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Will Burstow: Student unions should be consumer champions, not political campaigners

Picture 8 Will Burstow is the SUBU Development Officer and the Student Conservative Activist Network (SCAN) representative at Bournemouth University. He writes here in a personal capacity.

OK, here goes... I’m going to say it. I’m a student union officer, and I support the Browne Review and Higher Education (HE) spending cuts. We need them both as soon as possible. The sector as it is now is sluggish and unsustainable. It’s as simple as that. Now I don’t think anyone wants to cheer about cuts, but I believe we should be cheering on and supporting the Browne Review.

Not a sentiment you thought you’d hear from any student at the moment? Well frankly you won’t hear any doom and gloom from me about the issue, because I know that we as a people can work through this difficult time and come out stronger and more resilient than before because I believe in the spirit of the British people. The truth of the matter is that you only ever get doom and gloom from an NUS that’s more interested in the political advancement of their Labour youth leadership than in the long term interests of their members.

As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got to reform Higher Education. There’s no doubt about it. It’s a sector that’s stagnant and doesn’t listen to the concerns of ordinary students. So let’s change that. Let’s escape from the current system. I genuinely think Browne actually is that escape.

The fact of the matter is that we need a full consumer reformation in HE. A step change in how we fund it. This is the wonder, joy and brilliance of what Browne is; it puts students in control of their education. What better way to drive up standards than to hand power down to ordinary students by giving them a proper market in which to choose? What better way to force the waste and dross out of the HE sector than with a market that puts consumers in control of their educational destiny? What better way to tailor the HE sector to the needs of students than with a wholesale reform of the way universities are funded that’s committed to the funding link between students and universities?

Student unions need to be honest about this and not pander to a left wing statist view put about by a minority of their members that is discredited and out of date. The Browne Review is a complete gift to students, to parents, to student unions across the nation. Come 2012/13, no longer will Universities be able to operate based on the bias and comfort of their employees. They will be forced to be lean, intelligent, student centric institutions that actually listen to the needs of their students and potential students. They will be forced to compete for students in a way they never have before and this can only be a good thing.

It’s no good for Aaron Porter to try and shift the responsibility solely on to top down regulators. Student unions have a responsibility to their students to be a bottom up vehicle in the consumer reformation and act in their students' interests. Student unions can, and should, be a part of this and shouldn’t be hindering the passage of something that will help students flourish.

That’s why change in the Higher Education sector has to occur right across the board. It’s time for fundamental change within student unions. It’s just not good enough for them to act as quasi-political lobbying groups because this simply does not, and will not, serve the needs of their students in the short, medium or long term. It’s time for student unions to live up to their true potential, to begin to stand up for all students by acting as consumer champions.

Student unions need to be about representing their students (or consumers) to their university in the first instance, it’s as simple as that. They need to begin re-evaluating their focus and drive and begin to properly scrutinise universities, and they need to start doing it today. Identifying the waste, identifying the best place for their members' money to go to support their educational needs, identifying where universities can do better for their students and lobby their universities accordingly. That is how a student union can best represent ordinary students in the new world of university funding, rather than going out and behaving like pseudo-revolutionary animals.

We as Conservatives can be a part of that, we can lead the way and show ordinary students that we’re not here to destroy the HE sector. We’re here to enhance it, to make it a world class sector that works for students. Conservative students up and down the country need to start asking questions of their student unions as to why they are standing in the way of this, ask them why they oppose giving more power to students to choose and then be the change we wish to see. We need to become active in our student unions, to get a place at the table and fight for a sound and stable HE sector with students who want to learn at the very heart. Come on, get involved! Let’s take back our education, let’s reform our student unions, together.


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