Students' union

From Academic Kids

A students' union, student government, or student council is a student organization present at many colleges and universities, often with its own building on the campus, dedicated to social and organizational activities of the student body. At a few institutions, the students' union is a formally-organized group analogous to a labor union. Similar organizations by the same names also exist in many high schools, but are generally less expansive in scope, much less political, and more concerned with social functions.

Many students' unions are run by students for students, independent of the university. The purpose of the union is to represent students' views within the university and sometimes on local and national issues. It is also responsible for providing a variety of services to students. Students can get involved in its management, through numerous and varied committees, councils and general meetings, or become one of its elected officers.

Many students' unions are highly politicised bodies, and often serve as a training ground for aspiring politicians. Campaigning and debate is often very vigorous, with the youthful enthusiasm of the various partisans, a student media that is itself often partisan, inexperienced, and under no financial pressure to slant coverage to please a broad readership, and a general lack of serious consequences for decision all encouraging political gamesmanship.

These groups also often officially recognise and allocate a yearly budget to other organisations on campus.


United Kingdom

In British universities, the students' union is often, but not always, affiliated with the National Union of Students. It generally runs some facilities attached to the university such as shops and nightclubs, and publishes information and sometimes student newspapers. It may also provides counselling and welfare/academic advice services. Most students' unions also operate the "student activities" such as sports clubs, societies and volunteering opportunities, though some rare arrangements see the university providing the competitive sport, with the union retaining participative sport.

Although the Conservative government under John Major attempted to severely reduce the influence of students' unions in Britain, the NUS and individual student unions, particularly at Oxford and Cambridge, managed to successfully lobby against the moves to restrict their political activities. The role of students' unions is now enshrined in the Education Act 1994. 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, the passing of this bill as the Higher Education Act 2004 has led to some observers suggesting that students' unions in the UK have been "broken".

The oldest students' union in Scotland, is the purpose-built Teviot Row House at the University of Edinburgh, built in 1889. The Edinburgh University Students' Representative Council was founded in 1884. The oldest students' union in England is believed by many to be University College London Union, founded in 1893.

Membership of a students' union is generally the default, but not mandatory. That is, students may opt out of membership if they wish, for example on ideological grounds, although this is rare. Such students may still use the social facilities provided by the Union (often the main or only such facilities available) since they are for the benefit of the students of the institution, not just Union members.

See also: Students' Union Offices


Most of Ireland's universities and colleges Template:Refhave students' unions which were established to represent the students in the context of internal college issues and on wider student related issues and also a means of solidarity with other movements globally. An on going campaign of virtually every students’ union in Ireland is to prevent the reintroduction of tuition fees which were abolished in 1995. Most of the students' unions are affiliated with the Union of Students in Ireland ( The students' unions are operated in accordance with the rules set down in their constitution which invariable enumerates a strong democratic and inclusive procedure for the governance on the union.

# Template:Note Although there’s a difference between ‘college’ and ‘university’ the words have become almost synonymous in informal speech


At Swedish universities, students' unions are responsible for representing the students in evaluation of the education. Membership is mandatory by law. Students' unions generally provide counselling services to its members and publishes their own magazines or newspapers. Large universities often have several students' unions, where the smaller students' unions only provide basic services. Larger students' unions often own and run their own facilities at the university such as shops, restaurants and night clubs. Which students' union a student belongs to is decided by the course of study, and competing for members is as such not possible. Many students' unions, but not all, are affiliated with the Swedish National Union of Students.


All major Australian universities have one or more student organistions, known by various names such as student guilds, student unions or student representative councils. These student-run bodies provide many services, typically including refectories and bookshops, student media and publications, support for a variety of social, arts, political, recreational, special interest and sporting clubs and societies, and political advocacy for issues concerning students. Most also operate specialised support services for female, queer, international and indigenous students.

At some universities these functions are divided among different organisations. By way of example, the University of Sydney has three affiliated university-wide students organisations: the Univerity of Sydney Union is primarily a service provider; the Students' Representative Council is primarily concerned with advocacy; and Sydney University Sport oversees sports, gyms and other physical recreation.

