An Adam Smith Institute report that claims student unions (SUs) limit free speech, pursue “narrow” political causes and cost taxpayers and students £165m a year has been excoriated by the president of the National Union of Students (NUS), Larissa Kennedy.
The think tank’s latest paper – State of the Unions: How to restore free association and expression, combat extremism and make student unions effective – claimed that “student unions are perceived as ineffective by students, lack democratic legitimacy, and undermine freedom of association and expression”.
NUS national president Kennedy said: “This publication reeks of desperation and distraction. Lies, recycled content, and painting those less powerful than you as the enemy.”
The paper’s authors Maximilian Young and Lucky Dube argued “student unions are using taxpayer and student money to pursue a narrow political agenda that is irrelevant to representing students”. Examples given include “social justice” issues and campaigns against “alleged ‘structural oppression’ against minority groups”.
This social justice agenda has led SUs to limit free speech, block the formation of new societies and publications, and encourage or fail to prevent violence, the report argued. This approach has made students, “including Jewish students, Christians, conservatives, and traditional feminists, feel uncomfortable on campus”.
Student unions were also criticised for funding the NUS, “whose many officers are engaged in full time political campaigns on issues like defunding the police and decolonisation”.
Low democratic participation in national union elections, to which just “3% of students elect delegates”, was further evidence, the report argued, of the NUS’s “even less representative” profile. Students elect delegates to vote for national policy and officers at the NUS annual conference; the report provides several examples of low turnout for delegate elections, such as at Glasgow Caledonian University in 2018 when 1.5% voted for their NUS delegates.
The report also criticised the number of sabbatical officers with “no specific remit for day-to-day activity” who are tasked with promoting “liberation” or “equality”; “there is very little evidence, beyond the organisation of events and campaigns, of the efficacy of these roles,” it continued.
The latest National Student Survey (NSS) 2020 found that 56% of students felt their SU represented their academic interests. The report said universities achieved far better satisfaction scores in the NSS: 83% of students reported overall satisfaction with their course, and 84% were satisfied with the teaching on their course.
The think tank advocates dividing SUs’ social, sports and academic functions, breaking the link between student societies and local unions, and limiting university grants for social, societies, sports and academic representation. The NUS should collect money from students directly, rather than from local unions, the report said.
The NUS rejected the report, branding it a “very poorly researched publication that contains a large number of serious errors and/or outright misinformation”. A union spokesperson criticised “high profile politicians”, including education select committee chair Robert Halfon (who wrote a foreword to the report), for supporting research it described as inaccurate.
Larissa Kennedy, NUS president, said: “This report is filled with outright lies and errors from its outset about the funding of students’ unions and the role they play in students’ lives and in society. The truth is that students’ unions are the very home of rigorous debate and new idea, and they are not funded by taxpayers’ money.
“Students’ unions are also the home of advice, sport, opportunities, volunteering, representation, social activity and space to expand minds. These aren’t new attacks on students and students’ unions.”
On the claim student unions consume £165m per annum, which was labelled a “major error or an outright lie” by an NUS spokesperson, the union said: “Students’ unions are funded through a combination of tuition fee money, commercial money, and fees from individual students. NUS is funded through a combination of students’ unions income (which accounts for only a small % of total income), commercial income, income from long term assets, and fees for services.”
The NUS also challenged the report’s figures. According to the union, from 1 July 2020 affiliation fees for NUS are £2m, rather than £4m, with only £1.7m from SUs in England. The union said turnout at its most recent national conference was more than 80%. Voting for NUS posts in 2020 was open to 676 delegates from NUS member students’ unions between 16 March and 31 March; 80% of these delegates partook in the democratic exercise.
On an institutional level, the NUS said turnout outside of the pandemic period “sits at around 30%”, which is “similar to UK local election turnouts”; for example 31% of students at Royal Holloway took part in its SU election in March this year, the union added.
The union also accused the report’s authors of misunderstanding or misrepresenting how students’ unions are regulated: “SUs are registered charities, regulated by the Charity Commission, and as such it is illegal for them to spend charitable funds on political activity. This is an area of almost 100% compliance across the sector to date. And similarly, the funding that NUS receive from students’ unions makes up a small percentage of the total income and is spent on charitable activity only.”
The NUS also contested the “critical role” it, and student unions, had in limiting free speech.
A 2018 Office for Students report that “found no evidence of free speech being systematically suppressed”. The OfS report followed a Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) report which said “press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality”.
Reflecting on the JCHR report, which identified problems that could disincentivise students from organising “challenging events”, the OfS said: “Even though most Students’ Union officers who responded to the JCHR’s survey say they are confident that they and their companions can speak freely, the Committee believes these disincentives could be having a wider ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. Whether there is this ‘chilling effect’ is hard to measure, not least because it is difficult to ascertain instances of self-censorship and the extent to which some events never get beyond the planning stage.”
The Adam Smith Institute report also omitted evidence of SUs working to support students, in collaboration with universities, the NUS said. For example, Loughborough University and Loughborough Students’ Union (LSU) launched a campaign to support students facing financial hardship during the Covid-19 crisis.
The NUS also highlights that Who Funds You? – a UK campaign for think tank transparency – lists The Adam Smith Institute as one of the six UK think tanks that are the least transparent about their funding.