Leaked study seeks end to student union 'closed shop'

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STUDENT unions should offer ministers an end to closed shop membership and stop grants for political campaigns in return for financial guarantees, according to proposals in a leaked report by one of Britain's largest university unions.

Sheffield University union has broken with opposition to government reform plans by urging that each student should have the right not to belong to a student union.

Legislation is expected this year to end protracted Conservative demands for changes in campus politics. Draft proposals circulated by Sheffield to other unions say the reform issue has been clouded by misunderstandings about the role of unions.

'This is encouraged by the use of the word 'union' to describe our organisations, and it might be helpful if students' unions were encouraged to adopt a more neutral title,' the document says.

'The argument for voluntary membership is irrelevant to our role as a provider of services and activities. All students must be entitled to use all university services, and obviously they must have the right not to use them.'

Welfare, sports and recreational facilities should continue to be managed by, and available to, all students. Union cards should be seen as similar to library cards - a means of access to facilities which most students would want to use, although they should have 'a clear right to choose'.

The Sheffield document fears ministers may bow to right-wing pressure and replace block grants to unions with a system of union membership fees. The result would be impractical, creating 'as many problems as giving all members of society a choice on what government departments they wished to fund'.

Unions have been increasingly cautious during the 1980s in the use of public money to support political campaigns, the document claims. 'There may be a few exceptions - in a democratic society, it is unacceptable for public funds to be used in this way. Campaigning activity should be funded through a separate fee, voluntarily paid by individual students.'

Unions remain the best framework for representing students in university and college administration, although many are in need of internal reform to change 'undemocratic' power structures.

Sheffield recommends that the National Union of Students, a focus of Tory criticism of political campaigning, should separate its welfare and commercial support services from campaigns. Individual unions could determine whether to affiliate to the NUS, and its campaigns should be funded from a voluntary levy paid by individual students.

'Changes along these lines would meet all the substantial criticisms made of students' unions and would introduce the voluntary principle into our membership arrangements, without needlessly destroying the many positive aspects of our activities,' the document says.