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Willetts salutes the work of SUs

David_willetts David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, gave a speech in Sheffield today about the student experience. He advocated universities treating students more like consumers by publishing more detailed information and their performance, and also called for the Government to bring forward its review of tuition fees (without coming down on either side of the fees debate).

Interestingly he also touched on the important role Students Unions have to play in the social responsibility agenda, basically saying that although we might often disagree with what is said within SUs, the money and resources they provide are worthwhile:

"Student unions are often viewed by wider society as the place where Marxist-Leninists have hard-fought ideological battles with Leninist-Marxists.  There are still some union members who use them as an opportunity to posture.  There are new threats as well; radical Islam has emerged on some of our campuses - and student unions cannot be expected to deal with it on their own.  However, this is not typical. These days, students are more likely to have posters of Boris Johnson than Che Guevara.  The social interaction and fiery political debate that went on when I was an undergraduate was – and still is – important. But students’ unions offer so much more to students and to the communities they live in. Welfare and advice services provided by students, for students, are at the heart of what student unions have to offer."

"Participation in student societies is, nowadays, a feature of the ambitious graduate’s CV. Students’ unions nurture these societies, which, regardless of whether they seek to promote the Conservative Party (or to destroy it) all help students to learn vital skills for the workplace. These might include event organisation, financial management, public speaking, marketing, fundraising and even sales."

"Out in the communities that surround our universities, student community action groups are bringing real benefit to the lives of others. Students’ unions are playing their part in their local communities: Charitable fundraising; university governance; sports and fitness training; examination guidance; job centres; equality campaigning. I could go on.  The Party has recently rediscovered its commitment to social responsibility – or what I have called ‘Civic Conservatism’.  It is an interest in institutions which help build a strong society. To local schools, hospitals, charities, friendly societies, I would add student unions."

I've pasted the full speech into a pdf file - download here.

Unsurprisingly, the NUS' Gemma Tumelty couldn't find it in her heart to say anything nice about the speech. The NUS has press released Gemma Tumelty's reaction which welcomes the positive remarks about the role of SUs, but is sceptical of the tuition fees plan.

My experience is that SUs are a mixed bag. Matching funding for and supporting student societies, for example, is completely in line with the Party's desire to strengthen civil society. Providing advice to students on sexual heath, finances, univeristy problems etc is also a very useful function. As soon as they start getting political though, they get increasingly irrelevant. One of my personal bug bears was the pointless position of Women's Officer.

What do you think?

(note: this is a seperate debate to whether SUs should be affiliated to the NUS)


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