Brian Monteith: Taxpayers should not foot bill for university militants

It has always remained a puzzle to me why the Conservative Party, when in government, has done nothing to reduce the ability of amateurs and hobbyists to play politics at the taxpayer’s expense.

Monday, 21st September 2020, 7:30 am
Changing the criteria of what taxpayer funding can support would mean student activists would have to put their hands in their own pockets to finance their militancy. Picture: John Devlin
Changing the criteria of what taxpayer funding can support would mean student activists would have to put their hands in their own pockets to finance their militancy. Picture: John Devlin

We don’t provide financial support for philatelists to build their stamp collections or trainspotters to witness locomotives passing them by – so why should we fund political activists simply because they happen to go to university? But we do, the state funds student unions at a cost of £165 million a year and pruning back that spending is long overdue.

If people want to get involved in party politics or single issue activism then they should do it in their own time and at their own expense. There are lots of openings to find gainful employment as a party official, maybe running a politician’s office, running campaigns, handling research or media. The number of professional politicians and the size of their entourages has grown exponentially in the last few decades – with new parliaments, brimming full of politicians, unpaid councillors now salaried and new assistants to support it all. There are now political jobs aplenty, but they at least in theory serve a support function of representative democracy – whereas student unions are typically unrepresentative and often work against democracy.

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Defund the police? I’d rather defund student unions.

A timely new report called “State of the Unions”, written by University of Edinburgh undergraduate, Max Young, and Bristol University postgraduate, Lucky Dube, and published by the Adam Smith Institute lays bare the activities of student unions across Britain.

The report highlights bans on types of food (including the sale of beef at Edinburgh, the London School of Economics and University of East Anglia); fancy dress (at Kent, Oxford, and Edinburgh); speakers like radical feminist Julie Bindel and Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens; the registration of new student societies (including the Nietzsche Society at University College London, or the Protection of Unborn Children at Glasgow), and even bans on clapping (Oxford and Manchester) or the waving of arms (Edinburgh).

State of the Unions reveals that only one in ten students participate actively in student union elections and that student unions are viewed by students as being ineffective. Nevertheless, students are forced to be members, undermining freedom of association.

Student unions also fund the National Union of Students (NUS), whose many officers are engaged in full time political campaigns on issues like defunding the police. Just 3 per cent of students elect delegates to NUS conference, which makes it even less representative than individual student unions.

In response to students playing politics on the taxpayers’ pound Young and Dube propose splitting student unions into social activities, a sports association, and an academic council (elected through a system of class and faculty representatives rather than centrally). Funding from universities would be limited to grants for social, recreational and entertainment activities; student societies; sports; and academic representation.

Why identify student unions as a particular problem, and why now? After all, they have always lived off the backs of the taxpayer, the money being funnelled through universities and into student unions where the level of student disinterest allows an unreal world of pretend politics to exist.

Well, thanks to the simple fact students don’t have to pay anything from their own pockets there is rarely any pressure placed on universities to reform the parasitic system. It is a little known fact that the academic world is highly competitive and ruthless, with a constant clash of egos, empire building and personal advancement causing university administrators to just want an easy life. In that context militancy amongst students is to be avoided at all costs – taking them on is out of the question and reaching for concessions is always the preferred course of action. It therefore requires the government to act, to show political will.

Forty years ago I was highly active in my student union, I had helped set up the Conservatives at Heriot Watt University – which back in the seventies was nicknamed “Heriot Trot”. I became a salaried sabbatical vice-president responsible for external affairs – but intent on de-politicising the union’s activities so my post could be abolished. I wanted to see student unions focus on student welfare and social activities, and many of my fellow undergraduates – not all of them Conservatives – felt the same. We had some degree of success – disaffiliating from the NUS – but the Conservative governments of Thatcher, Major, Cameron, and May never exploited the latent student and public support for removing the ability of extremists to use student unions as an easy source of funds for their political hobby-horses. It was never made a priority, but then free speech was not under threat in the manner it is today.

Would defunding or, more accurately, de-politicising student unions mean a period of occupations, demonstrations and running battles with authority? Yes. Would such militant behaviour command sympathy with the British public that has picked up the tab for the spoilt brat behaviour of generations of student activists in the past? No.

Would it mean the end of free speech, freedom of association and deny a platform for students or guest speakers? Of course not. Quite the reverse. It is today’s student unions that go to great lengths to censor speakers by demanding to see speeches before they are delivered, who withdraw the availability of rooms for meetings, or ultimately ban speakers because their views challenge the new cancel culture orthodoxy. It is today’s student unions who outlaw the formation of free speech clubs or societies on campus.

Changing the criteria of what taxpayer funding can support, by restricting it to sports, social and welfare activities will not end political activism – it will still take place – but it will no longer be able to claim it is in the name of the vast majority of students who have not contributed to it, participated in it or been consulted about it. Better still, activists will have to put their hands in their pockets to finance their militancy.

Max Young says, “depoliticising student unions, will make universities much more pleasant and productive places to study. Free of censorship and aggressive hectoring, students will be able to get on with enjoying the university experience and sharing ideas freely.”

I happen to agree. Rather than gaining a reputation for railing against the machine, or tying themselves to railings, students would find their experience and reputations enhanced. It’s time to be militant with the militants.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org

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