The changing nature of students’ unions

I will be giving a talk at the European Conference on Educational Research this week about the role of students’ unions within higher education. Below, I outline some of the key points I’ll be making.

What role do students’ unions play in today’s HE system?

Students’ unions have a long history in the UK, with the first having been established at St Andrew’s University in Scotland in 1864. Historically, they have tended to carry out a range of functions for their members including: organising social activities; providing support on a range of academic and welfare issues; representing students both individually and collectively; and campaigning on local and national issues – although the relative importance of these functions has differed over time.

Despite radical changes to the UK higher education sector over recent years, the role of the students’ union, within this shifting landscape has remained largely unexplored. With the aim of starting to redress this gap, over the past couple of years, Kate Byford, Katherine Sela and I have conducted a UK-wide survey of students’ union officers and two focus groups at each of ten case-study higher education institutions – one with students’ union leaders and the other with senior managers of the institution. The data we have generated, through these methods, suggest strongly that the role of students’ unions has changed significantly over the last decade.

Increasing importance of the representative function

Firstly, we found that a large majority of our respondents believed that the ‘representative’ function (i.e. representing the views and concerns of all sections of the student body) of students’ unions had become increasingly important and that, in many cases, this has been associated with a decline in the importance of other functions such as more ‘activist’ pursuits (e.g. campaigning on national and local issues) and the provision of services to students (through, for example, advice and guidance sessions and/or as part of commercial activities). Although this shift was welcomed by many of those who took part in our research, a significant minority of our respondents did raise some concerns about this new focus. For example, one of the focus groups comprised of senior managers commented: ‘I think what we’re probably articulating is a pattern where the student union influence [on the university] ….  has just eroded and eroded and eroded and is being distilled down to this kind of pivotal role around representation and so on and that just leads to all the questions around, you know, what’s it there for, what’s it doing and that kind of thing and so on.’

Increasing importance of non-elected officers

Secondly, alongside a shift towards prioritising representation, many participants described how permanent staff within the students’ union had come to take on more power, sometimes at the expense of those who had been elected. The senior managers at one of our case study institutions were typical of many in noting that there had been a ‘shift of balance of our contacts’ away from elected officers and towards those in long-term roles. They described how there were now fewer sabbatical officer roles, and financial responsibility had been transferred from elected officers to the senior manager of the students’ union. For a large majority of respondents, such changes were seen in broadly positive terms, as providing greater continuity from year to year, and better support structures for those in elected positions (who typically occupy their role for one year only), particularly at the start of their term of office. Not all respondents were, however, entirely comfortable with this change in roles, with some believing that it sometimes made it harder for those in elected roles to advance their own agenda. Indeed, one of our respondents commented: ‘I know that some [elected] officers have found it difficult challenging the [students’ union] senior leadership team, who have naturally all come from leadership roles and are leaders themselves, to say actually, “This is the representational voice of students….and this is the direction we’d like to go with please”.’

Relationships with senior management

Finally, many of those who took part in the research believed that the relationship between students’ union officers and senior institutional managers had changed over time, and that there was now a new willingness on both sides to engage in constructive ways. This change was typically explained by pointing to developments in the external environment, particularly the increase in tuition fees and the insertion of the question about the performance of students’ unions into the annual National Student Survey. Students’ union officers at one of our case study institutions, for example, claimed that their senior managers ‘know they have to respond to the customers’, while senior managers at another university stated explicitly that the students’ union had become increasingly important because of the emphasis that had come to be placed on the ‘student voice’ ‘for a variety of reasons, not least the NSS and its influence on league tables’. Nevertheless, while a majority of respondents from both students’ unions and senior management described closer, more co-operative and less adversarial relationships, this was rarely thought to have been associated with any significant shift of power away from institutional leaders.

What is the significance of these changes?

