An open letter from a hungry sabb

Sam Dickens is VP Societies & Volunteering at Undeb Bangor Students' Union

Amidst a cost-of-living crisis, SUs have become seasoned experts in making clear to universities how inflation is affecting students.

Across the UK we’ve seen SUs and Universities working on a plethora of initiatives and improvements to bring the cost of living down for students, and make university life more affordable.

Amazing things have happened over the past year – but I’m frustrated that in many SUs, we haven’t been thinking more about what can be done to support both sabbs and lower paid SU staff who might be feeling the pinch.

Engaging with fellow sabbs over the last year and more recently at the start of new and returning sabbs’ terms in office, it’s been interesting to hear the experiences of officers bravely taking the question to their trustee boards… “Is it time for a Sabb pay rise”?

It’s right that in a charity we’re not directly involved in the decision(s). Some have come away with a slightly increased pay packet to meet the costs of the times we’re living in – but many have come away disheartened, feeling less valued and burnt. And they wonder if you really understand. And if we’re about anything, we’re about understanding lived experience.

On the site, there’s already been insightful discussion about Sabbatical Officer pay, its origins, the tricky nature of finding the “right amount” to pay sabbs and the expenses packages that surround the headline pay level. And of course the NUS Charity has now published its benchmarking data on sabb pay and benefits.

I should say that this doesn’t come from a place of anger at the sector – I don’t think there’s a “them and us” dynamic in most SUs and I certainly don’t think that staff and external trustees are the enemy.

But I do think there are things I really wish you knew about the reality of being a sabb in the middle of a cost of living crisis, and hope this might act as a safe place to float ways to support your own sabbs through what is a difficult time for us all.

If nothing else, given I’m looking at a £1000 overdraft limit that I’ve exceeded and my beyond maxed out student credit card, I thought it was a good time to get some thoughts out there.

Let’s keep talking about sabbatical pay, but more than just that

Besides being an interesting read, the piece on Wonkhe is useful allusion to some things that might help sabbs across the UK – and we should have a deeper dive into those as well as some other approaches that might help.

As sabbs we’re deeply invested in thinking about who students are and what will help them in the crisis. But what do we know about our Sabbs? They’re often very recent graduates or pausing their studies for sabbatical year. Slides from Wonkhe on the crisis already give us insight into who these students are – and more importantly their bank accounts.

It’s important to highlight that students are leaving (and so your sabbs likely to be starting with) £3,500 of debt in addition to headline student loans – and without support sabbs could be a continuation of the 60 per cent needing to borrow off parents and friends. It’s a doubly embarrassing position – given sabbs are approaching folks who’ve likely celebrated with them on getting their shiny new “job”.

Starting as a sabb is exciting but also a little daunting for officers. We’re excited to be here, want to give it our all and don’t want to look weak or be embarrassed in the early days by having our card declined next to a new colleague at lunchd or being caught stealing milk for cereal because we can’t afford it at home.

What might help in the early days

The first step is to find a way to ask them if they get enough money to meet costs they probably weren’t able to plan for.

They’ve run what was likely an expensive election not that long ago. If you think the £30 election budget you’ve given them has met all the costs to go out and chat to thousand students on campus, that’s a delusion.

Lots of the speaking to students and engaging them in the democracy at the heart of our movement comes out of pocket, from meeting students in cafes, pubs and clubs, to dropping into a society’s meet up and so on.

They’ve also probably just forked out for a deposit for a student rental for a year and paid a first instalment of rent when otherwise they might be living rent-free at home.

So money’s tighter there. Additionally, they’ve started them in mid-summer so that part-time job where they worked every shift going (which we know they relied on as a student to make ends meet) is out the window too.

A forward for the first and second month would help. A bcc’d email from the CEO or Director to sabbs at the start of term reassuringly saying, “we can bump you a bit of next month’s wages in advance because now is probably pretty tight financially”, would have saved a lot of missed meals, uninviting myself from staff starting or leaving dos and having to ask for help from parents with my head in my hands.

It isn’t an additional cost, would give sabbs a chance to live rather than scrape by, and financially plan and save over the quieter summer months rather than being in a crisis from week 1.

