Higher Education: Sit-ins are long gone, Mr Patten: Government plans to limit funding of students' unions ignore the valuable community role these groups perform, says Rhys Williams

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The Independent Online
STUDENTS' unions and vice-chancellors yesterday won a month's extension from education ministers of the consultation period on plans to end the unions' 'closed shop'.

A fortnight ago, John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, fulfilled a promise given at last year's Tory party conference by telling the Commons that he was splitting the functions of campus unions between those that were 'core' and those that were not. Only core activities will be publicly funded.

Lorna Fitzsimons, president of the National Union of Students, yesterday met Tim Boswell, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Education, to clarify what the Government understands by core and non-core activities. 'It is important to understand what the writer has in mind before you try to interpret it,' she says.

The biggest problem for unions and universities was that Mr Patten had given them only until 1 October to comment on his plans, which are still unclear. Ms Fitzsimons had pressed for the opportunity to consult members during term time, because the original consultation period fell precisely at the time when students would be away on summer break.

David Harrison, chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, also wrote to Mr Patten, saying: 'We have consulted all universities, and their overwhelming response is to urge an extension of this period to allow the student body to be properly consulted'. He argued successfully for an extension to the end of October. 'Since one of the aims of your reforms is to guarantee democratic procedures in the student body,' he wrote, 'we feel sure that you would not wish to deny the same considerations in your own consultation.'

At present, the Department for Education gives block grants to individual students' unions through their parent institutions. Students automatically become members of their campus union, giving them free access to all union services. Mr Patten proposes that only 'core' services, such as catering, welfare and accommodation, will continue to receive public funding. Students will then be required to opt- in and pay for 'non-core' services, which may include sports, societies and charitable activities.

Opponents argue that giving students who are already facing financial difficulties an incentive to opt out would threaten unions' local community care and sporting activities.

Did Mr Patten have a particular demon in mind when drawing up his proposals? Granted, the NUS, to which most campus unions are affiliated, has never been afraid to campaign against the Government. During the last election, for instance, it targeted 70 key marginals in which student populations could have played a decisive role. But the image of the all- marching, all-shouting, right-on militant activist (imagine Private Eye's Dave Spart on a pub crawl with Viz's Millie Tant) barely accords with the reality of most campus union activity.

At Hull University, for example, the last building occupation by students (in protest, that is) was in 1986. Only pounds 1,000 of the union's pounds 500,000 budget is allocated to political campaigning. The rest, according to Tom Watson, president of Hull University Students' Union, is administered by the union's finance committee with a thirst for profit matched only by its taste for Tetley bitter.

Last term, for instance, the committee spent pounds 5,000 on nothing more extreme than a crowd-control barrier for concerts. Leasing arrangements will ensure the barrier pays for itself within 18 months. Thereafter, any surplus will go into the union's capital fund, along with profits from union shops, bars, pool tables and launderettes. Running a 7,400-strong union with 71 staff is, after all, a serious business.

Mr Watson says: 'Student unions seem to be the ideological bugbear of the Conservative Party, taken down from the mantelpiece every few years and the dust blown off. But their perception of what we do does not dovetail with reality. This is not some hot- bed of revolutionary socialism.'

Alan Fowlie, the university's administrative secretary, who acts as the chief link between university and union, agrees: 'There's been a recognition that attrition and abrasion are unproductive. The hallmark in Hull is collaboration between the university and the union, which has borne fruit in a number of activities.'

Five years ago the union took over control of the sports centre from the university. The union argued that the loss-making centre was failing to deliver an adequate service. Within three years, the union had reversed the deficit, employed a professional leisure manager and secured finance for a fitness suite and health spa. The centre now has 300 outside members, who pay pounds 60 a year, while staff pay commercial rates to use facilities.

Without the public funding, Mr Watson argues, the union would be forced to charge students prohibitive rates to use the centre. 'Many students would be precluded from a lot of activities. Equipment would become shoddy, because we couldn't keep up with the capital depreciation. It would eventually close.'

Equally under threat could be the union-run creche, which receives pounds 25,000 in public subsidy a year through the university and last year made it into the Good Nursery Guide. 'For an increasing number of single parents, the nursery is the difference between entering higher education and not,' Mr Watson says.

But it is the ending of the union's community care programme that Mr Watson fears most. The Student Community Action Group has grown over 20 years from one project - planting a herb garden for an elderly couple - to 37. These range from play schemes for children with behavioural and emotional problems to soup kitchens for the homeless, and a decorating service for old people.

About 1,000 students are involved in the programme, making it Humberside's largest voluntary organisation. It is the biggest student community action group in the country, and last November earned a Queen's Anniversary Trust Gold Award, one of the highest accolades in voluntary work.

Were either this work or the union's other charitable activities deemed non-core, they would be ineligible for public money. 'More than 20 years of student involvement in the community would be wiped out completely,' Mr Watson says. 'We must be one of the most cost-effective community groups in the country, but we still need some funding to cover our administrative, organisational and transport requirements.'

The union has employed a professional lobbying consultancy to argue its case at Westminster. It has compiled a database to target receptive MPs and sent out briefing packs on its community care projects. Last month members sat through a full presentation at the Commons. Yet another student protest, yes, but not a banner or occupied building in sight.

(Photograph omitted)