The strong evidence of an increased focus on the representative role of students’ unions, and the importance attributed to this by many respondents provides some support for the arguments made by scholars that the student voice has become increasingly ‘domesticated’. By focussing on representation, students’ union officers inevitably foreground issues that affect the day-to-day lives of students rather than broader political or social concerns that may be more aligned with an ‘activist’ agenda. Moreover, the increasing convergence between the values and priorities of students’ unions and senior management (as a result of similar pressures coming to bear on both parties), suggests that fewer spaces are now available within higher education institutions from which to offer a radical challenge to either local or national policy.

While students’ unions may provide an important space within higher education institutions for like-minded people to get together and pursue collaborative projects, our research has provided little evidence to support the argument that has been made by Crossley and Ibrahim that they play a significant role in facilitating political engagement, or inculcating a more ‘activist’ orientation. Our data suggest that the space of the students’ union was important for bringing students together, but typically for the purpose of representing other students and/or delivering services and events in the wider institution. In line with Sabri’s argument, we suggest that student ‘voice’ was articulated primarily in relation to concerns about ‘the student experience’ rather than any more political agendas.

The increasingly powerful role, within students’ unions, of permanent members of staff also raises questions about Crossley and Ibrahim’s thesis, as elected officers (in some institutions) come to have less contact with senior managers, and strategic priorities are increasingly shaped by those without a democratic mandate.  Nevertheless, in relating our data to broader themes about political engagement, it is important to emphasise that we are not claiming that the voice of all students has been ‘domesticated’. Indeed, evidence of recent student occupations in the UK suggests that there remain some spaces within higher education – even if not within the day-to-day practices of students’ unions – within which more radical critiques can be articulated and students can engage politically.

Many of our students’ union respondents believed they did have a significant influence on the senior management within their institution, and certainly felt that they were listened to by senior staff more than their counterparts had been in the past. Nevertheless, they were also clear about the limits to their influence, with almost all those who took part in the focus groups believing that, ultimately, power lay with senior managers. The evidence discussed above also suggests that the power of those holding elected positions was being eroded within students’ unions by the increasing importance of permanent members of staff.  Furthermore, the focus on ‘local’ issues, as a consequence of the foregrounding of the representative role with the remit of both the students’ union as a whole and that of individual officers, suggests that the arena within which power and influence can be exerted is limited. We thus conclude by suggesting that, here, there are broad parallels with the critiques that have been made in other areas – for example, in relation to school councils and youth parliaments – that initiatives to give ‘voice’ often fail to facilitate genuine political expression or enable real power to be exercised.


This blogpost is based on this article, which was published in the Journal of Education Policy. A similar blogpost has also been published on the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey’s blog.


Students as agents for change?

Call for papers: Theorizing Citizenship in Higher Education: Students as Agents for Change?

Mark Holton (Plymouth University) and Yi’En Cheng (Yale-NUS College) are organising a session at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting 2017 (Boston MA, 5-9 April) on higher education students as active citizens. See call for papers below – it looks like it will be an excellent event, and of interest to sociologists and educationalists, as well as geographers

Citizenship – whether it is constitutional-legal status tied to certain rights and responsibilities; or practiced by people as they navigate obstacles to carve out spaces and communities of belonging; or even as embodied, sensuous, and felt within the psychic and emotional realms – is central to a repertoire of issues in contemporary restructuring of higher education around the world. Recent research has begun to question how various processes are changing students’ ideas and practices around citizenship: from the increasingly globalised networks of students moving around the world to the neoliberalization of higher education policies that have heavily marketized (transnational) degree programmes, term-time accommodation, and student organizations and unions; from the mounting pressure on students to search for and acquire ‘useful’ cultural and embodied capitals, such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and global competencies, to the ways in which students’ identities are negotiated, accepted, or rejected on campuses. At the same time, class, gender, race/ethnicity and other social differences continue to act as prisms through which inequalities are [re]produced, even though these can also occur alongside hopeful practices of love, care, solidarity, and anti-injustice. Analyses of interactions across structure, agency, and change are part and parcel of writings about these young people’s educational lives. How might the notion of citizenship help frame these ongoing discussions and/or open up conversations about students-as-citizens? What kinds of citizenships are emerging in these different moments of higher educational change? Relatedly, how can that further our understanding of higher education spaces as contentious, politicized, and possibly radical locations?

