Our sector: Should unions run bars?

It’s now a year since I took over as Chief Exec at UEA, so I thought I’d do my bit for ChangeSU and write something about what it’s been like moving into the CEO role in a Students’ Union.

Before I came to Norwich I worked for NUS for 11 years (and worked for an NUS Area Organisation before that), and so the move has prompted a good number of colleagues to ask what moving over “to the other side” has been like. Aside from remarking each time that it’s not much different (we’re all on the same side, stupid), I have been repeatedly reminded of my finger wagging, hectoring youth. (You say ‘Hecktoring’, I say ‘Union Development work’).

From those colleagues who’ve been around a while, the most oft repeated reminiscence surrounds an article I penned for the now merged-into-NUS Association of Managers in Students’ Unions’ magazine, ‘Agenda’, back in 2003 (think ChangeSU before the internet took off). The article was called “Should Unions still run bars”, and so the conversation opener usually goes, “So Jim, now you’re at UEA, do you still think unions shouldn’t run bars?”

At the time the student movement’s mafia were sent to swoop down and disabuse me of my opinions, but what’s remarkable now looking back is not how naive my earlier thoughts on SU commercial strategy were, but quite how correct I was about the issues and prescient about the decline that would come if we failed to change.

Of course, I never actually suggested that unions shouldn’t run bars (people as ever create the enemies they want to attack) but what I did question was whether unions could continue to run bars in the way that they were. I applied two tests, lifted from an early version of NUS’ “Lead and Change” course:

The “administrative” test looks at how well managed and run things are. I argued that long term, the administrative rationality would fail the notion of highly profitable bars and ents in students’ unions because we invest in other places, we do things that others wouldn’t, we only trade for part of the year, and we don’t have the large economies of scale that capitalism offer and democracy represents inefficiency in our structures.

The “representative/political” test looks at the extent to which students’ interests are being served (and how you determine that). I argued that long term, the representative rationality fails the notion of bars and ents in students’ unions because the vast majority of the members of students’ unions do not use these facilities, users will continue to decline in numbers and continue to enjoy the often better facilities of our competitors. Crucially, I argued that as long as we were judging them as “Commercial Services” was as long as we would be comparing unfavourably to a high street not primarily interested in safety, welfare or minority tastes, events and interests.

Of particular interest to me at the time was the idea that there were “membership” services (you know, those ones for the student membership) and “commercial services” (you know, those ones that fund the membership services). This classic SU split emerged for two reasons- the rise of the non commercial portfolio in the early 90s (and subsequent need to name “it” and its senior managers) and the campaign from NUSSL and others to drive professionalism in alcohol retailing. The message was clear- many SU operations resembled amateur hour at the O.K. Corral, and with a commercially aggressive high street at our heels there was no room for excuses like “yes but we’re student led” covering poor management and leadership.

So where are we now? Students’ Unions as a major alcohol retail sector is a forgotten age, and in losing all of that we’ve lost what some now realise we really value- safe spaces, good student jobs, excellent CSR credentials and places to build social capital.

On a tour I did around Students’ Unions in the late 00s, my diary notes a number of senior managers highlighting to me the impossible position that many university senior managers were putting them in. Yes- they valued the Best Bar
None award, the exemplary security policy and the zero tolerance on drugs. Yes, it was good that the union engaged with the community and police positively to minimise problems. But loss making or near to loss making? Shut it down.

On one level, as a taxpayer (or even as a fee paying student) that argument made perfect sense. Why should either of them subsidise loss making (or near to loss making where the real management costs are not properly recharged) commercial operation when things like student representation could be funded?

But the experience of one union caught my eye and caused me to question some of those assumptions. The argument for this commercial manager was simple. Implementing safe space, drug free, caringly secured, good waged and student only meeting spaces for 24 weeks a year was fine but didn’t make them any money. It was an example where this manager rightly saw those sorts of vales based policies as limiters of activity, rather than drivers. Values in commercial settings are often seen as limiters when the realities cause you to choose between profitability and the kind of practices that the values suggest.

My argument was that if the University wanted safe space, drug free, caringly secured, good waged and student only for 24 weeks a year…and that the union could still prove high demand and usage (albeit without high profit) then it would deserve to be subsidised and funded- or at least make much less money. The charity commission agree (see “primary purpose trading”) and those wishing to tackle lad culture that wished that there were still SU alternatives to the mini Faliraki that’s popped up in every University town’s high street would also agree.


On that visit, the idea that bars, coffee shops and clubs might not have to be so commercial was new to the manager and new to the union… and it would appear it remained an alien concept when I finally arrived at UEA some years later. The point I was making both in the early and late 00s was that we’d had had many years of only considering commercial operations in commercial terms, with CSR bolted on by the big and grabbed for by the desperate and tiny. What if we considered “commercial” activity either explicitly as a membership service, or better still a social enterprise- not as an excuse to prop up failing and underused commercial spaces, but where the purpose and values of the SU drive rather than limit activity.

So back at UEA we’ve set about redefining our creaking “commercial services” as social enterprises. This isn’t necessarily new ground for many colleagues, but it certainly has resembled rocket science here in Norwich. Our newly restructured social enterprise team now isn’t just supposed to run a lean shop and fund the welfare in the process- they have a bunch of balanced, charitable objectives and targets to meet within the commercial services:

Students : Transforming- Enterprise
• We will be run efficiently, to a high standard, and generate a healthy surplus that can be ploughed back into the union
• We will employ a high number of student staff who are paid well and gain valuable experience at all levels of our business
• We will be an exemplar in relation to safety, security, responsible retailing and ethical practices and purchasing
• In our programming and product ranges we will seek to meet the widest possible range of students’ needs, we will focus on minorities as well as majorities, and we will provide a platform for student talent to shine

Isn’t this just Corporate Social Responsibility- and haven’t we been doing this for years? Sort of. Business studies students would recognise several levels to this:

  • Ape the competitors– here at Level 1, the trick is to run your business as efficiently as possible. I argued back in the early 00s that there problem with executing a “Level 1” strategy is that the competitition have greater economies of scale and generally have fewer social responsibilities. Here, values are restrictors of activity, stopping you doing things (ie a socially responsible pricing strategy stops you discounting to get punters in)
  • Be responsible– here at Level 2, or “Corporate Social Responsibility” as it’s more commonly known, you do things differently on the basis that they will, in fact, enable more loyalty/market share/reduced costs. The “magic” of CSR is that there is a business case for it- it doesn’t disrupt the basics of profit generation, it augments them. The problem with Level 2 is that not all morally good things actually do enable more loyalty/market share/reduced costs- and many claims turn out to be bunkum (here a socially responsible pricing strategy is good as good punters will want a good quality drink/environment)
  • Let the social goals drive– at Level 3 the profit/efficiency isn’t the driver any more, and in fact is either just part of the mix, or a bonus. Indeed if there are losses this may well be legitimate charitable expenditure. The challenge here is to not let up on efficiency and to properly measure social bang for social buck (here the a socially responsible pricing strategy is a good goal in and of itself)

It is of course early days, and the extent to which I can persuade the University that the nightclub in the middle of their campus might not make any money will be an interesting conversation. But on reflection, given the number of opportunities for employment we offer; the way in which we might be able to lead the pack and set the example in the area on responsible retailing; the chance to put on events that no-one else would, and the chance to influence the pernicious, misogynistic spread of lad culture around HE… my answer remains that unions should run bars. Just not necessarily as primarily commercial services.

Posted in Opinion, Our sector.

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