Radical Student Unions

By James McAsh


This is a radical perspective of students’ unions  and what they could be. This is not a radical perspective of precisely what student’s unions should be, because I could not possibly make that argument. At their heart students’ unions are democratic bodies, and that democratic core is what makes them so radical. There is no single answer to how students’ unions should operate: they are and must meet the fluid and constantly changing needs of their members. However, I can still provide a framework of analysis for how a students’ union can be understood and evaluated. That is to say, I will apply a radical lens to the activity of students’ unions, in the hope of providing some insights into how students’ unions could be more radical than many currently are.

This article is separated into four distinct sections. The first outlines a hypothesis for what the ideal democratic students’ union is, in abstract terms. This is an unachievable unreality which serves only as a benchmark for real-life activity. The second looks at some common practices in real students’ unions: then discusses the challenges they create. The third then outlines six barriers between actual students’ unions and the ideal that they are based on. The fourth and final section looks at three principles which could be applied to a re-evaluation of a students ’ union to bring them closer to the democratic ideal.

One: the ideal students’ union

The ideal students’ union is nothing more than a metaphysical space where all students democratically and fully discuss the ways in which the world could be made a better place, either for themselves specifically or in their eyes more generally; and, where they are then able to make these changes a reality. There should be no barriers to participation and all members should be equal. Everything that the students’ union does should be directed towards achieving this goal. Critically therefore, it is a question of power: the membership as a whole should be sovereign, and the distribution of power within the membership should be egalitarian.

Therefore, before we go any further it is worth giving a very brief explanation of how we understand power in this context. There is much political and philosophical debate into the concept of power, which is well beyond the scope of this article, but for the purpose of this argument I am going to employ a relatively simple theory, conceived by Steven Lukes. He states that there are three dimensions, or faces, of power and that each one is subtler and more significant than the last.

The first is the agent’s ability to make a decision which is most in line with his/her preferences. For instance, if the union shop is going to sell either apples or pears then the agent who wants to sell apples is more powerful if s/he is able to make this the union’s decision. The second dimension concerns the capacity of an agent to put the issue on the agenda for a decision to be made. Who decided that the union should decide between apples and pears specifically? Clearly the agent who made that decision had considerable power to be able to limit the options to just two fruit. The third face comes into play when an agent is able to alter another’s perceived preferences to reflect her/his own real interests. An example of this would be if the local producer of apples manages to convince the student body that pears are bad for them.

Note that this conception of the ideal students’ union requires nothing more than participating members. It does not necessarily require a building, a bar, a council, elected officers, staff or even a formal organisation recognised by anyone but its members. These phenomena are not core to the students’ union, but can aid it in its core purpose. Critically, that means that all of these things should exist for only as long as they are useful – it is possible, if unlikely, to envisage a situation where a students’ union would sacrifice its building, abandon its elections, and dismantle its council. It cannot however exist without its members.

Two: six reasons why power cannot be fully retained in the membership

In the ideal students’ union all power is fully retained by the membership, and equally distributed amongst it. However, this is not the case in any existing students’ union. This is not because these actual unions are run in a particularly bad way (although many are), but because it is not fully possible for this ideal to be realised. I can identify six reasons why the average students’ union cannot be like the ideal. These are: too many decisions, lack of interest, too many people, confidentiality, marginalisation of members, and rights of minorities. None of these can ever be truly overcome but they can be negotiated through relatively effective or ineffective means. It is therefore useful to fully understand them.

The first reason is that while the ideal union would involve all individual decisions being subject to democratic scrutiny, there are simply too many decisions for this to be feasible. The decisions taken daily will range from very significant – how to respond to a changing external world – to the more localised and operational – “when should the next meeting take place?”; “what drinks should the bar stock?” etc. It is clear that with all the will in the world, the student body could not possibly make all of these decisions collectively.

The second problem relates to lack of interest in day-to-day decisions. Even if it were logistically possible to collectively agree on all of these things, it would require much more interest and motivation than is realistic to anticipate. It is unlikely that anyone will think it worthwhile to have a long debate over which beer to stock. Similarly, if the decision only affects a subgroup it may not attract interest from the wider membership.

The third issue is logistical: there are too many people. It is impossible to hold a meeting with anywhere near the total population in all but the smallest unions. It is neither practical nor desirable for tens of thousands of people to congregate in one room to make decisions.

