Do students need a union?

Pretty much every university student must be at least passingly familiar with their student union. Although the quality of such establishments – and it is as establishments that they are most widely known on campus – varies enormously from place to place, let nobody think that I want to get rid of the student union in its familiar, homely on-campus sense.

But do students really need the other aspects of a union? I mean, they’re called trades unions for a reason, and the student-college relationship is fundamentally different to the employee-employer one.
The relationship between a business and its employees is that the business buys labour with wages. In this relationship the business is the consumer, not the worker – hence the term ‘labour market’. As I argued in my Young Writer on Liberty submission, trade unions parallel business cartels by seeking to restrict supply of a good (labour) in order to inflate prices (wages).

The student-college relationship differs from this in that it is the student, not the college, that is the consumer. We purchase a university education, including access to teachers, libraries and online material, from a university via our tuition fees. This would suggest that what students need is not a ‘union’ but a ‘Which?’-style consumer champion.

Is this distinction important? Or am I simply playing around with semantics?

During my time at the University of Manchester I got quite well-acquainted with the workings of the fairly large executive council of the student union. I found that these positions could be divided between the useful - those that focused on students’ relationship with the university, each other, oversaw events and societies or government welfare – and the big-budget playthings of political poseurs.

On the one hand, it is certainly true that the work of the former – the welfare, student societies and academic-related officers – could be carried out as effectively under the auspices of a ‘union’ as anything else. On the other, in my view many of the problems in the ‘student movement’ – another awful term – stem from the casting of student interests in the trades union mould.

For example, student leaders fundamentally misinterpret the nature of student problems – and the solutions to those problems – by viewing the issue through the prism of labour relations rather than consumer relations: for example, supporting lecturer strikes and other measures out of ‘solidarity’ when they are not in the interests of current students as consumers of education.

As I argued in the Manchester student paper, the idea of a student ‘strike’ having any discernible impact on a university is absurd because students pay universities once a year and aren’t willing to get kicked out for non-payment. What then is the student equivalent of a withdrawal of labour?

A total waste of money, that’s what.