their student unions have opted out they cannot join because there is no longer the possibility of individual membership.

A fundamental point in relation to Government legislation in other areas is that, since membership of those unions is compulsory, and is a closed shop, in effect students are forced to join two closed shops.

It may be thought that the consequences of compulsory membership are not a matter of concern, or that any concern is purely theoretical. People may say that students will be students, nothing is ever perfect, and does it really matter in practice? I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that I believe that it does really matter.

It matters to one of my constituents who was a full-time treasurer of his students' union. He was sacked because he refused to sign a cheque for students' union funds to go to the fighting fund for the striking miners. He argued that that was wrong, he refused to do it and he was sacked. It is not a matter of theory to him; it is a matter of real concern.

It is a matter of real concern to Mr. Paul Soden who refused to join the students' union at Manchester polytechnic. Although he was willing to pay the money, he was expelled from the polytechnic. It was a matter of real concern to Mrs. Patsy Fry who was expelled from her course at the Queen's road polytechnic in Bristol solely because she refused to join the students' union.

It matters that at Strathclyde university my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) was unable to address a meeting; it was disrupted and had to be abandoned. Conservative students have been refused the right to speak at student association meetings solely on political grounds and have been physically attacked by their political opponents.

It is a matter of general concern to society that students may pursue a so-called no-platform policy under which those who profess views with which student union leaders do not agree are refused the right to speak. That goes right to the heart of academic freedom and democracy, whatever the views of the people concerned.