In this session, we explore how citizenship can be theorized in diverse contexts of higher education, across both the global north and south. By fostering a dialogue between citizenship studies and geographies of higher education, the session will allow us to rethink and renew the research agenda on the geographies of higher education students. We are interested in multiple ways of thinking about citizenship as informed by students’ experiences during and beyond term-time, their mobilities across various scales and borders, as well as their engagement with explicit and implicit forms of politics. We want to unpack the ways in which dominant understandings of the ‘student voice’ and the ‘student experience’ in higher education are assembled through representations, discourses, and practices of citizenship within particular political-economic and socio-cultural regimes. We are also keen to examine students’ responses to the burdens placed upon them in terms of peer, institutional and policy pressures and the extent to which this might act as potential catalysts for change. Papers that offer fresh materials, theoretically and empirically, to advancing existing scholarship on the geographies of citizenship in higher education and student lives are especially welcomed.

Please submit a 250-word abstract with title and short bio to Mark Holton ( and Yi’En Cheng (, by 20 September 2016.

Symposium on Student Politics and Protest

Despite allegations of political disengagement and apathy on the part of the young, the last ten years have witnessed a considerable degree of political activity by young people – much of it led by students (for example, protests against tuition fees, or as part of the Occupy movement) and/or directed at changes to the higher education system. Such activity has been evident across the globe.

We will be running a symposium at the SRHE annual conference in December to bring together contributions from various different national contexts to explore such trends in a rigorous manner. It will address a number of important themes, including: the focus and nature of student politics and protest; the contribution of students’ unions and student movements; whether students are engaging in fundamentally new forms of political activity; the characteristics of politically-engaged students; the extent to which such activity can be considered to be ‘globalised’; and societal responses to political activity on the part of students.

It will also be a means of publicising the book, Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives, which will be published in the Routledge and SRHE series later in the year. All those presenting papers as part of the symposium (Alex Hensby, Lorenzo Cini, Gritt Nielsen, Bruce Macfarlane and Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela) have also written one of the chapters in the forthcoming book.


Student activism across the globe

24169841002_0322f895f2The rise of student activism over the past decade

As media reports across the world have attested, since the turn of the 21st century, we have witnessed a significant increase in the number of student protests across the globe. The most high-profile of these have been in Germany (from 2008-13), California (2009), the UK (2010), Chile (2010-13) and Canada (2010-13). Such activity raises important questions about assumptions have been made, by some social commentators and politicians, about the political apathy of the young and the de-politicisation of universities. While there is plenty of evidence that, despite a relative lack of engagement in electoral politics in many countries, students and other young people have remained politically active, the rise in student activism over the past decade or so may well be related to young people’s frustration with formal politics. Certainly, numerous studies have shown that young people do have an interest in formal politics, but believe that their interests are rarely served by mainstream political parties and that electoral systems are often outdated.

How similar are these movements?

In many ways, the student protests of the 21st century have much in common. A number have shared an opposition to the further rolling-out of market reforms in higher education – particularly in relation to the introduction of (or increase in) tuition fees, and the repositioning of higher education as a private good rather than a public one. Where students have become heavily involved in wider movements, these have also often arisen in response to the intensification of neo-liberal reform. However, students have also been prepared to take action for other causes, too. In Hong Kong, for example, students were key players in the pro-democracy movement of 2014 – boycotting classes and taking part in wider acts of civil disobedience to voice their concerns about the delays to democratic reform and call for an open selection process to decide on the candidates for the territory’s leader.

