Yesterday, I attended a webinar consisting of panellists from the European Students’ Union, Commonwealth Students’ Association, All-Africa Student Union, OCLAE and GSF organized by Harvard University – Mahindra Seminar, and it left me with a bunch of thoughts. It is a crucial matter in discussing whether the function of a student union is on a par/surpass/worse than the role of student representative council because despite the fact that the representation of students is the primary purpose of any Students’ Union, it depends on the structure of the organization and its directions through every tenure. Being an autonomous, student-run and democratically elected governing body, these are the legit concerns of the student union around the world addressed by the panellists.
Lack of resources/Financial survival
Upholding the transparency and autonomy of the body, the union must be financially independent in which there will be no funding from the university institutions and the sources of income mainly come from the internal sources, which is a membership fee that the recognized members of the constitution have to pay to be an eligible member of the body. These fees can be fixed, or on specific events, the members need to pay for some facilities. Though SU can have a relatively steady income with the membership fee, it is not the most effective way to sustain the union’s financial capacity. Realistically speaking, the annual fee constituted a form of commitment for the potential members (students), and it could be a turn off factor for the students to participate in the union. They have much more responsibility, and they do multiple part-time jobs to ensure their academic journey’s plain sailing. Next, external sources like funding from public entities and government budgets are needed for an enormous amount, and it amplifies trust from other institutions and entities to student autonomy.
Political will of the government
Student Union can use cooperatives, consultative or confrontative modus operandi in lobbying the institutions and meeting their needs to champion an authentic inclusion of students’ voice, welfare and legitimate demands. History showed us the milestones that student union can gain if the government’s legislative and executive body trust and has faith in giving the union a platform and chances for the students to have good governance. The student union in Singapore is very dependent on its ministers. They still can use the consultative method, though, in the past
scenario, the student union executive needed to deal with the shuffle of three education ministers due to the national political instability. On the other side of the world, there are students union with no other way to voice their rights unless with riots and pressure since they are regarded as the oppressed group of the government. Constant communication needs to be done by the executive with the Ministry of Education to give them a seat at the national level to represent the students. Student Union in the UK governed under the Education Act 1994, and in another country, they are governed under the Youth Development Act.
The notion of capacity building is often associated with the efforts to increase and develop the skills and competencies of the staff members to enhance the organizational structure and policies framework. When we’re talking about capacity building for the staff members of the student union, it is correlated with the staff’s understanding of the operational concept of the union’s governance and the spirit of unionism instilled and embedded in their soul. The staff members should not let the authorities think that the union is incapable of making a decision and policy; thus, tool kits like training and advocacy come into the picture. To empower each of the union’s stakeholders, the tool and its application are different, requiring the staff to equip themselves with the said tool to deliver the member’s interest. Organizational maturity from the staff members plays a vital role because without adequate levels of maturity — processes, functions, and decisions cannot be performed robustly. Organizational maturity measures the union’s readiness and capability expressed through its people, processes, data and technologies, and consistent measurement practices.
Student Union Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Union
The union democratically elected the staff members to hold them accountable and adhere to a specific code of conduct which is not a reasonable and civilized practice if there is a staff engaged with corruption and with that being said, as much as we know about moral values, we need to have a proper structure in place. In CSA, they have a democratic and disciplinary council, and they have independent groups of individuals from the members of the union to sit in the board to examine the performance of the staff members, if there are any conduct ultra vires to the constitution, they shall hold them accountable to that. It is essential to have a written law as a proper governing document to check everything legally, and that’s why capacity building is vital because it might be easy to group a passionate staff to do that, but it’s pretty challenging to develop a visible and legitimate structure.
Political string attached with the Union
Most of the student union’s constitutions around the world have no provision stating that SU could not be aligned with any political parties (but constituting a new precedent won’t hurt), and in some student unions, the student leaders are the youth wing of the national political parties. It
disrupts the concept of student union since they are dependent on the interest of their political party in building the union, and there is no autonomy because they don’t have their say and critical thinking on developing the union, instead focusing more on getting their group of political parties to dominate the union. Having a string attached to the union or else, the staff members must transcend, unite and fight for the students’ interest and welfare. Either way, it is imperative to bring this issue legally and clarify it in the constitution, so the body will have a source of law if any of this matter becomes a challenge to the union.
Let us get a cup of coffee and ponder together. Power through!