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Student unionism in the United Kingdom

In universities in the United Kingdom students' unions are constituted under Section 2 of the Education Act 1994. The ultimate purpose of students' unions is to democratically represent the interests of their members. Students who resign their membership may still use Union social facilities provided (often the main or only such facilities available) since they are for the benefit of the students of the institution, not just Union members. The vast majority of UK students' unions are affiliated with the National Union of Students (NUS).


The oldest students' union in the UK is King's College London Students' Union which was founded in 1873 as the Union Society of King's College London.[1][2] In Scotland, it is Edinburgh University Students' Association, founded in 1884. The second oldest in England is believed to be the Liverpool Guild of Students, founded in 1889.[3] Britain's oldest students' union building, which is also the world's oldest students' union building, is the purpose-built Teviot Row House at the University of Edinburgh, built in 1889. The oldest in England is believed to be the Imperial College Union building in Beit Quad built between 1910 and 1911 and designed by Sir Aston Webb. The two largest students' union buildings in the United Kingdom are at the University of Bristol and the University of Sheffield.


Although "students' union" is by far the most common name adopted by these organisations in the UK, seven (including Exeter, Liverpool and Birmingham) are named 'guilds' of students while the term 'students' association' is also used at some institutions, particularly in Scotland, where the ancient universities used to have a pair of segregated student unions for men and women and/or had separate "unions" for social activities and "students' representative councils" for representational matters (an arrangement that still exists at the University of Glasgow). When these were amalgamated the term 'students' association' was introduced.


In addition to lobbying, campaigning, debating and carrying out other representative activities, most students' unions facilitate "student activities" (societies, volunteering opportunities, and sport) peer led support (through advice centres, helplines, job shops and more), and social venues to bring their members together. Most unions receive some funding through an annual allocation, also called the block grant, from their educational institution.[4] Many unions supplement this income from commercial sales from their venues, shops, and marketing revenue.


Although the Conservative government under John Major attempted to severely reduce the influence of students' unions in Britain, the NUS and individual students' unions managed to successfully lobby against the moves to restrict their political activities. The then Education Secretary, John Patten aimed to end the 'closed shop' and ensure students would have to join their union (opt-in) rather than automatically becoming a member. As many unions receive funding based upon membership levels this threatened their ability to achieve their core business.

In 2004, lobbying by the NUS against a bill to introduce variable student fees in English and Welsh universities contributed towards the Labour government's majority being slashed to just five in the Commons vote on the bill. However, this bill passed as the Higher Education Act 2004.

Law relating to students' unionsEdit

The role of students' unions is enshrined in the Education Act 1994, which requires educational institutions to have a code of practice and publicise the ability to opt-out from membership without forfeiting access to the majority of union services. The Act also requires that unions have a written constitution and that elections to major union offices are held by a secret ballot of the membership. The Act states that if a petition signed by a minimum number of students (the threshold cannot exceed 5 per cent) is lodged then a referendum must be held on whether or not to end one of the union's affiliations. Money donated to a students' union is subject to ultra vires law and can only be spent to further this charitable purpose. A major source of funding for most unions are 'block grant' donations given by their colleges or universities. Historically, the majority of students' unions were exempt charities however a change to the law means that unions became registered charities during 2010.[5][6] Students' unions are required to act in the interests of their members as students.

In general, a students' union is a separate legal person from the university or college which it is associated with,[7] however in some cases the union is regarded as an integral part of the university.[8]


The oldest students' union in Scotland is Edinburgh University Students' Association founded in 1884 and the world's oldest students' union building is the purpose-built Teviot Row House at the University of Edinburgh, built in 1889. Under the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889, Students' Representative Councils were set up at the ancient universities of Scotland. All students are eligible to elect members to the SRC unless they opt out under the Education Act 1994, and the President of the SRC is often a member of the University Court, the governing body of a Scottish Ancient. Where separate students' unions still exist (for example at the University of Glasgow), they operate as private members' clubs. At other universities, the SRC and the former union or unions have been combined into a single students' association.

Northern IrelandEdit

In Northern Ireland, students' unions operate in a similar way to those in Great Britain, except that they cannot exclusively be members of NUS. At the height of the Troubles in 1972, a bilateral agreement between the National Union of Students UK and the Union of Students in Ireland, decided that all student unions within Northern Ireland would hold membership of both organisations, through a new group called NUS-USI. The move was an attempt to promote student unity despite the sectarian divide and the arrangement is still in place.


In a British students' union a sabbatical officer is a full-time paid officer elected by the students from their membership. The sabbatical officers are generally trustees of the students' union. Many students' unions also have unpaid officers who continue as students during their term of office. Some of these non-sabbatical officers may sit on the Executive Committee of the Union, or on the Union Council.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "KCLSU History". Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  2. ^ "King's College London - Timeline". Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  3. ^ "History of the Guild". Liverpool Guild of Students. Archived from the original on 21 June 2014. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  4. ^ "Getting the union funded: Setting up a students' union: Students' Unions". Retrieved 12 November 2012.
  5. ^ "Charity regulation". HEFCE. 20 April 2012. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
  6. ^ "Universities Legal Briefing – March 2007". Retrieved 12 November 2012.
  7. ^ [1][dead link]
  8. ^ Statute 10 of Imperial College's statutes[permanent dead link]