The fourth restriction concerns confidentiality. There are a number of scenarios in which a decision needs to be taken by a smaller group in order to protect individual members. For instance, the union may democratically decide upon a set of rules regarding conduct of members. However, if these rules are broken by a given member his/ her confidentiality can only be protected if a small group of people are given the power to decide how, or indeed whether, she/he should be disciplined.

The fifth area of concern is in regard to marginalisation and its effect on participation. We live in a profoundly unjust and unequal society where some individuals experience greater marginalisation than others. This means that even though direct democracy is seen to be open to all, it is likely that the relatively privileged are more likely to participate fully.

The final barrier relates to the existence of minorities with specific requirements or rights. It may not be possible for the other members to genuinely understand these issues, particularly when they relate to lived experiences of particular groups. Even when they can understand them it may not be appropriate for these members to participate in the decision-making process. This principle of self-organisation is fairly prevalent across the student movement – most notably in the National Union of Students’ liberation campaigns (Women’s Campaign, Black Students’ Campaign, Disabled Students’ Campaign and LGBT Students’ Campaign). However it does pose problems: what happens when a minority group and the overall majority disagree on an issue? Which body has the authority to decide on the issue? And who makes that decision?

Three: where the power lies in a students’ union

In an ideal students’ union, all the power lies in the membership and no member has more power than another. We have examined the reasons why this scenario is not possible in actual students’ unions, where we can clearly see that some members have more power than others, that the membership’s total power is curtailed by external factors, and that the different arenas of decision-making privilege certain kinds of decisions.

Given that students’ unions do not operate like the ideal it is important to understand how they do work in practice. This section will briefly outline five broad practices shared among many, if not all, students’ unions, and consider how the power is distributed within them. This will allow us to analyse them in relation to the ideal students’ union discussed above. The first practice is the traditional general meeting, the second is online referenda, the third is the creation of elected representatives, the fourth is the use of staff or volunteers and the fifth is the emergence of trustee boards.

The traditional general meeting

The first practice that will be examined is the traditional general meeting. This is where a physical meeting is called, open to all members, in which motions or proposals are debated and voted upon. On first glance this appears fairly close to the abstract students’ union: all members can participate and the formal processes are relatively democratic. However, on closer inspection, problems arise.

As previously observed, it is not possible to hold an effective meeting with tens of thousands of members, so a general meeting will undoubtedly only host a small subsection of the membership. Moreover, there is an important political implication of this. When not everyone is able to attend there will undoubtedly be a particular pattern to participation: the people who are most likely to attend will be those who have the time to do so and have the political capital to influence decisions. Inevitably this will to some degree exclude social groups with less time and/or political capital like working-class people, women, black people, LGBT+ people and disabled people. In other words, the political context of the world outside the students’ union has a direct impact on the distribution of first dimension power amongst its members.

Furthermore, in terms of the second dimension, these same people who are unlikely to contribute in the general meeting, are even less likely to put forward a proposal or amendment beforehand. Consequently, while it may look superficially like the abstract union in action – a general meeting can never be truly inclusive, and for that reason can never be truly democratic.

Online referenda

This brings us to the second common practice: online referenda. They are often heralded as the solution to the problems created by general meetings. While it is true that online referenda do not suffer in the same way from the previously mentioned problems, it would be an exaggeration to state that there are no problems at all.

The same students who are for whatever reason less able than others to participate in general meetings are also likely to face similar barriers to participation in online referenda. This may not mean the actual process of voting though. For instance, those who have outside commitments and therefore cannot make a general meeting may have the time to vote online, but be unable to participate in the campaigning activity that inevitably influences the final result. This again leads to an unequal distribution of first dimension power. The key difference between this and general meetings though, is that this inequality is masked by the superficial participation in the actual voting process.

When we inspect the situation through the second dimension of power the situation is further complicated. In a general meeting the possible outcomes are limited to the combination of amendments submitted to any given proposal. This means that the agenda is shaped largely democratically; in theory at least everyone can submit a motion or amendment. But in a referendum the possible outcomes are never more than two: Yes or No. This means that a huge amount of second-dimension power is given to the people or person who can decide upon the questions’ wording, and the lack of potential for amendments makes this power considerably more centralised.