It has been argued that the student protests of the last decade can been seen as, to some extent, globalised – because of the ways in which they have influenced each other, and the importance of border-less technology in facilitating much of this action. This can be seen, for example, in the way in which the Twitter hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall stimulated protest across Africa and beyond, and the links between the student protestors in Hong Kong and their counterparts in Taiwan. New technologies were also important in the 2010 UK protests against fee increases, allowing students occupying university buildings to keep in touch with those engaged in similar activities at other institutions.

However, it is also clear that, despite the undoubted importance of new technologies in facilitating communication between student activists and across national borders, the nation-state continues to exert an important influence on the nature and focus of protest.  Student protests in Turkey, for example, as part of the Gezi Park resistance in 2013, were largely against what those involved perceived to be the conservative and paternalistic nature of their national government, rather than any concern about marketisation. Moreover, the nature of student activism across Africa has been influenced strongly by national-level factors such as the extent to which the state has created structures to allow students to become formally involved in policy-making.

What impact have these movements had?

The nation-state has also had a significant impact on the impact of student movements. Such protests can be seen to have brought about significant change in some countries – for example, Chile, Germany and Quebec in Canada. In Chile, this change has been far-reaching, and extended beyond higher education into other areas of social and political life. In other countries, such as the UK, student protests have been much less successful in bringing about change. In attempting to explain the differential impact of these protests, some researchers (such as Manja Klemenčič) have suggested that broad political norms are important. According to this perspective, student protests in the UK were unsuccessful largely because the government believed that students were not representative of wider public opinion, and that the population at large was broadly sympathetic to the introduction of further market-based reform.

Other scholars (such as Lorenzo Cini) have suggested that we need to look more closely at the specific structures of higher education systems. Research that has explored the different ways in which student protests have been treated in the UK and Italy, for example, has demonstrated how variation in governance can be significant. In Italy, university leaders are elected from among the professoriate and need to sustain good relationships with students in order to maintain their institutional position. Thus, they are likely to favour negotiation and compromise over more adversarial responses. In contrast, in the UK, university leaders are appointed through open competition. They are less reliant on the goodwill of students than their Italian counterparts and thus seek to minimise what they perceive to be the ‘reputational damage’ to their institution brought about by student protest through more repressive and confrontational tactics.

Nevertheless, our knowledge about why some student protests are more successful than others is still partial. Despite the frequency of student protests since the turn of the 21st century, and the significant media attention that has followed, further research is still very much needed in this area.


This blogpost originally appeared on the University World News website. It draws on ideas that are discussed more fully in Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives, which will be published by Routledge and the Society for Research into Higher Education in the autumn.

Fathers sought for new research project

fathersAre you a father in a heterosexual dual-parent household in the UK who is the primary carer or who shares care equally with your partner for a child aged three or under?

We are carrying out research at the University of Surrey on the experiences of fathers who take on primary or equal caring responsibility for young children.

We are particularly interested in those whose caring responsibilities connect to changes to work (whether voluntary or enforced), such as periods of extended parental leave, adjusted hours, working flexibly or part-time, changing job or becoming unemployed. However, we also hope to speak to those taking on primary or equal care responsibilities alongside existing full-time work.

If you think you, your partner, or someone you know might come into this category and would be willing to take part in an interview with us, please contact us at to find out more. The identity of participants will be kept confidential.

Rachel Brooks and Paul Hodkinson, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey

Research fellow posts

Post-doctoral Research Fellows (2 positions – both are 5 year posts, starting on 1st August 2016)

Salary: up to £33,574 per year

I am pleased to advertise two research fellows to join my five-year ‘EuroStudents’ project, funded by the European Research Council (see here for further details). The project will explore the different ways in which higher education students are constructed across six European nations. Both posts will be based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey.

