22 SES 02 D, Social Responsibility: Participation and Democracy
Despite profound changes to national higher education sectors across Europe over recent years, the role of students’ unions has remained largely unexplored within academic research. This paper begins to address this gap by drawing on data from a UK-wide study of students' unions, and comparing this to extant evidence about the role and function of students' unions in other European countries.
While there has been very little research on the role of students’ unions in general, a small number of scholars have discussed the changing nature of student representation in this area. Luescher-Mamashela (2013) argues that formal student involvement in institutional decision-making has its roots in the wave of university democratisation that began in the 1960s, largely in response to student protests, and affected many universities in the US, Western Europe and parts of the British Commonwealth. As a result, students in many countries ‘moved from being a politically marginalised grouping to being recognised as a main constituency in university governance’ (ibid., p.1444). However, during the 1980s and 1990s, the rise of neo-liberalism brought with it a raft of market-based reforms within the higher education sector and, in many universities, prompted a shift away from democratic forms of decision-making towards more managerial approaches.
With respect to the representative function of students’ unions, in particular, the typology developed by Luescher-Mamashela (2013) is informative. He distinguishes between four main ways in which the case for student representation in university decision-making has been made by relevant stakeholders and/or conceptualised by those analysing such trends. The first of these focuses on the origins of representation in student political activism, and is termed the ‘politically-realist’ case. Here, universities are conceived as composed of competing internal stakeholders, whose differing priorities need to be accommodated. The second understanding of student representation is the ‘consumerist case’, based on the premise that students are consumers of the products provided by HEIs and, as such, should have input into the decisions that are made about them. Students are thus seen as having the right to representation as a means of safeguarding their interests. In contrast, the ‘communitarian case’ conceptualises students, not as consumers, but as ‘members of a collectivity engaged in the educational process’ (ibid., p.1449). Student representation is thus justified simply by students being members of the community. Finally, the fourth perspective – the ‘democratic (and consequentialist) case’ – understands student representation as a means by which to further citizenship education, through inculcating democratic values and exercising democratic practice.
Sociologists of education have presented various critiques of this increasing involvement of students’ unions in HEI governance and normative assumptions about student ‘voice’. Indeed, Leathwood and Read (2009) argue that this ‘voice’ is closely linked to the construction of the student as a consumer and while, in some cases, it may have positive effects (they cite the example of a student saying that s/he should be let into a lecture late because s/he has paid for it), it leads to democracy being understood in economic rather than political terms. Morley (2003) develops a similar argument, suggesting that in contemporary higher education, the student voice has become ‘domesticated’, and closely linked to a consumer identity.
While this literature provides a useful conceptual framework for exploring the nature and role of students’ unions within contemporary higher education, its empirical base is weak. We know little about how those who become involved in students’ unions understand their role, nor how students’ union officers and senior HEI staff relate to each other in practice. The paper is intended to generate new knowledge in this area.
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