Understanding Change in Contemporary Students' Unions: Membership, Institutional Context, and Decision-Making

  • Tony Schorah

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Business (DBA)


Students’ Unions (SUs) are independent organisations that play and important role in Higher Education as the representative body for students. This study considers how changes in SU membership and the institutional context in which they are embedded have impacted on the perceptions and actions of SU officers. A total of 27 interviews were conducted with Elected Officers (EOs), Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and SU External Trustees across a representative sample of six SUs. This study draws on the relevant features of a conceptual framework for business associations as intermediary organisations (Schmitter and Streeck, 1981/1999). An adapted version of a conceptual model for analysing change in contemporary SUs in offered.

The findings suggest that SUs had changed the way they engage with an increasingly consumer-oriented student membership in order to secure and retain their members’ support. This is explained as a response to changing student preferences and the potential threat to SU independence from being resource dependent on their host Higher Education Institution (HEI). This impacted on how EOs and CEOs perceived their roles and made SUs much more student-led, which had a tendency to localise student issues and increase the need for SUs to engage with and influence their host HEI. To be effective SUs adopted similar management practices and technologies to those of their host HEI. This shift towards a more business-like way of operating was compounded by changes in charity law, which led to changes in SU governance and management structures. This strengthened the position of the CEO and highlighted SU vulnerability to external regulatory change. The research suggests that these common contextual factors resulted in the SUs in the sample adopting similar ways of organising and operating, reinforced by isomorphic tendencies. This study suggests with reference to a conceptual model that in order to be effective SUs had to maintain a difficult balance between the sometimes competing interests of their members and the expectations of their host HEI, and this shaped their organisational features and operating practices.
Date of Award26 May 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorRajani Naidoo (Supervisor) & Ian Jamieson (Supervisor)

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