We cover your expenses

Expenses are awesome. If you’re reading this and you don’t have an expenses policy for sending sabbs and staff away to things, stop reading this, go fix that first.

Of course allowances change from SU to SU as well as what can and can’t be expensed, but that’s not the issue. Fundamentally, we’re assuming that sabbs can afford the probably more expensive food option or travel arrangement in the here and now. And sometimes, we just can’t.

At my first external training event, despite our relatively generous expenses policy, I ate a sad reduced sandwich as a main meal because I wouldn’t have had the money to eat a proper meal and socialise with the other officers otherwise.

I remember walking around the corner of the accommodation to find somewhere quiet to eat it because I didn’t want my fellow officers to see me after making up an excuse to not order a pizza with them.

Stupidly, I didn’t even expense the sad sandwich I had or any of the food I had there because of the way both my, and speaking to other officers many other, SUs structure their expenses.

Officers are likely new, might be shy to ask about expensing things and are also stupendously busy. It’s so easy to forget to claim something back until weeks have gone by and shame keeps us from saying “that thing we went to waaaay back 2 months ago…”.

Sabbs might be a little nervous about seeming entitled for claiming things we might naturally assume they’d just claim and instead take the “small” financial hit.

But when it becomes a “small” financial hit they take again and again, it mounts up.

Forwarding them the maximum amount they’re allowed to claim back before they go and ask them to pay it back minus the receipts afterwards would help.

It changes perception for officers showing it’s absolutely expected to claim things they’re allowed to, and also means they’ll engage in the process of claiming expenses rather than hoping they’ll make the first move when they come back.

If we make it something they need to respond to, rather than just seeing if they come forward, I’d stake my hat seeing more sabbs utilise the expenses they’re owed. That’s what the budget line is there.

Please sir, can I have some more?

Something a lot of SUs have done well this year is look at tackling food insecurity for students.

It’s been great to see initiatives to help students meet this basic need, but isn’t it something we should think about generally as a benefit to help sabbs and other SU staff who’re struggling?

Thinking over the course of the time I’ve been an officer, there have been more times than I care to count where money just hasn’t been there even to have the cheap food provision we’ve won off the university this year.

In a backdrop of some SUs having commercial – and food outlets – and it being an established enough business practice to not raise eyebrows for employers to run some type of lunch or breakfast provision as a benefit for staff, food provisions for sabbs and staff in SUs to take the edge off the CoL could be a pragmatic tool to help, without breaking the bank themselves.

It’s also easy to embed into activity that the SU might already be doing. Are we handing out food to students at events or have other SU based food initiatives? Making a point of encouraging sabbs and staff to take something for the day would also help.

It’s only a small gesture – but helps get around the stigma of sabbs feeling like they can’t ask, and it might just fill a mealtime that otherwise might have been a missed meal.

Out and about on campus

Thinking back to a review day shortly after my election in our SU, there’s one comment that sticks out in my mind and really got me thinking.

Students have fed back to us that they don’t really see the Sabbs outside of elections…

I was annoyed at first – both my team and I are pretty proactive as sabbs. We spend more evenings at some student group or another’s event than at home and should probably factor in extra walking time to meetings for when students stop us to chat in corridors.

Are we the perfect “out there” sabbs? Probably not, but the point is the 9-5 in the office, seeing students in the evenings and then the bleary eyes in the office the next day after less than the recommended amount of sleep isn’t something we shy away from.

The unpaid hours and energy of seeing students doesn’t bother us. It’s a reality of the job and we embrace that wholeheartedly. Sabbs like spending time with students.

I and other sabbs I’ve spoken to though just can’t afford the costs attached to going out and seeing students as much as is seemingly expected of us. We’re at the limit with how much we are able to go out in terms of finance and that’s where the frustration came from.

If it’s important to SUs for sabbs to be out and about with students, how can we make it easier for sabbs if a direct pay increase isn’t an option?

It’s important to think about what we expect our sabbs to do and the monetary costs attached to doing that. Once we’ve got that nailed down, we can work from there and see what we can do to alleviate that.