Membership of students' unions is not strictly compulsory, however at most universities students are required to pay student activity fees (which are passed on to the student organisations) even if they choose not to be "members" of those organisations. The current federal government has stated a committment to a policy of voluntary student unionism, which would prohibit universities from collecting fees not directly associated with academic activities.

The National Union of Students is a federation of most Australian student representative organisations.


In Canada, membership in a college or university students' union is mandatory. Included in Canadian students' tuition fees is anywhere from an additional $50-$300 fee to pay for the services of the union. The money raised from dues often supports a staff and office that helps students maintain a strong union over a period of time. Student elections usually happen around March as the student bodies elect officals who sometimes work through the summer, and then throughout the next year. Student voter turnout for student elections varies widely depending on the area of the country, and the size of the institution.

These non-profit student unions usually provide numerous services not only to their own students, but to the educational institution and community at large. Running things like newspapers, radio stations, various consumer businesses, clubs, societies and cultural groups, concerts, bars, various entertainment, athletic programs, fincial support, scholarships, medical and dental plans are quite common throughout Canadian schools.

Student unions are also well known for their political involvment. Most student governments are charged by their student body to protect their best interests at the university, municipal, provincial and federal government levels.

Most unions in Canada are also members of one of two rival national lobby organizations: the Canadian Federation of Students and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations. The goals of these two organizations are, broadly speaking, representing students to the politicians that make decisions about education in Canada. These two national organizations, despite sharing similar goals, take different approaches to achieving them.


In Japan, student body is called 学生自治会(gakusei-jiti-kai). The meaning of 学生自治会(gakusei-jiti-kai) is students' self-government-organizations.

The student body in Japan is promoting extracurricular activities. Usually, a cultural association, for example 文化会(bunka-kai), and sports association, for example 体育会(taiiku-kai), etc. is in the inside of a student body as autonomy organization. A student belongs to one or more students' organizations, and he or she does extracurricular activities through a students' organizations. However, the extracurricular activities of a university and colleges are declining after the 1990s.

United States

In the United States, these groups are often known as student government. Other titles include Student Government Association, Student Senate, House of Student Representatives, Student Congress or Student Parliament. The phrase "student union," on the other hand, often refers to a "student center," a building containing a dining hall, game rooms, lounge, and other spaces for student activities.


Many times, student governments are structured similarly to that of the United States Government consisting of distinct executive, legislative and judicial branches. Alternatively, a parliamentary model is followed.

As a result of the particularities of university environments, these structures often include elements which are not found in the federal government (e.g. legislative veto, programming branches, initiative, recall, referendum). Also, many universities with significant graduate programs have separate student governments for the graduate and undergraduate student bodies.


Within their capacity as representatives of the student body, student governments may fulfill a range of responsibilities, such as:

  • Representing the interests and concerns of the student body
  • Collecting mandatory fees for student activities
  • Sponsoring campus-wide programs (e.g. Homecoming, concerts, parades, speakers, entertainment, etc.)
  • Chartering and regulating student organizations

Relationship to the University

Most universities and colleges in the United States are governed by a Board of Trustees or Regents. Student governments tend to be chartered by the Board but, in the case of public universities operated by a State, may be created by the state legislature. Their structure, purpose and responsibilities are usually established in a constitution ratified by the student body.

Student governments have historically been considered departments of the university to which they belong. Since ultimate responsibility over the direction of a university is usually vested in a Chancellor or President appointed by the Board, some conflicts may arise between student government and the university administration, especially in the area of fiscal matters.

In addition to a student government, many universities also establish governments for faculty (e.g. Faculty Senate) and staff (e.g. Staff Assembly). In such cases, there often exist links and dependencies between these bodies.


Student governments are present in most K-12 school systems across the United States. In the majority of cases, these governments are either representative-based and modeled loosely after the U.S. Congress, or based on the Executive Branch of the United States, with a President, Vice-President, etc. Student representatives and officers are usually elected from and by the student body, although there may be pre-requisites for candidacy or suffrage. In elementary schools, there are typically one or two student representatives per classroom and one presiding set of officers. However, many secondary schools have one set of officers per grade level.

K-12 student government exists for largely the same purpose as college-level student unions, but K-12 differs in complexity and power. Most K-12 governments do not have a constitution or a judicial branch and are easily stifled by school administration, resulting in a general perception by the student body that the student council is powerless and irrelevant.

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