Student Unions could be the co-operative hubs of tomorrow, writes Alex Baker

On logging into Facebook several weeks ago now, I was confronted with a flurry of status updates regarding the results of the latest sabbatical elections at my student union. I say my student union, however I graduated nearly three years ago and back then it was the centre of my world. I remember thinking how empty life would be once I left, but actually it was easier to move on than I thought, taking friends, memories & all that I had learnt with me.  And so seeing the election results brought back good memories but also reminded me how fast life moves on.

Moving on has given me some perspective on my student experience. Working for the Co-operative Party for the last three years has allowed me to see co-operative principles in action at first hand. But ultimately I am working on the same values that were so important in my student union experience. It is a little known fact that student unions originated on the same principles as mutual societies. The similarities between the co-operative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity and those of student unions are there for all to see.

The problem is a lack of awareness around co-operative principles. Until recently, the co-operative movement rarely featured in education, indeed it is still possible to do a business degree without realising that co-operatives exist. So unless you have by chance worked for a co-operative, got involved in your local Co-operative Party or live in the constituency of one of the twenty nine Labour Co-operative Members of Parliament, you are unlikely to make this connection. This is why over the last year the Co-operative Party has been working with Graeme Wise, the Political Officer at the National Union of Students to look at how student unions can return to their co-operative roots and to look at further possibilities of partnership.

It is important to note that what the co-operative movement has to offer student unions does not stop at just values and principles. The co-operatives & credit unions in this country make up a £27 billion pound sector covering a wide range services, from retail and housing co-operatives to credit unions and social enterprises. There are a huge range of co-operative businesses with expertise within the movement that student unions could work with, knowing that at the end of the day that these are businesses which share their values.

The current economic downturn is going to make it harder for students to support themselves throughout their education. It is more important than ever that students are at the heart of the services that their unions offer. It has been widely acknowledged that, working with the co-operative movement, student unions could be developing a co-operative model of student housing, where students could have democratic control in the way that their student residence is run. Apathy is a huge challenge when it comes to getting the vast majority of students to use their vote in student union elections and the indicators show that this is because they don’t see how elections directly affect them. By giving students a real say in their living arrangements, we can show how being involved in the wider politics of the student union can also affect their student experience.

I am still very proud of my union and the opportunities and services that it offered me whilst I was a student. However I share a progressive dream with others in the co-operative movement that in the future student unions can go even further down the path of becoming co-operative hubs for the needs of their students. Why couldn’t the union act as a credit union for the use its students to help them through the hard times? Why shouldn’t students be given a dividend if they are regular customers of student union shops and other services?

In 2009 people throughout this country are deciding they want an alternative to the ‘fat cat’ models that have brought our economy down. As the global economy faces difficult challenges, and people look to business to deliver an increasing number of social goals; co-operatives and mutuals can bring stability and sustainability to the economy and the millions of Britons who rely on them. By embracing co-operative solutions, student unions not only can be sure that they are acting in the best interest of their members, but by spreading the message of co-operative values, they will be developing ethical citizens for the co-operation of tomorrow.

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