A much smarter person than me once told me “As soon as I had a pint in my hand, I wasn’t an officer anymore” – and I’m not proposing expensing alcohol. But we still want our officers to be able to hang out in the SU or university’s cafe to speak to students and meet with a student in crisis over a coffee. Maybe making soft drinks something they can expense within reason to facilitate them being present with students, or giving them a cost code and some fair ground rules for using it would help.

The two enablers for sabbs being out and about are either “they have the money to out and about because we pay them enough” or “we’ve made it affordable for sabbs to be out and about by offsetting costs by doing X”.

If we’re not implementing one of these two enablers, we can’t really expect our sabbs to be out and about.

There are risks to doing nothing

I’d hope that looking after staff and sabbs is important to CEOs, senior managers and trustee boards. But intertwined with an ethos of supporting people working in the organisation, there are more direct knock-ons for getting this wrong.

Sabbs struggling with the cost of living crisis, and by extension feeling undervalued, aren’t going to be nearly as effective as they could or should be. Inaction in looking for ways to ease the burden of the crisis for sabbs opens them up to being less able to do their job in 3 major ways.

A phenomenon that is much better explained by the Harvard Business Review in one of its pieces is that of “quiet quitting”. It hinges on the concept of staff reeling their efforts in to the absolute minimum out of dissatisfaction in the workplace.

Although pay isn’t the only factor for satisfaction or arguably even the biggest, it is nonetheless a considerable player in whether someone feels content within a role. If, however, you’re less worried about how “competitive” your salary is and are instead faced with “can I afford to eat tomorrow if I go to meet this student?”, it quickly starts to demoralise sabbs and the ugly head of quiet quitting begins to rear itself.

We’ve all seen the stats for students about money worries and the effects it has on their mental health. It’s been covered in briefings on the site here showing “Students (…) experiencing major or minor financial difficulties had worse scores on all four well-being measures” from the ONS – and the NUS cost of living survey in 2022 found “9 in 10 students’ mental health impacted by cost of living (…)”.

These are stats we’re all too quick to call on in SUs when we’re going into a strategy meeting with the university, or making our case to our institution’s student services, but given sabbs are a hair’s breadth away from being the same demographic investigated in these reports, how aren’t we more concerned about sabbs’ mental wellbeing in the crisis?

And then there’s presence. We’ve all turned down a social gathering because there are costs attached in the middle of an economy drive?

It’s more problematic when it seems to many and to yourself that you’re “obliged” to go to, but there’s nothing left in the coffers.

When your activities sabb can’t go to see sports teams on Wednesday get-togethers; or your education officer has to say no to passionate groups of course reps organising gatherings to build a community among themselves; or your Presidents have to lie to other officers they really want to network with at that SU conference, but they can’t afford to go the bar for one let alone go out – we have a problem.

This is where a lot of the power of having sabbs is lost for SUs. The conversations a student has with a sabb because they’re rubbing shoulders with them out and about. Some of the most rewarding pieces of work I’ve undertaken as an officer have come from the random chats with students I’ve passed in a bar, or stopped to talk to on the way out of a society meeting in a café or at their Christmas dinner – all with a cost attached.

If sabbs can’t connect with their students because they can’t afford to, what’s the point? To be authentic, we need to be more just a token tick box to have in the office for when “student representation” has to be in a meeting somewhere.

Rant over

If you made it this far, honestly thank you. I know it’s not a positive or empowering read, but I think it’s important for people in the sector who can make things better to think about more.

As sabbs, we understand SUs aren’t made of money and it’s difficult to just pay us more. But hopefully this offers a few more palatable alternatives to support your sabbs nonetheless.

With things either coming out of budget lines most organisations would be comfortable to see as an expense, initiatives in the workplace to help lower people’s living costs in general, different approaches to how we expense things and just checking in with sabbs to make sure they’re financially stable and utilising financial forwards when they’re struggling more, we can make more of a difference.

One response to “An open letter from a hungry sabb

  1. A truly insightful and informative article, hopefully interviews like this will open up for progress in the funding and support of saabs across the UK.

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