In interviews with Nam Ranpuria, GUU president, and Ruaraidh Campbell, QMU president, the presidents discussed the future of the student union and the difficulties of surviving Covid.
The Glasgow Guardian sat down with Nam Ranpuria, Glasgow University Union (GUU) president, and Ruaraidh Campbell, Queen Margaret Union (QMU) president, to discuss the future of the student union and the difficulties of surviving Covid. Both of the student unions mainly earn their income from their bars, cafes, venue hirings, gigs, and events; all of which the Covid-19 pandemic has put a stop to. Glasgow is currently in Tier 3 of the government's new guidance system. The guidance currently states that no sale of alcohol is permitted indoor or outdoor in the hospitality industry, food can be served before 6pm, with no events (including gigs) to be permitted. The unions are certainly not able to operate as usual under these restrictions.
Prior to the pandemic, the QMU had struggled financially. In the past five years, the Union has lost £1m. Four years ago, the QMU's honorary secretary at the time, Terry Murphy, worried that the union would close in three years if they continued at the same rate of losses. In a change of pace, last year, the QMU managed to make a profit of £73,000.
Down the hill there's a different financial story. GUU has been profitable over the last five years, giving them a bit more to weather the storm, but also have more staff and operating expenses than the QMU. Ranpuria stated: "Through prudent financial management, and increasing popularity on campus, GUU has built a cash reserve prior to the pandemic hitting in March. These reserves were intended for a fairly significant investment in the building and services in 2021, which unfortunately will no longer be possible."
While neither institution was willing to disclose how much they are losing, both noted that they won't break even as their operating expenses will surpass anything they could reasonably earn.
The unions had originally planned on trying to increase their block grant from the University before the pandemic, but the University cancelled the meeting and provided the same funding as last year, despite knowing there would be a lack of income for the unions for some time. While the University did not increase its grants, both presidents noted the University was finding ways to help out. Funding was provided to have the venues open for Freshers' Week in a safe manner, by funding the outfitting of signage, barriers, and sanitising stations.
Employment has also been a touchy issue with unions. GUU was hit out at by trade union Unite Hospitality, following hospitality staff's contracts being ended in June, rather than taking advantage of the furlough scheme to maintain a steady income for their workers.
QMU made headlines at the beginning of the pandemic as they almost had 31 redundancies, which was saved by the government with the first furlough scheme. The QMU must now manage paying staff fair wages as well as maintaining as many staff as possible, as Campbell, explains: "In a normal year we would have provided employment opportunities for students in our cafe, restaurant, and bars, but so far do not have the level of business to require additional staff. However, we have worked hard to keep the majority of full-time jobs at the Union and ensure staff are paid fairly."
Campbell also noted that they have elected not to take part in the new furlough scheme as they want to be able to top up their staff's wages.
Campbell added that the union has taken advantage of other schemes saying: "We were also lucky to secure Venue Relief Funding via Creative Scotland, which will help cover costs of our venue and event staff and allow us to stream two major gig events between now and the end of March. We have also applied for funding through Glasgow Council available as a result of the central belt lockdown announced at the beginning of October. Whilst this support has been invaluable we really need more sustainable support for arts and venues as they have done for other industries."
There has been some criticism of the government's restrictions in the selection of certain sectors and the tier system in different locations. Campbell explains: "A tough month of lockdown would do far less damage than the slow death the government has prescribed for the hospitality industry, through debilitating and sometimes frankly bizarre measures. It feels like they are avoiding taking responsibility for the industry failing, by keeping them open in an unsustainable way."
The unions have done their best to cope with the pandemic looking for ways to still stay relevant in student's lives, as Ranpuria notes: "We cannot safely replicate the same experiences students would have physically in the Union. Thus, we have made efforts to transform this engagement online, from quizzes, G-YOU magazine, Hive livestreams to online debates training and competitions...We are working incredibly hard to make sure the union is still there, a part of the members lives, following Covid-19."
In the long term, there is some concern that the effects of the pandemic may linger, as Campbell describes: "Students, especially Freshers haven't been able to get to know us, what we do, and build a relationship with the union this year and so our engagement with students has been reduced significantly. Even if everything was lifted tomorrow, we'd still have to keep our belts very tight financially. I also worry about how people's attitudes towards social gatherings, concerts and nightlife culture will change. I wouldn't blame people for being hesitant or cautious."
Ranpuria noted one way students can help: "All a student can do to help the union is to be a member, come to the union when we are open, use our services as they become available, and engage with our content online as much as possible until we can open our doors."