A £7m development? Now is the time to protect the unions.

Chris Sibbald

Confirmation of the University’s investment in Glasgow University Union (GUU) was welcome news to this writer: partly because of my affinity with the aforementioned institution as ex-President; but more importantly, because it signalled a tangible investment in student services.

In my time at University (since 2008) the Senior Management Group (SMG) have mastered the art of spending significant sums of money. Rather, they have become masters at spending money where the results are not obvious. Ever heard of MyCampus? Do you like that you are now a member of a College rather than a Faculty? No, I can’t tell the difference either.

Therefore, with that in mind, the thought of investing £7m – half the sum it cost to introduce MyCampus – in one of the student unions is a pleasing thought. But it leads to a much bigger question: what are the long-term intentions of the University, with regards to the student bodies?

In 2005, the University severed the block grant funding of the two student unions by 50%, reducing their annual subsidy from £300k to £150k. At the time, it was said that the Unions needed to become more efficient and reduce their financial profligacy. To an extent, I am inclined to agree. Assuming both Unions are popular and attract students to buy their services, there is no reason why they cannot sustain themselves. After all, their raison d’etre is to break even and rely on the generosity of involved students to run events and to do so free of charge.

However, in 2005, whilst the Unions watched their bank balances grow substantially smaller, the Students Representative Council (SRC) saw theirs increase five-fold. In 2011, their annual block grant from the University totalled £478k, whilst they maintained savings of over £380k.  If you ever question the level of subsidy the SRC receives, expect to hear a generic response of, “it all goes on students”. Let us be reminded then that £66k of the £478k is spent on paying for four student sabbatical officers. At the same time, let me remind you that David Lockhart, President of GUU, works for an annual salary of £0 and performs his role in conjunction with studying for a masters degree.

I do not intend to marginalise the hard work of the sabbatical officers at the SRC, nor am I looking to inflate the head of Mr. Lockhart. Moreover, I wish to demonstrate the importance of the four-student-body structure at the University of Glasgow. The set-up on Gilmorehill is unique in its diversity and its organisation. It results in specialised services being delivered by students to a degree of excellence, not found at any other higher education institution across the United Kingdom.

The longevity of the two unions, the sports association and the SRC is a result of their success and their significance in the lives of students and graduates. However, I am willing to wager that in twenty years, no graduate is going to reminisce about University and think of “that great game of badminton”, “the excellent mini-bus service” or how pretty University looked with the addition of the SRC’s shiny new door.

In my view, the greater force on people’s memories of this University will be the time spent within Glasgow University Union and the Queen Margaret Union.  The best time at University was the after-class drink in the Beer Bar/Jim’s Bar or the post-sports games social. The most memorable occasions will be Daft Friday to some and Christmas Cheesy Pop to others. These are the moments where we socialise; these are the places where we make friends.

This University talks incessantly about the “student experience” and the ‘National Student Survey’ and quite rightly, as both are facilitators to attracting more students to the University. However, the University would be well reminded to remember that “cheap-photocopying” and “student focus-groups” are not the entirety of said “experience”. The SRC does a lot of good, but it is also the institution that the majority of students cannot relate to, tell you what it does and after last year’s experience, can on occasion do anything but “represent”.

This University has a great history. It has character and it has soul. Students affiliate themselves to one of the Unions out of pride, not animosity. Glasgow University is described as a ‘political university’ because it is so. People care about their institutions and what they represent. The demise of the Hetherington Research Club is still fresh in the memory of many students and the new postgraduate bar will not suffice. Why? Because it isn’t in the old house on University Gardens: it doesn’t have that character, it doesn’t have that soul.

If troubles lie ahead for either of the two university unions, then it is our duty – whether we are students or graduates – to stand up and fight for their continued individual existence. It was the right decision for the University to save GUU in 2007 and it is right decision to invest money into GUU now. Equally, if the QMU enters trouble, they should be supported too and the first to defend them will be the GUU.

The identity of the unions is what makes this University great. Their tradition instills strength; and as we have seen from ‘The Hive’, the will of the students will eventually persevere.  Let us never forget of the places we will come to remember.