SUs should be partners – especially when times are tough

Mark McCormack is Chief Exec at the University of Bedfordshire Students' Union

Remember when Theresa May patronised a nurse, who hadn’t had a pay rise for multiple years, that there was no magic money tree?

And then found a spare billion to ally with the DUP?

Rightly or wrongly, when student leaders attempt to reason their university’s spending decisions, I remind them that all budget decisions are a strategic choice made by strategic actors.

I have often seen those student leaders solemnly cautioned that times are hard, that difficult choices are being made and reductions are happening across budget lines, and that they and their SU should be all too pleased with the budgets they are granted.

Without dismissing an institution’s challenges, I tend to add balance to that caution – it’s rare that organisations are truly victims of circumstance – although times are undoubtedly tough right now.

There’s been much chatter among SUs this past year about their funding as a number of SUs broached their university on increases.

Of those I’ve spoken to, they’ve become deflated on hearing their concerns about pay for their staff and student leaders. The message has seemed to be – why would we pay more for what we’re already getting?

But I think that message – that stresses an SU’s independence when the subject of funding comes up – is becoming a real problem.

On a journey

Across the country and behind the scenes, SUs are finding it particularly difficult to recruit and retain staff as private sector and university sector wages both grow at much faster pace.

In the recent half decade students’ unions have been riding a roller-coaster of change alongside their universities, who have faced – among other things – increased regulatory costs, higher service expectations and a more diverse and demanding student body.

In particular, institutions are challenged in balancing uncertainty in student numbers within longer-term budgets on a static fee. Nevertheless, there were an inflation-beating 19 per cent more students studying in higher education in 2022 than there were five years prior.

To try to think through the implications, I reviewed the funding of 96 universities and their SUs in England for the four years 2019 to 2022. Combined turnover, which excluded in-kind donations, was £317m in 2019, £281m in 2020, £205m in 2021 and £294m in 2022 (n, 94).

For SUs, changes in student behaviours have combined with pandemic restrictions to reduce this sub-sector’s independent revenue capability – non-grant revenue fell 58% between 2019 and 2021 among the sample, and 2022 remained 17% lower than 2019 – and that’s without adjusting for inflation.

The average annual SU grant funding per institution grew 5% from £1.3m to £1.4m. Unsurprisingly, SUs have become more reliant upon their HEI’s grant since 2019.

Impressively, the sample turned a combined surplus for the four-year period (albeit, at 0.6%, one a distance from inflation) – a stark symbol of the change in climate insofar as SU commercial revenue has not recovered despite a 17% rise in UK HE students numbers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while there are more students, they’re on campus less, spending less and so propping up the funding model for SUs much less too.

Taken together with the rise in student numbers in the sample, the level of grant funding to a students’ union per student fell from £72.65 per student in 2019 to £67.76 in 2022 (-7%).

As such, combined with the loss in trading revenue, students’ unions are supporting more students, with more complex needs and demands, with less resource, in an even more acute way than their university counterparts.

Yet at the same time, SUs and their universities are entwining more deeply and more expansively – particularly on regulatory agendas where student input is integral. SUs are also benchmarked, and integral to any university’s progress in student voice.

Whose problem?

I’ve heard multiple times in my career from senior leaders that pay in students’ unions is the SU’s responsibility, and that it would be wrong to compare their staff with university roles as the going rate for SU staff is lower.

I reviewed 173 vacancies in Spring 2023 to calculate average starting pay outside London for a coordinator position at £23k; and management responsibilities kicking in at £30k.

The size of an SU’s grant positively correlated with staff salary levels for comparable roles in the sector. As we see in other industries, the clearest indicator on pay is the employer’s ability to pay.

In SUs, the biggest gaps in pay were among senior roles – managing multiple departments, services and teams of staff and engaging at senior levels across the institution with a strategic scope – had an average starting of £48k.

It is not, in the main, the case that larger unions supplement their ordinary SU activities with trading surpluses – unions with the highest turnovers also received the largest grants (grant level and turnover positively correlated) and trading revenue was broadly counteracted by trading costs and/or a widening of SU activities most common in SUs.

However we cut it at whatever level, most SU staff are paid significantly lower than university roles with similar responsibilities – and near-all require additional university resource if they’re to address what’s becoming a staffing crisis.

SUs are human businesses in the main, and their interactions with student communities enhance all aspects of the student experience to significant benefit. At my own SU I look at significant positive changes being implemented to the university’s systems, services and governance – and whilst talented university staff push the priorities and outputs, it was the SU’s representations that brought energy to the change agendas that were then championed by senior leaders.

Partners in crisis

In a recent workshop with roughly 20 counterparts around the country, I tested appetites for belligerence and disruption. I was amazed at the commitment to their university relationships and near-all saw a responsibility in being a strategic ally rather than an agitating stakeholder.

Universities can expect their students’ unions to be strategic allies, and it’s likely near-all do. But if that’s the case, there needs to be an allied commitment to seeing talent recruited and maintained in the SU, just as universities would hope for for their own personnel.

Strategic partners when either the TEF submission is due, a belonging-focussed welcome week is needed or help is required on bearing down on non-completion is where SUs want to be. But maintenance of that partnership requires that framing to be continued when the question of funding arises.

SUs aren’t expecting miracles – but when that one off payment for university staff isn’t funded in the SU, or the pay award isn’t matched, or there’s not an honest conversation about maintaining activity and service levels promised to more and more diverse students, there’s only one way the next five years will go. Other choices are available.

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