Tuesday, March 27, 2007

NUS budget woes

I've just discovered the NUS budget for the 2007-8 period. To summarise: the deficit this coming year is estimated at £675,067 which admittedly is an improvement over the current year's deficit forecast of £1,120,503, but still pretty shocking.

I'm going to tackle four issues - NUS Extra, National Executive Committee (NEC) salaries and budgets, student union affiliation fees, and the annual conference.

The disaster that is the NUS Extra card was supposed to counteract the budget deficit, but unsurprisingly students proved to be largely unwilling to pay for a student discount card (especially one which is only valid for a year). The full contribution of NUS Extra to the annual budget is detailed in Appendix C, but I will mention the juicy bits here. The forecast profit made this year is £1,127,500, next year's is £1,578,700. This doesn't sound that bad until you realise that it costs £10 (of which the NUS gets £5), meaning only around 226 thousand students have bought the card, out of 5 million students - under 5%.

In addition to the unamusingly small amount of sales the card, got, it also turns out that around £400,000 was spent on "communications" which I assume means "advertising", and £300,000 was spent on "admin" - ideas on what that is a euphemism for are welcome. In addition the "cost of sales" of NUS Extra was £506,600. Again, I'm not really sure what that means - if it is the amount given to the constituent students' unions then it is a) wrong because the deal is supposedly half to the NUS, half to the students' union; and b) laughable because I have assumed that the profit is just what the NUS gets - so this figure would indicate that instead under 2.5% of students bought an NUS Extra card.

Summing up the figures for the 2006-7 period, it turns out NUS Extra and the other card, NUS Associate (the equivalent card for associated students' unions - not fully affiliated to NUS) actually made a loss this year of £18,444. Next year is not quite so bleak! The estimated profit is £184,694.

In addition to the NUS Extra card fiasco, it also turns out the NEC are forecast to have spent around £218,000 this year. The exact salaries the National President, the National Secretary and the three Vice Presidents (Education, Further Education, and Welfare) get is not given but next year will probably be around the £25,000 mark. This means around £3,500 is available for the various other positions with a portfolio and the Block of 12. On a £10 per hour salary, that is around 44 days' work, eight hours a day. Apparently, Block of 12 members are supposed to work around 10 days a month for £200 (around half the minimum wage, assuming an eight hour day).

One of the reasons why NUS debt is so bad is due to its rather curious decision to modify the maximum and minimum affiliation rates. The rate was cut for the largest universities, meaning universities like Manchester now pay around £40,000 (figure according to Rob Owen, General Secretary of the University of Manchester Students' Union), whereas last year it was £50,000. This is good for large unions from a local perspective - the money is freed up to spend on events and societies However, the minimum cap has actually been raised, penalising the smaller unions which really have no choice in affiliating to NUS if they want to have any influence. Some of the larger unions have clearly told the NEC that they are considering disaffiliating if there are not cuts in affiliation fees. The NEC has shamefully folded under the pressure and resorted to squeezing the smaller unions even more out of their limited funds.

This situation is not, however, solely due to bullying students' unions, but more so due to the failure of the NUS, especially the NEC, to show how it is relevant to students. Why would a students' union pay £40,000 annually to an organisation when the average student will only see the continued failure of the NUS to scrap tuition fees? It is all very well that Labour Students (in particular) has a policy against tuition fees - but where has it got them? The government is discussing raising the cap, not lowering it. The NUS failed to support students during the lecturers' strike, to the chagrin of several affiliated students' unions. I am fully supportive of the NUS lobbying for increased salaries for university lecturers (full disclaimer: my father is a university lecturer) but it is irresponsible to the extreme to do this at the expense of students. The NUS needs to start lobbying on behalf students instead of other interest groups.

Back to the budget. The annual NUS conference, happening at the moment, is forecast to cost £241,563 this year, with next year estimated at £217,993. Part of me is wondering whether it would be better to scrap NUS conference and instead have an annual meeting of students' union presidents with the NEC. This would cost significantly less, and would be more democratic.

At the face of it, cutting the number of delegates sounds very undemocratic. However, NUS delegates need significantly less votes to get elected than the president. There is more competition for the position of president than NUS delegate, meaning the quality of an elected candidate is more likely to be higher. Voter fatigue due to large numbers of candidates is lower. In every aspect the president would have a greater electoral mandate than an NUS delegate. Most importantly, the president would face much higher pressure to vote on behalf of the students' union rather than on behalf of a faction, removing one of the greatest problems with the NUS.

The NUS is in bad shape. It is throwing away thousands of pounds on administration and bureaucracy which it cannot afford to spend when it has failed to stand up to large students' unions. The battle to raise the maximum affiliation fees is significantly harder to win than the battle to fight lowering it. NUS Extra has been a disaster - despite the significant budget on publicity, the campaign to demonstrate why students should pay for a discount card has largely failed (probably due to students not being dumb enough to fall for having to pay for something previously available to them for free). Its conferences are dominated by factional politics.

I am looking forward to hearing how NUS conference this year is going. The case for reform is strong, and if this conference continues to be dominated by factional politics and non-student issues then NUS will continue its slide into irrelevance that much faster.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Just as a general note, thinking more about the conference of Presidents, it's probably a bad idea. There are other solutions to the problem of low participation in elections, the key one being improving communication about why people should vote.