Andrew Lewer is MP for Northampton South. He is founder and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Independent Education,
Together with twenty other Conservative Members of Parliament I have written to the Prime Minister urging him to tackle the problem of student union political activism. While successive Conservative Governments have tackled the problems posed by trade union radicalism, student union leftist activism has been left relatively untouched.
Student unions are now at the forefront of the so-called culture wars, pursuing a narrow ‘social justice’ political agenda focused on tackling alleged ‘structural oppression’ in society.
Moreover, they seek to limit free speech on campus, variously by blocking the sale of certain publications, barring speakers or seeking to approve their speeches in advance, blocking the formation of free speech societies, preventing certain groups from participating in freshers’ fairs, and imposing excessive red tape to make it difficult to invite speakers of whom they disapprove.
Reform of student unions is central to implementing the Conservative Manifesto commitment to strengthen free speech in universities. Why this matters so much was underlined in a superb speech from David Davis on the crucial nature of free speech in universities in a Ten Minute Rule Bill earlier this week, citing Voltaire and the Bill of Rights.
Students themselves are alienated from student unions. Research shows that only around ten per cent of students vote in student union elections, with less than three per cent of students electing delegates to the National Union of Students (NUS), demonstrating the unrepresentative nature of that left-wing activist body. Judging by its social media activity, NUS’s main current focus is ‘decolonising the curriculum’.
Of course, in some cases a higher turnout is achieved. For example a truly magnificent four per cent of students participated in last November’s election of NUS delegates at Cambridge University. It is abundantly clear that the vast majority of students have no interest in either the NUS or activist/political student unions, and resent being bullied and hectored by leftist student politicos.
It is inappropriate for taxpayers to have to foot half the £165 million bill for student unions, and for students themselves to be forced to pay the other half, given this kind of activity.
We should adopt a similar approach to that applied to trade union reform. Students should have to actively opt-in to become members of student unions and the NUS, and just like the strike ballot threshold, consideration should be given to a membership and election turnout threshold, which student unions should be required to reach before they can play any part in university governance.
There is a strong case for student unions being limited to supporting social and sports activities, as well as academic representation. Meanwhile, if any students wish to fund political activism or join the NUS they should of course be free to do so, but at their own expense and paying any subscriptions from their own pockets.
Students need to be freed from student unions and allowed to get on and enjoy their time at university without suffering constant political harassment. We very much hope that action will be taken by the Government as soon as Covid permits its attention to return to the domestic reform agenda.