Letter: John Patten and the students' unions

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The Independent Online
Sir: John Patten's announcement that he plans to conduct a consultation over the question of student union funding and membership represents a considerable climbdown from his announcement to last year's Tory party conference that 'the NUS closed shop must go, and go it will'. He has had 12 months to regret that rash promise, and has had to resort to consultation as yet another means of avoiding action.

If Mr Patten consults widely and honestly, he will find that the current arrangements are supported by students, academics and institutions alike. All recognise the positive benefits of representation of students, by students and for students. A much cheaper exercise would be to consult his own department's records, where he will discover that every review of student union finances and membership conducted by a Conservative minister (including the 1988 review that was conducted by Kenneth Baker) has acquitted student unions of the allegations made by ministers, and shown them to be responsible custodians of their funds, with less than 2 per cent being spent on 'political' campaigns, and the vast majority on research, representation and welfare services.

Since Mr Patten's announcement last October, every debate or ballot on student union reform (I participated in nearly 100 such debates during my year of office) has shown that Britain's students do not want to change their automatic entitlement to membership of a student union. Students have seen through the misleading comparisons with trade union closed shops, and shown that they are proud of their unions, and jealous of their rights.

That being the case, Mr Patten is either so tied to the rhetoric of choice that he is blind to reality; or else he is simply intolerant of democratic opposition. It will be interesting to see whether Mr Patten will give Britain's students a choice over the structure of their unions - or whether he will force the cup of freedom to their lips regardless.

Yours faithfully,


London, E2

2 July

The writer was National Secretary of the National Union of Students (1992- 1993).