A worldwide look at students’ unions

It is not every day that university students consider their global peers. The bubble of a college campus has the tendency to blind us to the actions of any students’ union but our own.

As campus politics heat up at Laurier, countless students worldwide are also preparing to head to the polls.

While commonalities among students surely exist, even a brief look at a handful of students’ unions from around the globe reveals that the challenges they face are as vast as the distance that separates them.


The unprecedented power of Swedish students’ unions is most evident in the administrative channels of the country’s universities. Any university’s students’ union is allocated one-third of the votes within any given decision-making body affiliated with that post-secondary institution.

Undoubtedly, it is this potential influence of the union on the university’s administrative actions that motivates the overwhelming outpouring of Swedish student engagement in campus politics.

Adrian Boström, a first-year business and economics student at the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), believes that attending a school with an active students’ union makes for a different experience. Boström explained that “having an active students’ union enhances your overall university experience – ranging from career opportunities to social events.”

Currently, SSE is home to the most active students’ union in Northern Europe. Each year, voter turnout at SSE hovers around 80 per cent.

United States

While Sweden proves that student apathy on university campuses is not a global phenomenon, voter turnout in American student government elections has certainly suffered because of it.

This represents a swift shift from the days of the Vietnam War, when university campuses became a hotbed for dissent and anti-government activism.

While not nearly as radical, the 2008 American presidential election marked a turning point in the recognition of the student vote, as many credit student support for Barack Obama’s win.


In complete contrast to American student governments, students’ associations in China operate under the watchful eye of the Communist Youth League of China.

Critics of this structure argue that forced ties to the country’s Communist party significantly constrain the actions of Chinese students’ associations.

Furthermore, this forced affiliation ensures that any university students’ association is not an organization purely belonging to students themselves.


While Canadian and many other university students around the world are obligated to join their university’s students’ union, today Australian students have a choice in the matter.

This is due to the recent introduction of federal government-mandated Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU).

In light of this new and controversial policy, Australian students, who were once subjected to compulsory student unionism and mandatory union dues, are now able to
opt out of their students’ guild with relative ease.

Megan Tighe, a first-year arts student at the University of Tasmania, explained that the implementation of VSU “has changed things quite dramatically” on campus.

Tasmanian University Union (TUU), the oldest Australian students’ union, emerged as one of the strongest opponents to VSU. Tighe explained that while “the union is visible, its effectiveness as a representative body has been greatly reduced by VSU and [TUU] is still trying to rebuild to suit the new situation.”

More specifically, since VSU has been implemented at the University of Tasmania, Tighe said that she has “noticed a decline in TUU events and services.”

While the VSU law offers students a choice, it is undeniably a threat to the future livelihood of students’ guilds in Australia.

This cross-section of students’ unions shows the vast differences in priorities and problems faced by students around the world. However, despite the diversity, the potential for similarity is surely there. Perhaps the solutions to problems confronted in our local community can be derived from global sources.

70% – 95%

While Malaysian students’ union voter turnout is impressive, this may have more to do with the fact that the university’s administration, which doubles as the election committee, enforces voting.


This year the Union of Students in Ireland successfully abolished tuition payments for post-secondary students.

35 million

The budget for the University of Colorado at Boulder’s student government.

500 million

The assets of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki, which also has a number of lucrative real estate properties in the very centre of the Finnish capital.


The European Students’ Union (ESU), formerly known as The National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB), is an umbrella organization consisting of 47 national student unions from 36 countries and collectively representing over 10 million students.