For the students, by the students?

Chris Sibbald

Two announcements of note caught my attention this month. Firstly, the news that Glasgow University Union (GUU) is receiving £7m for a new extension development. Secondly, this newspaper’s revelation that the Queen Margaret Union (QMU) has been, and continues to be, experiencing poor financial results.

The differing trajectories of the two student unions poses a series of interesting questions, most prominently: how do the student bodies strategically operate? To what extent do they alter their business models to accommodate changing climates?

In 2010, GUU followed the lead of the SRC in preparing, distributing and enacting a strategic plan for development over a four-year period to 2014.  This plan was written by the student board of management, following research amongst its members, with two key objectives: first, to give a breakdown of the previous five years and to demonstrate GUU’s financial recovery; second, to outline ten key strategic aims (with accompanying operational objectives) for the following years. At a snapshot, these aims encompassed: debating; increasing diversity of members; and improvement in the provision of catering facilities.

By and large, the SRC’s strategic plan represents a similar model. It highlights strengths and weaknesses in their provision of service; an analysis of the previous strategic plan’s goals; and then sets objectives for the following period up until 2015.

These plans are important for a number of reasons. Firstly, they demonstrate a degree of accountability to the students and the paymasters – the University Court. They are a foundation of expectation for the future and provide the justification for continued investment. Second, given student political careers tend to be relatively short (I believe they average 2-3 years), strategic plans support continuity of management practice. Furthermore they instil ownership in the student leaders with the goals they are trying to achieve.

The success of implementing a strategic plan has been proved by GUU since 2010. Their business model and provision of service has improved exponentially and their members are aware of the services available. As an example, GUU has posted several years of consecutive profits and has a waiting list on the majority of its rooms for hire by clubs and societies – direct results of their strategic objectives.

However, from the plans of GUU and SRC, I recognise an important difference in their organisational structures, which is worth considering in light of the QMU’s problems.

It is well known on the grapevine that the GUU board of management has complete control of the strategic operations of GUU. For many this is an opportunity for students to run wild, but for those intrinsically involved, it engenders a sense of responsibility among the majority of GUU board members. Moreover, when articulating GUU’s future, the board members – the students – have complete ownership of ideas and future expectations.

Contrast this model to the SRC where the opposite is evident; the students do not have enough power. If the grapevine tells us of GUU’s management structure, then it most definitely informs us that Bob Hay, Permanent Secretary of the SRC, has significant influence. Having only sat on the SRC council for one year, my knowledge of its day-to-day running is less clear than some, but from what I understand, the Permanent Secretary must sign-off on all financial decisions and he is a key author of  the organization’s strategic plan (one only need look at the ‘credits’ section).

For many, the reason the SRC struggles to relate to the breadth of students results from its management structure. Can we have a true representative president if he or she must first speak to the ‘adult’?

Therefore it is reasonable to ask of the QMU, when they are analysing their position, to what extent ‘the staff’ will navigate their future? It is campus legend that the QMU’s General Manager, Mr. McConachie (who has served QMU for a number of years and with distinction) is the heartbeat of the Union. However, from an outside perspective, it is this writer’s belief that to solve the woes of a students’ union, the students need to be the architects.  The students must be more than just the face of the Union.

Indeed, this perception extends across campus. GUSA should have a strategic plan whereby they outline their responsibilities and ambitions for the future. Many people remember the famous GUSA election of 2009 where the two presidential candidates – Ruth Humphreys and Stephen Flavahan – campaigned vigorously on the issue of gym membership prices, only for Mr. Flavahan to be informed, after he won the presidential race, that gym membership was outwith his jurisdiction. This raises the question: what is the line of separation between GUSA and SRS (Sports and Recreation Services)? Where does the money go?

GUSA receives roughly £200k in block grant funding from the University, as well as a significant portion of income from Freshers’ Week pass sales, and yet it is unclear to the average student how that money is spent. Given his trim physique, I very much doubt Mr. Millar is spending GUSA’s funds on lavish lunches, but the money must be accounted for. Is it spent on entry fees to competitions? Is it spent on club kit? Let’s be clear, I’m no Daley Thomson, but it is reasonable for an organisation of GUSA’s size – and given the wealth of money they receive – to ask exactly how they spend their grant and why it is important that they do so.

In an age where every pound is being monitored and clawed back by the Director of Finance, Bob Fraser, it is worth the students themselves asking if every pound allocated contributes to our student experience. It is my belief that the student organisations on campus are inherent to the University’s richness of spirit and diversity, but that doesn’t exclude them from answering their own question of value. As we have seen with the QMU this month, survival comes first, but investment? Well, you’re going to have to tell us why.