Student unions cost £165m a year but only one in 10 undergraduates turn out to elect staff, report reveals

Phoebe Southworth
·3-min read
Nick Clegg speaks to student union leaders at the University of London - Stefan Rousseau/PA
Nick Clegg speaks to student union leaders at the University of London - Stefan Rousseau/PA

Student unions cost £165m to run but only one in 10 undergraduates turn out for staff elections, a new report has revealed, as Sajid Javid warns the British tradition of free speech is under threat.

The sum, spent by students and taxpayers every year, covers the wages of 600 full-time officers who are meant to represent the voice of students on campus, according to the analysis of 138 unions by the Adam Smith Institute.

However, only 11 per cent of students on average turn out to vote for aspiring officers in student elections, the report found - despite efforts to encourage them to engage with the process through "freebies" such as complementary pizza and discounts at student shops.

In addition, a mere 56 per cent believe their student union does a good job of representing their academic interests, the analysis found.

Student unions banning speakers deemed to hold controversial opinions and blocking the sale of particular publications on campus are some of the issues raised in the report, which the authors say shows that unions are "highly political organisations with little claim to a democratic mandate".

Mr Javid, the former Chancellor and Home Secretary, said the practice of "silencing" those with whom "an intolerant minority" disagree is part of a worrying trend at universities across the UK.

“British universities are meant to be places of open debate and intellectual freedom. Their proud tradition of liberalism is foundational for bringing students into contact with new and challenging ideas. That tradition is under threat," he said.

"In student unions across the UK, an intolerant minority is seeking to silence those they disagree with under the banner of no-platforming and safe spaces.

"Their campaign of censorship is an assault on one of our most precious and fundamental rights – freedom of speech. Championing students by protecting legal free speech should be one of the higher education sector’s top priorities."

The report said the Office for Students, an independent public body, should become the main regulator of universities when it comes to issues such as free speech on campus.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “This report raises serious concerns about the funding and operation of student unions. For instance £160m could support a lot of bursaries.

"It is vital students have a voice but the report highlights there are also issues around the extent to which student unions represent student cohorts and their needs."

Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, 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. Once again this is political rhetoric and scaremongering packaged up as ‘research’ - the same tired lies that Javid was rolling out in the early 1990s. People deserve better than this – especially from high profile politicians.

"This publication reeks of desperation and distraction. Lies, recycled content, and painting those less powerful than you as the enemy. At a time when the UK Government is facing questions about its failed covid strategy, with a second wave on the horizon and a no deal Brexit looming there are surely more important matters for Government Ministers to deal with than rekindling personal gripes.”

The Adam Smith Institute said: "Our report sets out in extensive, fully referenced detail that student unions are not the home of rigorous debate but rather of bans, behaviour controls and censorship. It is fact that half the cost of universities and thus of their grants to student unions is met by the taxpayer."