More on provider spending on Students’ Unions

There's a lot of questions to ask of the data from the recent Adam Smith Institute report on students' unions.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Jim Dickinson has written a full critique of the report (which was featured in Sunday’s Telegraph) elsewhere on Wonkhe.

Here I’m just looking at the data quality and presentation. My first thought on seeing Table 1’s figures was that – despite protestations to the contrary – the ASI had used gross provider grant income figures (the amount of money a provider grants to an SU or Guild each year without taking into account the amount that said SU pays to the provider each year – premises rent, for instance) .

For reasons of time I’m just looking at a subset (83) of English HE providers here,

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So when the report looks at “block grant data excludes grants of serviced accommodation and university services and grants for clubs and societies.” it is based on figures surprisingly (R squared = 0.75 P<0.0001) similar to published figures for “gross” block grant – figures that are anecdotally inflated on a routine basis for the sake of league table positions.

A sense of proportion

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Only a handful of my sample of large English providers spends more than 1 per cent of their total annual expenditure on an SU block grant. Even before deducting funds returned to providers by SUs, we are in the “office sundries” ballpark of spending – a level where even reporting, much less the detailed auditing and apportioning of spend that the report suggests, feels like excess bureaucracy.

Sure – people may be upset that young people with an interest in representational politics may also have an interest in social justice, but at these levels of spending disaggregating this from spending on stuff like student representation, student support, sports, societies feels like a lot of effort for very little benefit.

Pounds per student

It’s a ridiculous measure of value – many students will sail through higher education thinking of the SU as a place to get a coffee and lunch, while others will draw on academic or personal support that makes a huge difference to their lives. Some will become energised by campaigns about service provision or departmental closures, others by anti-war or anti-fascist action. A “pounds per student” measure elides this richness into a purely transactional gloss which has almost been designed to get cheap headlines.

But here it is based, shakily, on the data extracted from provider accounts on gross (not taking into account payments from the SU to the provider) terms.

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It’s a very Adam Smith Institute metric – so to end this piece on a lighter note I thought I’d look at the the value of the Adam Smith Institute per contributor or subscriber. However, I’ve not been able to find any information on the funding of the ASI – I wonder if readers can help me?


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