Challenging the accepted truths of the student movement

This was originally published on Vicki Baar’s VP Union Development blog on NUS Connect on 19th December.

At Union Development Zone Conference I ran a session with Alex Peters-Day on student union democracy. We compared different kinds of structures – councils, referenda, general meetings – on the basis of how power is distributed in them. I was surprised to discover the widespread problems with student union democracy. Far too many unions have under-attended general meetings, inquorate councils, or irrelevant referenda.

Moreover, the current body of research on student democracy does not seem to have the answers. For me, the question is about how power is distributed. Decisions should be taken as locally as possible so that they are relevant to the people making them. And power should be spread evenly among those involved, so that it is always worth participating.

This should be fairly uncontentious – the real sticking point is around the conception of ‘power’ itself. There is much political and philosophical debate into the concept of power, which is well beyond the scope of this article, but for the purpose of this argument I am going to employ a relatively simple theory, conceived by Steven Lukes. He states that there are three dimensions, or faces, of power and that each one is subtler and more significant than the last.

The first is the agent’s ability to make a decision which is most in line with his/her preferences. For instance, if the union shop is going to sell either apples or pears then the agent who wants to sell apples is more powerful if s/he is able to make this the union’s decision. The second dimension concerns the capacity of an agent to put the issue on the agenda for a decision to be made. Who decided that the union should decide between apples and pears specifically? Clearly the agent who made that decision had considerable power to be able to limit the options to just two fruit. The third face comes into play when an agent is able to alter another’s perceived preferences to reflect her/his own real interests. An example of this would be if the local producer of apples manages to convince the student body that pears are bad for them.

With this framework some of the ‘accepted truths’ in the student movement come under question. Take for instance the idea that referenda are more democratic and accessible than general meetings. It is certainly true that some groups of people – with time commitments like caring responsibilities or long hours in a part time job, or people with certain kinds of disability – will struggle to attend a general meeting but can probably manage to vote in an online referendum. But does this mean that the power is more evenly distributed? Of course not. The same people who would struggle to make a general meeting will find it impossible to participate fully in a campaign team, so are unlikely to submit a question. Their second and third dimension power is minimal, even if they do have slightly more first dimension power.

This is just one example, and people may disagree with me on it. But the principle stands that we desperately need to re-analyse our democracy. If you think that this kind of framework could be helpful then please do look at the article for the student journal We Are Not Rats, which is available here:


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