The first research fellow post will be responsible for the strand of work that focuses on institutional perspectives, i.e. the ways in which the higher education student is constructed through official university texts and staff understandings. S/he will be required to: liaise with relevant gatekeepers to secure access to research sites across six European countries; analyse websites and other public documents produced by universities (using both qualitative and quantitative methods); conduct and analyse interviews with members of university staff; and contribute to the analysis of data and dissemination of findings from the project as a whole.

The second post will be responsible for the strand of work that focuses on student perspectives. S/he will be required to: liaise with relevant gatekeepers to secure access to research sites across six European countries; conduct focus groups with students in three universities in each of the six countries; and contribute to the analysis of data and dissemination of findings from the project as a whole.

The successful candidates will have a doctorate in a relevant topic area, and experience of using relevant research methods. They will also have excellent organisation and communication skills and, ideally, knowledge of one or more of the languages covered by the project (in addition to English): Danish, German, Polish and Spanish. A willingness to travel abroad for a substantial proportion of the fieldwork is essential.

For informal inquiries contact me:

Closing date: 5pm, 6th June 2016

Interviews: 20th June 2016

Start date: 1st August 2016 (or as soon as possible thereafter)

Further details about the first post and the online application form can be found here, and details and the application form for the second post can be found here. (Please do apply for both posts, if you are interested in both.)

PhD studentship

downloadMedia Representations of Higher Education Students: a cross-national comparison

Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Surrey

I am very pleased to be advertising a PhD studentship on ‘Media Representations of Higher Education Students’. This forms part of a wider project (called EuroStudents) funded by the European Research Council, which will explore the different ways in which higher education students are constructed across six European nations.

The PhD studentship comprises two strands of work. Firstly, representations of students within newspapers in the six countries will be analysed. A content analysis will be conducted for two national newspapers from each of the countries involved in the research (Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain). A broadly representative sub-sample of texts will then be chosen for further, detailed discursive analysis. In the second strand, two popular film or drama-based television programmes that feature students will be selected from each country and analysed using a discursive approach. Comparisons will be made within each country, across all six countries, and then in relation to the results of the analysis of news media.

The successful candidate will be part of the EuroStudents research team and also the vibrant research community within the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey. Further information about the research project can be found here.


The 3-year studentship is funded by the European Research Council. It covers Home/EU tuition fees and a maintenance grant of £14,057 per annum.

Entry requirements


Masters level degree in Sociology, Education, Media, Human Geography or a related subject

Experience of media analysis

Excellent oral and written communication skills


Knowledge of issues related to higher education

Knowledge of one of more languages covered by the project, in addition to English (i.e. Danish, German, Polish, Spanish)

Familiarity with one or more of the countries outside the UK involved in the research (i.e. Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Spain)


To apply, please send:

1. A covering letter highlighting: (i) why you are interested in this particular research project; (ii) why you are interested in doing a PhD; (iii) which specific skills and aptitudes you feel you would bring to the project.

2. A copy of your current CV including the names of two referees and the marks you have received for your master’s modules to date. (Please feel free to include a transcript of your marks, alongside your CV, if this is easier.)

3. A sample of your academic writing (e.g. an essay or dissertation).

These should be sent by email to Rachel Brooks: Please also contact Rachel for any queries you may have associated with this studentship.

Closing date: 5pm, 27th May 2016

Interview date: to be confirmed

Start date: 26th September 2016

How much mixing goes on in universities?

On Friday, I am looking forward to acting as a discussant at an event run by Sumi Hollingworth, to disseminate the findings from her recent research on social mixing within higher education institutions. In case you’re interested in coming along, I’ve pasted some details from the seminar flyer below, and you can sign up here.

Join us at this event where the findings of a research project on student friendships in Higher Education will be presented. Specifically, the research is interested in the extent of mixing across both social and ethnic difference, drawing on qualitative in-depth interviews with first year undergraduates, in one case study university. A panel discussion will broaden out to discuss the implications for Higher Education more broadly, and the possibilities for social mobility through the ‘university experience’.

