Tough times are coming – what SU leaders do next will matter

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

At this time of year, I tend to be asked quite frequently to speak at and contribute to SU board meetings on strategy.

“Give us a sense of what’s coming”, people ask. “We need a nudge on the sorts of things we ought to be thinking about” say others. “What really needs the hard thinking” is another request.

Lots of things spring to mind. The exit from the pandemic and the epidemic of student anxiety left in its wake – with the knock-on impacts on student participation – is one thing. Another is the myriad of consultations on regulation in England and both the opportunities and threats that potentially generates. There’s also the free speech agenda, not least the extent to which ministers seem to repeatedly define it as less about “free speech” and more about work that SUs have always led on to make the world a fairer and more equitable place.

There’s a theory here. The management textbooks tell us that when under pressure, leaders (including in our context student officers, trustees and managers) tend to do two things. Sometimes they focus on the minutiae, because in a world that feels out of control, that can preserve our sense of agency over at least something. Alternatively, they focus on massive big picture items – because they matter too, and we can’t really be held directly to account if they go wrong.

The commentary on both “going small” and “going big” is that they’re both kinds of avoidance – ways of being busy without dealing with the harder but more meaningful “medium sized” issues that are coming down the track. The problem, say the theorists, is that dodging the medium-sized issues is the ultimate leadership abdication – they are the issues we’re in post for, that make the most difference to people’s lives, and become massive anyway if they’re left untackled.

They need the most time, the most creative ideas, the maximum emotional energy and unprecedented levels of collaboration.

And there’s no doubt that the major “medium” issue that is coming – for students, universities and SUs – is money.

Inflationary pressures

Before the Ukraine crisis, inflation was already running at a higher level than it had for many years. When inflation is low – as it has been pretty much now for a decade – it doesn’t matter so much that we tend not to notice the “fiscal drag” of £1 being worth less in a year’s time than it is today. But once you’re up past 5 or 6 percent, it matters a lot.

For universities in England, it means that the value of a frozen £9,250 maximum tuition fee is now rapidly declining, and will almost certainly dip below many of the lows that the “unit of resource” has reached over the past few decades. And universities in the devolved nations are unlikely to get funding increases to cover the problem either.

For students, an inflation crisis that generates a cost of living crisis will impact some students’ ability at the margins to take part in HE at all. But history tells us that it’s more likely that it will hit what is often framed as discretionary spend – participation in extracurriculars, social activity and even visits to campus. We’re about to see the “buffer” between minimum viable participation incomes and a good student experience eaten into in an unprecedented way – and it won’t be good news.

For SUs, there’s all the costs that rampant inflation brings, along with pressure in particular to support students to participate, pay both student and career staff a decent wage, and find ways to campaign in the student interest when a wave of austerity might now be inevitable. Expectations to deliver for students will be higher than ever, at just the point when it will be almost impossible to meaningfully meet them.

And whatever else the Ukraine crisis brings, it is likely to make all of that financial picture even worse – especially in the short term. There’s a real danger of an inflation-generated recession as spending power dries up, and even if that is avoided rocketing fuel costs alone will pile on the pressure to help low-income households – which students never seem to be defined into by a Treasury, DWP and DfE that don’t seem to notice or care about student hardship at the best of times – and these will not be the best of times.

Think, model, consider, create

This isn’t a blog whose section three has a list of get out of jail free cards, or top tips on handling a financial crisis in any of the three domains I’ve talked about. But it is to say that SU boards, SMTs, sabb teams and others would do well to think about, model, consider and generate ideas around what would happen if a version of the worst did happen in any or all of the three domains we’re discussing here.

For universities, a period of belt-tightening is now almost inevitable. That doesn’t automatically mean making cuts to SU funding – the entirety of the SU’s grant is almost certainly small beer in comparison to the core academic and infrastructure costs. But “everyone need to take a cut of the pain” is a useful rule of thumb where there are not obvious areas that deserve special treatment. The work SUs are doing now on belonging, confidence and skills when it comes to the B3 and TEF agendas will be important.

