Lessons from Across the Pond

Recently I travelled to the United Kingdom and Ireland, where I was able to visit seven college unions and connect with dozens of people across the field. This included two meetings of chief executives in the U.K. and the Celtic Connections Conference, which was a gathering of Irish and Scottish professionals. Besides making a few presentations and sharing information about ACUI’s programs and services, I learned a lot about trends and issues in unions “across the pond.”

Before sharing my big “ah ha” moment, let me provide some context about how most unions are structured in the U.K. and Ireland. Students’ unions, as most are called, are affiliated with, yet separate from the university where they are housed. They are charity organizations, what might be called 501c3 nonprofits in the United States. And the chief executive (union director) reports to the governing board. Leadership on the board comes from sabbatical officers—students who are elected by the campus and have taken a year off from school to fulfil their full-time union board role. On one campus, the chief executive shared that five former board officers went on to serve as members of Parliament, so clearly there are exceptional students leading and enhancing their experience on students’ unions boards. 

Programs and services in the U.K. and Ireland are like the United States; and, also similar, is that no two unions are the same. Providing food service, hosting meetings and events, managing student organizations, sponsoring engagement opportunities, and serving as the “living room” of the campus are common. Additionally, though, I saw unions focused on services promoted by sabbatical officers to support the wellbeing of students, provide academic advising, advocate for adequate student housing, and champion equity and inclusion. Advancing campus community is central to the purpose of the U.K. and Irish unions, with an added emphasis on student-driven, inmy observation.

Imagine in the United States if student government was combined with the union/program board, and there was legal authority for their purpose to advocate for students. That is essentially the case in the United Kingdom, where the Education Act 1994 established students’ unions as the official representative body for students, designating their role to advance the interests and concerns of students to the university. Besides providing regular union services and opportunities for engagement, students’ unions are a powerful force on campus to advocate for students.

One way U.K. and Irish unions help students to be heard is through organized campaigns, which are intended to raise awareness on issues, to push for a change in the university, or even with the local or national government. Initiated by the union, or as a facilitator for a student organization, campaign initiatives vary greatly, from sexual harassment awareness on campus to ending the use of fossil fuels at the university. During my trip, I also saw a collaborative campaign revealed by the Russell Group Students’ Unions, a group representing 24 leading U.K. research universities. I witnessed them launch their Student Manifesto in Parliament, calling on the U.K. Government to prioritize students. Their call to action included: 1) ensuring that the rising cost of being a student is not a barrier to participation; 2) that a student’s living environment supports effective learning; 3) to strengthen the reputation of U.K. higher education globally; and 4) to invest in the future of U.K. higher education. Imagine the power behind this messaging that represents more than 700,000 students across Russell Group universities. 

Funding for students’ unions comes from two primary sources—the university and commercial enterprises. Unlike the United States, there is no dedicated student fee for student activities and programs that might be affiliated with the students’ union. Allocations from the university are usually outlined in an agreement established, with the understanding of the important role the students’ union plays for students and the institution. Obviously, the relationship between university and union leadership plays a pivotal role in negotiating funding, as does the union emphasizing its value proposition. One strong example was at the University of Manchester Students’ Union, where a team researches and shares their impact on the student experience. 

During my trip, it was interesting to see the pro-Palestinian encampments and demonstrations on campuses and the role played by the students’ union. Similar to the United States, students are passionate in their protest of the Gaza war, and they have made similar demands from universities like divestment from Israeli companies and severing academic partnerships with Israeli universities. What is also similar is how challenged institutional leadership feels dealing with the protests, hearing from angry alumni, and, for some, vice chancellors being called to Downing Street at the bequest of the Prime Minister. However, what is different is the more pronounced role that the students’ union is playing in helping the campus navigate the situation. 

To be clear, I’ve heard from U.S. union directors about the intense situations they are facing regarding pro-Palestinian protests. In most cases, however, the direction they are receiving in how to handle the protests, if they are directly involved, comes from institutional leadership. They are part of a chain of command at the university, and while they are doing everything possible to support students expressing themselves, ultimately, they are following direction from the top. 

The independent status of many students’ unions in the U.K. and Ireland—and this is my “ah ha” moment—allows them to play a much more active role, which I think has contributed to the protests being generally less tense and without the violent clashes seen in the United States. In the U.K., students’ unions are serving as mediators to campuses seeking resolution. Their independent role to advance the interests and concerns of students to the university allows them to be trusted by all sides. University leadership is counting on the guidance of the union’s chief executive, and student protestors are also listening to the union’s chief executive and sabbatical officers. While U.S. unions cannot separate themselves from reporting up through the university, there may be a lesson to position the union as campus mediator.