However it is when we look at the third dimension that the implications become more serious. Lukes’ third dimension concerns the ability of one actor to alter another’s perceived preferences to be in line with their real interests. In a traditional general meeting the main way of influencing people’s preferences is through the medium of debate. A referendum, by contrast, relies on a wider range of campaigning activities. Referenda achieve higher turnout than general meetings but this does not necessarily mean more engagement. Just as referenda reach a higher proportion of the membership, the proportion of the voters who have fully engaged with the debate on a critical and personal level is much lower than in a general meeting. Critically, this means that the use of printed propaganda and online media becomes more significant. And the people who are able to create and distribute effective propaganda are likely to be the very same people who can come to a general meeting. The problem has not changed, it has just been concealed by a charade of inclusivity.

Elected representatives

The third common practice is the use of elected representatives. This is a means of creating a group of manageable size which is able to make fully democratic decisions from an infinite range of options. In theory this should greatly limit the potential for abuse of the second dimension of power. Moreover, this smaller decision-making body could include representatives of particular marginalised groups to ensure their proper representation. The biggest problem in this though is that having elected representatives necessarily weakens the lines of democratic accountability between decisions and the membership, weakening the original democratic principle. The assumption that representatives will always act in the interests of those they represent is a very shaky one and relies on very strong methods of holding representatives to account. So creating a group that can act on behalf of the whole union is essentially a great sacrifice of power, in all three dimensions, from the membership to an elite minority.

Moreover, this sacrifice of power does not even solve all the other problems: there is still nothing to guarantee that the representatives involved will have the knowledge or experience to be able to effectively act on behalf of those who they represent, even if that is their genuine objective.

Staff and volunteers

This brings us onto our fourth practice: the appointment of staff and volunteers – or more generally the people appointed to carry out specific tasks on behalf of the membership. The intention is that these people use their specific skills and experience to achieve the objectives that the membership sets, but which the membership cannot for whatever reason achieve itself. A key example of this is the students’ union’s commercial services: running a bar is an acquired skill which is difficult to gauge through an election.

Again though, this apparent solution creates a whole other range of problems. The first and most obvious one is that the line of accountability is blurred even further than with elected reps. If staff or volunteers are appointed through nondemocratic means then the student body have lost even more power over how their decisions are implemented. This is clearest in terms of the first and second dimensions of power: the appointed staff or volunteers make decisions themselves on behalf of the whole membership. However, the third dimension of power plays a more significant role here, particularly with senior staff or management. It is members of staff who induct elected officers, who guide their actions and who offer advice on the potential implications of any democratic decisions. This means that they are in a very strong position to influence the preferences of elected officers and/or members.

Boards of Trustees

Finally, it is worth briefly discussing our fifth practice: the creation of trustee boards in students’ unions. Unlike the previous examples, trustee boards are not the result of a conscious decision by members but as a consequence of a change in law. Students’ unions became charities in the early 1980s and then were properly defined in law in the 1994 Education Act. In any charitable association the body in control of the “management and administration” of the charity are deemed its trustees. Initially this fell on a given senior body or committee within the union, for example the Executive or the Finance Committee, but over time most unions have created a formal board.

The only students’ unions which do not have these boards are those which are not fully autonomous: those which  are part of the educational institution itself. This tends to be colleges not universities. And if those are the only two options then it is clear that being autonomous with the trustee board is the preferable one: a students’ union cannot possibly hope to radically change the institution if the institution controls it.

This is not to say that trustee boards are not problematic. Critically, the trustees have ultimate liability for the decisions taken by the ‘organisation’, which means that they must also have ultimate power to veto them too. This creates two problems which we have already seen. The first is the same as with elected reps – the small trustee board can never be truly representative of the wider student body, and in fact they are often positively encouraged not to be. The second relates back to the issues around staff or volunteers – many students’ union trustee boards have external trustees who are not members of the union. Like volunteers more generally, this further blurs the democratic lines of accountability.

However, the creation of trustee boards also comes with a unique problem relating to power and accountability. Unlike other elected representatives and appointed volunteers, the trustees’ ultimate accountability is not to the membership. A truly democratic union will debate the risks and potential benefits of any course of action before taking it. Staff and elected representatives can be held accountable for not carrying out a decision properly, or for giving poor advice in the decision-making process, but ultimately the responsibility for making the best decisions is with the membership.