Perhaps more importantly, the cuts to the academic experience are almost certainly coming. In extreme cases we’re talking course closures – but in less extreme examples we may be talking about reductions in module choice, disruptive redundancy schemes or larger class sizes. SUs will want to get across the financial issues in their university, consider the student protection arrangements in place for when some of these happen, whether they want to be inside or outside of the room when the decisions are made, and what the most important aspects of the academic experience are that will need defending over others.

There’s also the question of campaigns on fees – where the obvious goal of “reducing fees” might in fact represent a campaign to have less spent on students’ education with little difference to the amount students pay over a lifetime.

For students, belt-tightening is likely to be back in a big way too. SUs particularly in England have arguably lost the knack in recent years of campaigning on student hardship, particularly to Conservative back benchers. But abandoning hope of that kind of work bearing fruit may be a mistake. Back-benchers have nieces, nephews, grandkids and god-kids at university – and half the art of campaigning isn’t needing to win an argument, it’s getting your cause noticed in the first place.

Our initial analysis suggests that hardship funding announcements for students in England during Covid usually followed rounds of both written and verbal questions from backbeckers from all parties to DfE ministers. And pressure on local authorities – over things like discretionary energy bills help – will matter too, which is why the local elections might matter more this year.

As well as trying to shore up student income, campaigning on costs is likely to matter a lot as well. Student life adds up, and many of those costs are in the gift of university managers even if they don’t realise it. You’ll want to avoid some of those ancillary areas like catering or the Sports department making their budgets add up off the backs of student pockets – and you’ll want to consider how to lobby, campaign and persuade the university to bear down on the costs of study more generally – from photocopies to the cost of text books that aren’t really required.

Above all, students are going to need hardship support more than ever before – causing it to be easier to access while avoiding the stigma and stress of application processes designed to stop people accessing help will be crucial. And as many providers are about to make multiple changes to access and participation plans, now is likely to be a good time to press the case for student financial support to rise up the agenda in those plans given it’s become less important in recent years.

And then there’s SUs. There’s a difficult paradox when it comes to SU funding. On the one hand, we know instinctively that what SUs deliver is fabulous value for money – often the SU can do something faster, better and cheaper than most university departments can do. Now is likely to be a good time to point that out.

But it’s also true that SUs don’t collaborate as much as they could, and have professionalised in ways that many European SUs might argue is unnecessary. Does every SU need its own bespoke brand for elections or freshers? Is training on EDI or risk assessment really something that everyone needs to do on their own? Are there really no opportunities to share infrastructure costs with local unions, or even the university itself? Could there be fewer full time student officers and more bursaried reps making change for students alongside their course? And could more of our advice and campaigns work be delivered peer-to-peer, where “execution by the whole” replaces at least some of the professional capacity we have internally? Thinking the fairly unthinkable is the right thing to do, even if doing the unthinkable can ultimately be avoided.

Avoiding an (essay) crisis

None of these questions are easy – all will require creativity and bravery, and will need SU leaders to consider the expectations that members and funders will have to fight as well as influence the direction of some of the pain.

They’ll also need leadership – of the sort we’ve almost forgotten is possible. Last year Guardian columnist Rafael Behr argued that the “essay crisis” strategy was how Boris Johnson deals with everything, including Brexit – in that case imagining that brinkmanship was a negotiating strategy to wring concessions out of Brussels, but in reality just a way to simplify the decision by eliminating options that needed time to develop:

He lets procrastination do the heavy lifting. He can then tell himself (and his audience) that the final outcome, while not perfect, is the best available solution. And maybe it is. But only because it is so late in the day and all the better solutions have long since expired.

As I note above, it’s the medium sized stuff that matters the most – and preparing now for a huge squeeze in coming months and years is almost certainly a much better strategy than, Boris-style, hoping that something will come along to save universities, students and SUs. I hope it does – but if not, your leadership is what a lot of students will have left.

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