Can SUs diversity their income streams?

Harry Hughes-Slattery is the Events Assistant Manager at the University of Nottingham SU

In recent years, student culture has undergone a significant transformation that many working in SUs are familiar with.

These changes are driven by a multitude of factors like changing demographics, technological advancements, and evolving student expectations.

Naturally as student culture shifts, so too must the institutions that serve them – including SUs. One aspect of this adaptation that feels trickier to tackle is trying to diversify income streams.

Currently, SUs are generally more about providing an experience than facilitating, but it might be time to flip the mold, so to speak.

At least from my end, there is a bit of a habit of acting as though student culture has only been dynamic in recent years – it has always changed with societal, generational, and global shifts in behaviour and needs.

Yet with rising living costs, a freeze on university funding and a more diverse student body than ever before, the way students engage with their SUs and universities has, and will continue to, change.


This should come as no shock that today’s students are digital natives who expect seamless online experiences and are highly connected through social media and other digital platforms, experiences which not all university departments, staff and platforms are ready for.

There are also more diverse student populations which necessitates a more inclusive and adaptable approach. Institutions will continue to be a hive of diversity especially when nearly every institution in the UK has a key strategic theme around inclusivity and diversity as well as a clear agenda to increase international student numbers.

Increasing tuition fees have heightened students’ financial concerns particularly for international students, leading them to demand more value from their institutions.

As part of that value expectation, students now expect personalised services, engagement opportunities, and a strong focus on well-being and mental health support. In fact they don’t just expect it – they require it and demand it.

These shifts have implications for student unions beyond changing campaigns, instead of relying on turning a profit in SU bar. Flogging a 2 pound pint is no longer the answer to SUs plans to grow and improve.

Return of the grant

Historically, SUs have funded their activities through that all-important university grant, event income, venue income and, in some cases, grants from bodies like Santander. However, these traditional funding sources face several challenges in today’s evolving student culture.

Firstly, when cash is tight universities are less inclined to put their hands in their pocket, pushing SUs to fund themselves or not increasing funds in line with inflation. Yet there is pressure for SUs to continue to deliver their current services to the same standard, if not with additional functions from external regulation, without any additional support.

Frustratingly, SUs feel this pressure from their own members. Students generally want more from their SUs than a disco, a cheap pint, and some sports clubs. Unfortunately big club nights and freshers’ wristbands were often the main source of income for SUs in the past twenty years.

Increasingly students want activism, social justice work and liberation networks which SUs are happy to provide. But doing so becomes a lot harder if traditional ventures like the SU bar or society fees are making less and less revenue.

Staying relevant

To remain relevant and effective, SUs must adapt to the evolving landscape and diversifying income sources is increasingly a necessity at this stage.

Not only does this reduce dependency on the universities, making SUs more financially resilient in the face of economic uncertainties but also more independent. SUs need to feel less encompassed by the university grant, but at times this feels futile.

There is always the risk that the grant will be reduced, particularly if the SU doesn’t always play ball with the university. Meaning, that the more we can establish strong partnerships, either in strategic agreements or regular catch ups with CEOs, officers and university senior leadership teams where frank, honest conversations are possible, the better.

Fighting a losing battle?

New income streams often require innovation and adaptability. An institutional culture that fosters improvement through creative and potentially new means is key to ensuring SUs are ahead of the game.

Unfortunately, I often feel SUs have been behind the times for a while now, through no particular fault of their own, in the challenging environment of the past few years – and by no means am I suggesting that diversifying income streams is an easy feat.

Diversifying income sources requires careful planning and execution, and SUs must consider various strategies, as many already are.

One way to do this is through better partnerships with local businesses and community organisations to secure sponsorship deals, advertising partnerships, or shared revenue opportunities. This way we can develop shared opportunities for students, that may cost us less to put on ourselves, but may need a bit of thought on a risk assessment front.

Alumni donations to UK institutions are woefully behind that of those in the US or Canada, though that is starting to change as universities develop alumni networks and associations.

Although recent reports demonstrated how little of these donations are often given to SUs. Only a small minority (3.2 per cent) of the respondents in recent research donated to their SU.

Although this increased amongst graduates who had involvement in students’ union activities whilst at university, with just under 10 per cent of those involved in one or two activities going on to make a donation, and nearly a quarter (22.6 per cent) of those involved in three or more activities did so.

Perhaps there is scope for SUs to develop their alumni-fundraising activities to help fund, support and develop new projects.

External funding

Now one thing many SUs do not engage with is pursuing grants and funding from government agencies, philanthropic organisations or foundations that support student initiatives.

It’s helpful for SUs to actively seek out grants that may be open to them, like the Community Living Fund. Or funding arrangements on offer from the university that there is no reason and SU cannot push for.

There’s also a good argument for pursuing alumni involvement, donations and legacies – especially where former sabbs have money to give to give back.

For those who work in higher education, the refrain of “it’s always been done that way” can feel frustrating and demotivating. Yet if we do not adapt our provision and revenue streams through innovative measures, it may be all too late to make the change we often need.

By embracing a multifaceted approach to funding, SUs can ensure their continued relevance, financial stability, and capacity to serve the diverse needs of today’s student body.

As the adage goes, “change is the only constant,” and an SU’s ability to adapt will see them well through a challenging time ahead.

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