Student union powers are disproportionate to their mandate

Dan Mikhaylov

May 25, 2021

It should be difficult to imagine any organisation, which publicly subscribes to inclusivity and depends on government funding, getting away with polarising and, at times, outright hateful political activism. We’d expect such misconduct to attract public scrutiny and generate sufficient pressure for government intervention.

But this is not the case: such organisations exist in the form of student unions. Despite their low student engagement, student unions have claimed the right to determine the opinions of almost 2.5 million people across the United Kingdom and set controversial priorities, many of which do more to alienate individuals than to offer valuable support. Their powers frequently overstep their mandate, putting free speech and intellectual diversity at risk in our universities.

Of course, student unions are not all doom and gloom. These institutions coordinate social activities for incoming students and provide a secure, straightforward mechanism for student societies to fundraise and book rooms for events. On top of that, they provide important services, such as mental health counselling and careers advice.

And yet, this arrangement is proving highly dysfunctional. Students are finding their university lives increasingly centred around student unions. Not only are students required to purchase union membership if they are to become fully-fledged members of their student associations, they have no choice but to persevere through countless circles of union-imposed bureaucracy to become certified to lead societies or even register them in the first place.

Even more alarming is the abuse of student union authority, exemplified in the lack of representation and the radicalism behind many of their decisions.

Student participation need not be conflated with student unions. Many unions barely attempt to represent the interests of the entire student community. It is unsurprising, therefore, that at the majority of universities, student unions record approval ratings of below 50 per cent.

Moreover, most student unions have low voter turnout both at their elections and when they make important decisions. For instance, the London School of Economics student union (LSESU) went ahead with its motion to prohibit selling beef products in campus shops and canteens, with a voter turnout of less than 4 per cent.

Any important election with such abysmal voter engagement would surely have had its outcome disqualified, yet such undemocratic practices are allowed to flourish in our higher eduction system.

The radicalism of student union leadership is another cause for concern. Malia Bouattia, former president of the National Union of Students (NUS) – an umbrella organisation for some 600 universities – survived dismissal, even after slandering the University of Birmingham as a “Zionist outpost” and being accused of “outright racism” by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.

And the tone of her remarks is not unique. In 2014, the NUS Executive Council rejected a motion to condemn the Islamic State when the UK had already classified it as a terrorist organisation. It also had no issue with adopting a resolution that demanded “freedom for Palestine”,  even though the NUS leader at the time warned it may risk a backlash against Jewish students and had little to do with the daily concerns of most British students.

At the local level, the situation is equally dire. Kent University has banned fancy dress, Glasgow University has forfeited a pro-life society’s registration, and Manchester University union has even managed to outlaw clapping. Evidently, radicalism of all sorts persists at universities up and down the country and is enabled by student unions.

If these state-supported organisations continue to pursue their divisive policies and prevent students from hearing alternative perspectives on social and political issues, government intervention is required.

I propose that there is an ordoliberal justification for such action. An ordoliberal approach presupposes that the state plays a role in developing and supporting a legal environment that safeguards our essential freedoms.

Friedrich Hayek himself acknowledged the utility of governments enforcing the rule of law to encourage and protect individual freedoms. This would likely facilitate freedom of speech far more than if the phenomena of cancel culture and mob rule all allowed to endure.

The Adam Smith Institute’s recent report arrives at a largely similar judgment and suggests empowering the Office for Students to regulate student unions’ handling of membership and free speech. Meanwhile, existing student unions could be split into smaller bodies, which would perform different functions and correspondingly obtain different levels of taxpayer funding, to restrict its use of divisive and unnecessary political campaigns.

This is a great start, but more work remains to divorce student unions from politics and ensure they are genuinely comprised of, and work for, all our nation’s students.


Written by Dan Mikhaylov

Dan Mikhaylov is a General Intern at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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