Should SUs kick the booze once and for all?

Francesco Masala is President at The SU, University of Bath

Throughout this tumultuous year, money has been a subject on everybody’s lips and on priority lists for students’ unions.

Back in April I argued that universities must not let students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds slip through the cracks that this pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated.

The A Levels fiasco proved again that where you come from is closely related to your chances of “making it”. Within SUs, we have been working tirelessly on the topic of student money to try to correct for some of that – worrying about refunds, ensuring students had access to appropriate equipment for home working, and trying to make sure that students on casual contracts were paid as part of the furlough scheme.

Our own precarity

Talking about student hardship has been important, but SUs have made less noise about our own balance sheets. In a time where our priority is to advocate for the student interest, it almost feels a betrayal to be spending time to also write about students’ union finances. Yet for most (if not all) unions across the country, the financial holes created by the pandemic have unleashed a national belt-tightening process – scraping for every penny we can, and generating urgent conversations with our boards and funders.

Not only has this been difficult, it has also been emotionally draining for officers and staff members who devote every minute of their working life to support for the student experience. Despite our best efforts, many unions will still be left in financially precarious positions, with many universities either unable (or in other cases unwilling) to “bail out” unions.

We do have to ask questions about universities’ financial precarity in comparison to SUs. Earlier in the year universities were worried about student numbers, but with some exceptions the evidence is that they have held up. Meanwhile SUs that depend on commercial income from students have been battling with drops in trade due to the pandemic. We should remind universities that it would be perverse and damaging to expect SUs to snake up those shortfalls alone. Some Universities have appropriately supported the student experience through coronavirus, and others must follow their lead.

But the crisis has also shown something else – how deeply reliant many unions still are on alcohol and event sales to raise essential funds to be reinvested in the student experience. This has been an incredibly safe social enterprise model in the past, with sell-out Freshers’ Weeks and Summer Balls, successful club and cocktail nights. Whilst there has been a noticeable shift towards different, non-alcohol based activities even before the pandemic, we all knew selling booze (or selling access to others selling it) during Welcome would be a safe bet, needed in a world where financial support for SUs was declining in real terms.

Funding the student experience

Some have relied on it more than others. Here at Bath for example, aside from a healthy block grant from the university, we have been reliant on the sale of alcohol for a large proportion of our additional income. It’s an uncomfortable truth that has been brought home to roost.

This is not simply an issue in the short term. There is a real prospect of a vaccine being rolled out to the general population by Easter, which may allow unions to ramp up the in-person activity in the final months of the academic year. But there is a more fundamental issue that students this year, and particularly first year students, have had little or no contact with their students’ union as regularly as they would have had pre-pandemic.

Whilst it is true that SUs are not just bars or buildings, the connection students have with a place is nevertheless an important one. This obviously raises concerns about the core engagement of students with their unions, but also in terms of the income prospects unions need so badly. After a year dominated by house parties and gatherings outside of the “formal” setting of a venue, there is a risk that the current generation of first years will not associate anything with their SU..

Asking the right questions

So for those SUs who still generate lots of money from alcohol, it’s worth questioning whether it’s right to return to a model of propping up student experience with sales of sugary booze. Clearly a lot of unions don’t just rely on monetising social activity for their commercial income. Some SUs have their own letting agencies. Others own shops and excel in advertising and sponsorship.

Coventry University Students’ Union (CUSU) commercial activities turnover more than £1M without selling a single pint of beer, cup of coffee or nightclub ticket. CUSU has a portfolio of external services from organising the Coventry Half Marathon to launching a graphic design agency.

Student communities, unions and NUS need to come together to figure out what the “next big things” actually are. In the past, collective efforts led by students have brought forward incredible services such as Endsleigh insurance, the Student Travel Association, and the NUS card.

These efforts can start locally, and there must be student buy-in, but also student leadership in these efforts. Nobody better than current students understand what gaps exist, and a lot of them will have ideas about how the organisation they’re part of, their union, can start filling them.

Ultimately, this exercise is not simply about diversifying revenue streams – it potentially a participatory exercise aimed at enabling students to contribute and improve the communities they’re part of. Students want and can do this. We must give them the tools and the chance to have a say and find what the next big thing is.

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