Nicholas Winterton – 1978 Speech on Voluntary Membership of Student Unions

Below is the text of the speech made by Nicholas Winterton, the then Conservative MP for Macclesfield, in the House of Commons on 12 July 1978.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the voluntary membership of student unions, student associations and student representative councils; to make consequential provisions with respect to the membership fees and charges of those bodies; and for connected purposes.

The purpose of my Bill is to increase and enhance the image and stature of all students in the United Kingdom. Many hon. Members pay lip service to young people being given genuine responsibility and independence, but when it comes to a proposal to do something definite about this, they find themselves unable to honour their principles for all sorts of extraordinary and irrelevant reasons.

At present all students at universities, polytechnics and most other institutions of higher education are compelled to join their local student unions. That is repugnant to anyone who believes in the genuine freedom of the individual. But the purpose of my Bill is not merely to moralise on the rights and wrongs of the closed shop as it affects students but to draw the attention of the House to the misuse of some of the £14 million of ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ money spent annually by a minority of students who manipulate and control Britain’s student unions.

Every student at university must pay an annual fee of up to £50 to the university authority, which passes it on to the student union. The fees of most students who receive maintenance grants are paid by the local education authority where their parents reside. The purpose of these funds, theoretically, is to enable services, clubs and societies to provide for the students’ leisure, welfare, recreational and social activities. For example, if a student plays rugby football, the rugby club should be provided with a student union grant to provide facilities for the students to play the game.

Let me examine the reality in a university with about 5,000 undergraduates. The student union receives indirectly from the taxpayer and the ratepayer 5,000 times, say, £40 a year. This money is ​ distributed to various clubs and societies by the vote of the student union general meeting. These meetings claim to decide what 5,000 students collectively desire, but they are usually attended, by political activists numbering no more than 150 to 200. Such student politicians rarely, in my experience, represent the silent majority of student opinion and, politically, they make certain hon. Members below the Gangway opposite appear like members of the landed gentry.

I have examined in some detail the student union budget at the University of Reading, and I thank the undergraduates at that university for supplying me with figures which would make the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s eyebrows flutter with incredulity.

Is the House and the country aware that at Reading University this year, £7,705 is being given to 64 clubs and societies? Let me tell the House about some of these societies. For example, £85 of ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ money is being given to a society to promote homosexuality. Are there so many homosexual students at Reading University that public funds must be spent to sustain such activities? Another £200 is being paid to a group of students to allow them to play war games with toy soldiers and a further £95 has been given to GAFIA. Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, you think, as I thought, that GAFIA is a society that promotes classical learning, but you would be wrong. It is the Get Away From It All society.

Mr. Douglas Henderson (Aberdeenshire, East)

Why does the hon. Gentleman not join?

Mr. Winterton

The activities of this society, unlike my own, remain a mystery, but there is no mystery about who pays the £85 for these students to get away from it all. The taxpayer and ratepayer cannot get away from this expenditure. In addition, £95 is given to a group of students to keep bees. It may be milk and honey for some of the students at Reading University, but it is the taxpayer and ratepayer who get stung for the bill.

I have been in touch indirectly with the university authorities at Reading and they claim that they maintain a close control of the student union books and ​ say that they regard the union officers as highly responsible. The registrar said that he was satisfied with the system of student union finance at the university. That should be put on the record, because that is the view of the authorities, but I am not satisfied and nor are the taxpayers and many of the students at the university.

Hon. Members may think that Reading is not typical of all universities, so let us go to Essex, as I did on 11th May to address a public meeting. When I arrived, I was confronted with my image plastered all over the campus. Across the posters that showed photographs of me was daubed in red the word “Eliminate”. That was not all. Underneath the photograph were words that I would not care to repeat, even in the House. This sort of material was provided by funds given to an organisation at the university by the National Union of Students and, therefore, came from the taxpayers and ratepayers of this country. While some are driven to do unpleasant things to prevent me from promoting my principles, I leave it to hon. Members to judge whether it is right for public funds to finance the poster that I am now holding and other similar activities.

I have intentionally not given details of the NUS handouts of public money to guerrilla and terrorist organisations and liberation movements because that raises, perhaps, too many emotions. My Bill seeks to end the sort of abuses that I have outlined to the House, not by withdrawing or withholding funds but by adding the students’ union fee to the students’ maintenance grant. In this way, it will be possible for the individual student to decide how to spend the money on his or her leisure pursuits. The student will be free to join or not to join the NUS, the rugby club, the Conservative, Labour or Liberal clubs or the bee-keeping society, but no student will be compelled to pay for something that he opposes or does not support.

The House can take heart from the lead given by the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Malcolm Fraser, who has written to all State governments instructing them to prepare legislation to make the membership of student unions voluntary. Many hon. Members have indicated to me that they share my views on this matter and I know there are some in other parties who may join me in the Division Lobby if necessary.

It is not only the taxpayers and ratepayers who are looking to the House to take a stand on behalf of students—it is the students themselves. They are crying out for an end to the abuse of public money spent in their name. They want proper accountability and genuine democratic control. The undergraduate population of this country does not have the time or the inclination to keep a check on student unions. Undergraduates wish to pursue their studies and they have a lot of work to do. They are as anxious as we are to eliminate wastage, but they do not have the time to indulge in the intrigues of student politics which are dominated by lifelong students on sabbatical—and how sabbaticals have increased in recent years:

If we cannot trust students, who, as adults, we deem capable of electing governments or fighting for their country, to spend their union fees as they, individually, would wish, there is little hope for the future of our country, which depends on these young people.