By contrast, in an organisation with a trustee board the vast majority of the risk lies with the trustees, so it is they who are liable for the decisions being made. For example, if the membership make an informed decision to carry out a course of action it views as overwhelmingly positive, but with some significant risks, the benefits are shared by all but the risk is carried almost solely by the board. The result of this is that the trustee board will be inherently more conservative than the members at large. This is a structural problem which, crucially, cannot be solved by electing or appointing the ‘right people’.

Four: three principles of democracy in students’ unions

While there are some impenetrable barriers to creating the ideal students’ union there are in my view three principles, which if followed as closely as possible will bring a real-life students’ union as close as possible. These principles do not provide concrete solutions to the problems already posed, but they will hopefully serve as a useful starting point.

The first principle is localism: decision-making should be taken as locally as possible, close to those whom it affects. In this sense ‘local’ means more than just geography; it also means every other dimension of closeness. If an issue only affects people on a given campus then they should be the ones to resolve it. Similarly, if it only affects women studying part time on a particular degree, then it is those students who should take the decision. If they reach a decision it can then be passed up to all people on that degree, and then everyone in that subject area and then everyone in the union (or by some other route) and if no one disagrees in these forums it can become the democratic decision of the whole union, without it having to have been debated by all. However, this relies on no one challenging the decision in these bigger bodies. If this does happen then there needs to be mechanisms for determining which is the appropriate decision-making body. It will not be possible to find a perfect solution to this problem, but if the starting principle is localism, not centralism, then the problems of a) taking too many decisions; b) having too many people; and c) being unable to preserve minority rights, are all avoided. This means that power will be more fairly distributed.

An example of how this might be applied relates to the appointment of staff or volunteers. Generally speaking staff and volunteers are managed or co-ordinated by another member of staff. This is not in itself a problem, but if this is the only form of oversight then it becomes more problematic. Crucially, the appointees should be, wherever possible, accountable to a fairly localised grouping. This does not necessarily mean that they are not also accountable to the whole membership, or even that they cannot be line managed by a more senior member of staff. However, it does mean that the parameters within which the volunteer or staff member works should be determined locally and democratically, and that if s/he strays outwith these parameters s/he can be held accountable for it.

The second principle is flexibility. By this I mean that the union should strive to limit second dimension power by structuring debate in order to keep open all possible outcomes, or at least as many as possible. This is much more easily achieved in a smaller group where informal discussion allows for new suggestions and compromises to be raised in the course of debate. In a larger group though it becomes more difficult, as we can see from the traditional general meeting model.

This does not mean that it is impossible. A combination of physical space and online space can create the environment where small-scale discussions can be replicated with very large numbers. There is ongoing research into creating these spaces which allow for reflexive and participatory decision making in large groups, but it does not seem to have yet filtered into the student movement. A fuller explanation of this is beyond the scope of this article but an example can be found at: http://zelea.com/project/votorola/home.xht.

The third principle is that ultimate power should always be retained in the membership. This means that if any group or individual is able to act on behalf of the wider membership that right should only ever be temporary, and the members should be able to remove it at any given time. This principle is fairly well enshrined in students’ unions with the power to recall or ‘no confidence’ but in some institutions the process is so difficult that it is effectively impossible.

This principle should, above all, be applied to trustees. The mechanisms for removing a trustee should be clear, decisive and manageable, if not too easy. This will re-adjust the balance of risk and benefit slightly more in favour of action: if the board chooses to ignore or overrule a democratic mandate it is then open to being recalled. Of course, this does not remove the structural problem with trustees bearing so much risk, but it does alleviate the problem somewhat.


Students’ unions can and should be vibrant and democratic but all too often they are stifled by bureaucracy, legal constraints, and ineffective and inaccessible decision-making processes.

This need not be the case though. In this article I have outlined a conception of students’ unions based on their existence as groups of people, not as formal organisations with assets, employees and processes. From this starting point we have explored why the ideal students’ union cannot be achieved and where power is distributed within different union structures. This led us to derive three key principles for students’ union democracy.

However, the purpose of this article is not really to state what students’ unions should be. Rather, it is to question what students’ unions could be, and how they can contribute to making the world a better place. Critically, this can only be achieved by effective and inclusive democracy.

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