Letter: Misconceptions about students' unions

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Sir: I would like to clear up a few matters as regards the announcement of John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, that he will end the National Union of Students' 'closed shop' by introducing the principle of 'voluntary membership' in the near future (report, 8 October).

I believe that this emotive and anecdotal argument is irrelevant to students' unions and the way they operate. The mistake, I think, has been made by attempting to compare students' unions with trade unions, which is a fundamental misconception.

Unlike the trade union 'closed shop' arrangements of bygone years, students' unions do not have any command over what their members do or do not do. Primarily, we are providers of services and of representation to our universities and colleges and communities. Students are under no compulsion to use our services, participate in our activities or take up a membership card. If they choose not to, they are, in effect, 'opting out' of the students' union. Under the present arrangements, students are also able to choose their own level of participation. Whether it be having a beer in the Union bar or standing for election to the executive committee, they are acting as members of the union.

If a student objects, she or he can choose not to be involved at any level. We have no stranglehold on services, as the university provides them also. One could argue that it is desirable to create a more active means of 'opting out' or not joining, with the proviso that she or he will not use the union facilities. However, do we turn students without cards away when they need essential welfare advice or away from a bar because they are not card-carrying members? This is something we currently have no right to do, and to give student unions that right would be tantamount to creating a 'closed shop'.

Being a member of the students' union is like being a member of the library at a university or college. Everyone belongs to it, everyone can use it, no one has to pay subscription fees and no one is under any obligations.

Yours faithfully,



University of Sussex

Students' Union