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Universities and their Unions: The Future Relationship Between Universities and Students' Unions

Universities and their Unions

Authors: Dr Tom Bell, Claire Horton and Dr Paul Greatrix

ISBN: 0 902683 78 0

Publisher: The University of Warwick

Price: Free

This report has emerged from an intensive period of close collaborative working between the University of Warwick and its Students' Union. Whilst covering a time span of around nine months of activity, it actually represents the product of considerable earlier work and also forms the basis of ongoing discussions between the Union and the University.

The report focuses on a series of visits to other institutions, includes an examination of different forms of collaboration at Warwick and offers a range of pointers and issues to consider for others going down this road. Along our journey, we have been privileged to meet with a wide range of individuals at all levels within universities and students? unions and their comments, observations and input have been invaluable in shaping this document.

The project team's visits to other institutions, the Seminar Day in January 2006 and the invitations received to speak on this topic have all demonstrated the huge interest which exists in this area.

Some of the key themes which emerged from the project and which are evidenced throughout this report include:

  • Trust, mutual confidence, collaboration and sharing expertise are essential.
  • Clarity about the strategic alignment of the two parties' interests is a key starting point. Beyond this, each needs to understand the other's perspective.
  • Working together is about much more than improving the bottom line or efficient
    commercial development - universities gain many intangible benefits from a vibrant students' union.
  • There needs to be clarity and real understanding of the meaning of formal agreements.
  • Open communication channels are critical, and not just at times of crisis.
  • Working together is in the mutual interest of unions and universities.

Legal developments in recent years and, although unresolved at the time of writing, the likely implications of the Charities Bill, seem to be pushing unions and universities apart. Whilst this may still be the right direction, structurally, in some cases our view is that all of the other factors highlighted in this report, including the critical need for sustainability of unions? operations, actually imply a strong need for closer convergence. Such convergence, we would argue, has to happen in terms of relationships and activities at least, even if it is not also structural. We are aware that our views on these matters are not uncontroversial.

However, the only conclusion we can draw from all that we have seen and learned is that the university: union relationship is a vital but often underdeveloped and under-investigated dimension of higher education in the UK. But it is an essential feature of the landscape.

These remain therefore extremely interesting times for universities and unions. Our starting point was that university: union relationships matter. This project has reinforced that view immeasurably. They matter enormously to all involved in higher education. We hope that this report offers some assistance to those involved both directly and indirectly in university: union relations.

The purpose of this project was to enable a detailed investigation to be undertaken and a dialogue sustained on possible additional structural change to the position of the Union within the University. One of the objectives of this approach was to ensure that additional expenditure and any savings which may be possible can be guaranteed to offer improved facilities, activities and benefits for students. Initial discussions, prior to the project's commencement and building on dialogue started several years ago, focused on the possible establishment of the Students' Union as a 'devolved department' of the University.

However, the terminology seemed unhelpful for advancing matters, and also the concept and rules for a 'devolved department' in a Warwick context applies to academic departments. The proposal for the project therefore evolved into a ?process of developmental engagement? (a term borrowed from an entirely different context, the QAA regime, but nevertheless appropriate in relation to this process) which was concerned with exploring the same issues with a view to some convergence but without seeking to predetermine a definitive endpoint.

This approach was believed to offer the best long term prospect in terms of ensuring the highest quality provision for students, retaining a sufficient degree of independence for the Union and enabling the University to exercise reasonable control over expenditure. It also appeared to provide the best route to guaranteeing that both savings and future allocations of additional income from fees would be duly spent on services and support, which were of direct and tangible benefit to students. The Union values its independence and the major challenge for the project was to develop an approach which protected the autonomy of the Union but established a new relationship with the University which was fit for the future.

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This work received a major boost when Paul Greatrix was awarded a Leadership Foundation Fellowship by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, whose generous support enabled the project to make huge strides forward.