Student union staff cost £165m to employ but only one in 10 undergraduates turn out for their elections, a new report has revealed, as Sajid Javid warns the British tradition of free speech is under threat.
Taxpayers and students spend the sum every year on the wages of 600 full-time officers who are meant to represent the voice of students on campus, according to the analysis of 138 unions by the Adam Smith Institute.
However, only 11 per cent of students on average turn out to vote for aspiring officers in student elections, the report found – despite efforts to encourage them to engage with the process through “freebies” such as complementary pizza and discounts at student shops.
In addition, a mere 56 per cent believe their student union does a good job of representing their academic interests, the analysis found.
Student unions banning speakers deemed to hold controversial opinions and blocking the sale of particular publications on campus are some of the issues raised in the report, which the authors say shows that unions are “highly political organisations with little claim to a democratic mandate”.
Mr Javid, the former Chancellor and Home Secretary, said the practice of “silencing” those with whom “an intolerant minority” disagree is part of a worrying trend at universities across the UK.
“British universities are meant to be places of open debate and intellectual freedom. Their proud tradition of liberalism is foundational for bringing students into contact with new and challenging ideas. That tradition is under threat,” he said.
“In student unions across the UK, an intolerant minority is seeking to silence those they disagree with under the banner of no-platforming and safe spaces.
“Their campaign of censorship is an assault on one of our most precious and fundamental rights – freedom of speech. Championing students by protecting legal free speech should be one of the higher education sector’s top priorities.”
The report said the Office for Students, an independent public body, should become the main regulator of universities when it comes to issues such as free speech on campus.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “This report raises serious concerns about the funding and operation of student unions. For instance £160m could support a lot of bursaries.
“It is vital students have a voice but the report highlights there are also issues around the extent to which student unions represent student cohorts and their needs.”