Leading Article: Closed shop on campus

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The Independent Online
JOHN PATTEN, the Secretary of State for Education, won easy applause on Wednesday when he promised the Conservative conference that, by the end of the year, he would come up with plans for doing away with the publicly funded closed shop enjoyed by the National Union of Students.

Almost every university and college has a union to which all students belong in return for an automatic deduction from their grants. The prime purpose of these unions is to run sports, leisure, entertainment and welfare facilities and to oversee clubs and societies. It is a matter of convenience, not principle, that bars, swimming pools, concert halls and the like are usually organised by student bodies and not administered by the universities, as was often the case 50 years ago.

Mr Patten should consider allowing university administrations to reclaim this right. Some colleges might wish to exercise the option, especially if they believed that the students' union was behaving in an overbearing manner. Many would not. What is important is that all students have access, as of right, to these facilities. To encourage the emergence of second-class, opted-out citizens, unable to use the bar, the junior common room or the clinic - as some Conservative activists appear to wish - would be subversive of the broader, collegiate aspects of tertiary education.

Mr Patten's task at campus level should therefore be to ensure that students' unions are democratically run, that the provision of services is efficient and that profits are not diverted to political causes. He should further ensure that students' unions do not spend money on political campaigns or interfere with the freedom of unfashionable groups or speakers. It is inimical to the very concept of a university that, say, Zionist societies be harassed. It is at the NUS proper that Mr Patten should direct his heavy artillery. The national organisation has little purpose but bureaucratic self-preservation. Virtually all college and university unions affiliate to the NUS at a cost of as much as pounds 10 a head each year. The NUS can thus claim, albeit unconvincingly, to speak on behalf of 1.5 million students. It has an income of pounds 2.7m, of which - on its own estimate - some 70 per cent is spent on fixed costs, including salaries. It has largely abandoned provocative campaigns. Instead the NUS spends heavily on 'training' and on 'union development' in small colleges of further education that lack sophisticated union power structures. It draws up position papers and makes submissions to public bodies. It confers with itself and with other institutions. The NUS has a collective view on most things, however peripheral to the immediate interests of students.

There can be no objection to the existence of a nation-wide union of like-minded students, however extreme its politics, as long as it is funded voluntarily from the pockets of individual students. Mr Patten should make it unlawful for college and university unions to make any donations or pay any affiliation fees to national bodies. The NUS would then thrive or decline on its ability to attract recruits, just like any other union.