This research, led by Dr. Sumi Hollingworth, Senior Research Fellow at the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, assisted by Nicole Lucas, was supported by a small grant from the Society for Educational Studies.


12.00pm – 1.00pm Presentation of research findings

Sumi Hollingworth, Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, London South Bank University

Researcher on social mixing in urban multicultural contexts; class race and gender inequalities in education

1.00 – 2.30pm Panel discussion of research findings

Panellists include:

Nicola Ingram, University of Lancaster (Researcher on the ‘Paired Peers’ project, which focuses on the experiences of working-class and middle-class young people as they make their way through undergraduate programs at two different universities in the same city)

Rachel Brooks, University of Surrey (Researches widely on student friendships and social network; internationalisation and student mobility; and Students Unions)

Debbie Weekes-Bernard, Runnymede Trust

A representative from the NUS Committee


Call for papers: Eurostudents launch seminar



Wednesday, 21st September 2016, University of Surrey

Keynote speakers: Anna Mountford-Zimdars (King’s College London) and Michael Tomlinson (University of Southampton)

There is some evidence that, at least within countries with neo-liberal welfare regimes, students are constructed largely as consumers with contemporary policy texts. However, there is less consensus about whether or not students have taken up such an identity. Some scholars have assumed that this construction of student-as-consumer is having a profound effect on how students themselves approach HE. Indeed, Molesworth et al. (2009) contend that the inculcation of a consumer identity has brought about a more passive approach to learning, in which students place much more emphasis on their rights rather than their responsibilities, and on having a degree rather than being a learner. Others have, however, argued that, despite the increasing recourse to the language of economics in policy documents (in which students are positioned as consumers and universities as providers), in practice, the behaviour of students does not conform to this model (Dodds, 2011; Williams, 2013). Moreover, research has suggested that such identities may be differentiated by socio-economic characteristics, with only more affluent groups having the capacity to ‘shop around’, unencumbered by financial concerns or the ‘identity risks’ of moving away from home.

This one-day seminar will provide an opportunity to explore our current understandings of the contemporary higher education student, and the extent to which they are shaped by, for example, policymakers, the media, higher education staff and students themselves. Papers may focus on one or more of the following: the impact of tuition fees on understandings of what it means to be a student; students as consumers; media representations of students; students as political actors; policymakers’ understandings of students; and cross-national comparisons. However, other topics, relevant to the seminar theme, are also welcome.

Abstract Submission: Please send abstracts of up to 250 words by 13th May 2016 to Rachel Brooks at the University of Surrey: (There will be a small charge of £30 for attending the seminar.) You can book your place here.

Seminar Organisers: The seminar is organised by Rachel Brooks and colleagues in the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey. It will help to launch the five-year EuroStudents research project based at Surrey, which investigates understandings of the higher education student across six different European countries.

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What should education look like in the future?

‘Thinking the yet to be thought: Education for the future’

What should education look like in the future?

Traditional? Classical? Technology-focussed? Entirely optional? Schools in the Cloud? Global universities? Homeschooling? Entirely vocational? Predominantly online? Skills-based? Project-based? De-schooling? Freeschooling? Democratic? Radical? As it is now? What?

Our sixth ESRC seminar series event, to be held in Cardiff on 5thF2L1F2L2 July will focus on the question of what ‘education for the future’ should look like.

We recognise that there are a wide variety of opinions on this, and therefore, we offer participants the chance to pitch arguments and persuade the audience.

We are looking for pitches of up to 15 minutes. These can take any format, including formal presentation, soap-box style, demonstration, speeches, or anything else.  We welcome all views, including provocative ones. The aim of the pitches should be to engage the audience and to make us think differently about education. ‘Education’ can refer to schools, colleges, universities, adult education, informal learning, community work.

Please send an abstract/summary of up to 200 words. We will choose a good range of pitches from these so as to make for a lively event.

Abstracts to be sent to or by Tuesday 31 May 2016.