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What would students’ unions be like if they hadn’t existed until now and were created from scratch?

That’s the question we’ve put to some smart people and we’re sharing their answers. Want to share your ideas? Email your thoughts to jo@25dots.co.uk

This take comes from Andrew Keenan, a students’ union consultant who partners up with student leaders and SU staff to understand and overcome their toughest challenges, so they can make a bigger and better difference to the lives of their members.

If students’ unions were eradicated, they may never recover to the level of success and impact they currently enjoy.

Andrew Keenan

Andrew Keenan

Students' Union Consultant

*Snap*

Thanos is back. But this time, he’s far, far less ambitious. Rather than eradicate half of all living beings for poorly-evidenced environmental reasons, he’s decided to eliminate all students’ unions in the UK. No one really knows why. Maybe he reads the Spectator?

We are all gone, without a trace. No buildings, no staff, no volunteers, no societies, and most importantly – no memory remains of us, or of how we operated. All of our campaigns, activities, events and services, for well over a century, gone and forgotten.

What happens then?

Students’ unions are no more, but the enormous range of demands we meet are still present. Something will rush in to fill the vacuum we leave behind. But would it look like us?

It’s a revealing thought experiment, that exposes the underappreciated social-financial alchemy that powers so many SUs.

The needs met by students’ unions can be sorted into two broad areas.

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The area that most rapidly attracts new services in the post-Thanos era of the student movement would be our commercial activities. Almost immediately, companies would rush in to take advantage of the spending power of our members that we’re no longer tapping – demand for events, social spaces, bars, student-friendly shops and cafes, branded clothing, and so on. Students’ unions have to fend off these companies, many of them using exploitative and dangerous practices to suck as much money out of the student body as possible.

If we were gone, there’d be nothing to stop them. Pre-existing companies would step in long before local groups could prepare themselves. Vast swathes of student social life would be hosted by profit-focused outfits with zero student leadership; very little interest in creating a diverse and welcoming spectrum of events, if they are not maximising income; and no intention at all to reinvest their profits back in the student community.

The negative effect on the fabric of student bodies would be slow to manifest itself, but nearly irreversible once underway. Much of the work done to widen access to education and create inclusive student communities would be immediately challenged.

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That brings us to the second group of needs met by students’ unions.

Post-snap student communities would quite quickly develop loose groupings, particularly around sport, nationality, religion and politics. People will naturally gravitate towards those with common interests.

But would those groups all then permanently come together under a single, leadership, management, and administrative centre? That’s not something I can see happening at all.

Sporting groups might coalesce into one umbrella organisation, but I think that would take several years at a minimum. But can we reasonably expect the different political groupings to to come together? For sports societies to pool resources with nationality groups? Religious societies to align with departmental societies? I don’t think it would even occur to them.

Compared to the vast and vibrant range of student societies currently active in the UK – which must number in the several thousand and have been huge influences on the lives of millions – the post-Thanos student opportunities landscape would be bleak. Permanently

No collaboration, no shared purpose, no external frameworks for long-term development, no challenges to incompetence or corruption, no professional support. And most importantly – no healthy flow of cash from student pockets, through a coherent SU, into these societies.

If students’ unions were eradicated, they may never recover to the level of success and impact they currently enjoy. Their two areas of activity – commercial and social – may never combine again, an unknown and unlamented loss to higher education and society at large.

Find out more about Andrew, his work and how to contact him at andrewkeenan.london