In 2010 Bangor Students’ Union was at a crossroads, years of commercial underperformance had left the Union’s trading company struggling to pay the interest on the lease for the land that the SU nightclub had been built on in the commercial boom years of the 1990s. SU sabbaticals were challenging themselves and their staff to work harder and more efficiently in order to better manage organisational debt, whilst bar refurbishments and new food offers were not delivering any bottom-line respite.
The SU was trapped in a month-to-month solvency spiral which was dominating both the thinking of the Board and the Union’s interactions with University management. The SU was constantly asking for more assistance and discussions were focused on money and crisis management, which subsequently affected the University’s opinion of, and confidence in, the Students’ Union.
The situation changed when the University embarked on an ambitious project – to create a new multi-purpose arts and innovation centre on the centre of campus, on the site of the old Students’ Union building. The offer made to the SU was for the University to purchase the land and provide SU space in the new centre, this came with a caveat however – part of the purchase included the transfer of the Union’s trading company to the University and would leave the SU without any commercial services.
Although the commercial services were failing from a financial point of view, the student bar, nightclub and café were very much part of the culture in Bangor, and many students were loath to see them disappear. It was a brave officer team that took the decision to draw a line under the financial problems and sign up to the University’s proposal, and the first year after the old SU building was demolished was dominated by students complaining and reminiscing about services and facilities lost.
Released from the pressure of commercial performance, the Students’ Union began to change. Physically it moved from a large building in the centre of campus to an old B&B on the outskirts of the University and yet the relationship between the SU and its members started to develop from a traditional, transactional, one to one more focused on involvement and empowerment.
The SU embarked on a wide-ranging review of its services and its interaction with members – consultation was broad, through online questionnaires and open meetings, and also focused, identifying and reaching out to groups who hadn’t been traditionally involved. Six months later a draft strategic plan was presented to at the SU AGM, re-focusing the organisation on evidence-based campaigning, student-led representation, and as the natural home of student opportunities.
The adoption of the new strategy precipitated a change in staffing structure, which sought to increase resource in student facing areas – particularly with the creation of the new academic representation unit. One of the main drivers of the staff review was to identify and reduce areas of duplication between the SU and the University – it was clear that students were confused where to go for support in some areas, particularly with regard to Student Services and the SU’s Advice Centre. Conversations with the institution about duplication, service quality and efficiency were well received and built confidence in the approach that the SU was taking – the result was that the SU stepped away from offering a wide-ranging advice and guidance centre, to focus on the creation of an academic specific service. This both removed the confusion between the SU and Student Services and also improved the relationship between the University-run services and the SU, as the ‘competition’ element had been removed it became easier for the officers to work with University services on campaigns and projects, particularly in areas such as housing and student health & well-being.
Even five years ago it would have been unthinkable that Bangor SU would not have commercial services or an advice centre, but both of these had become symptomatic of a union in decline – services in which the staff who ran them were diligent and worked hard, but these were services that were out of date and out of step with the needs of the modern student. There is absolutely an argument to suggest that these could have been turned around and reinvented with the appropriate amount of energy and the right ideas, but it was felt that organisational energy and focus should be poured into core priority areas – that the conditions were right to change the dialogue about the Students’ Union once and for all.
Three years later and the SU is unrecognisable, the Academic Representation Unit has presided over a huge change in course reps, and now has students directly contributing to module and school re-validations, school and college level NSS action plans, whilst also delivering an annual student statement which has recently been picked up by the QAA nationally as best practice. Participation has grown with the investment in student volunteering, clubs and societies and the University adopted the SU suggestion that all student groups were made free at the point of entry – an investment to the tune of half a million pounds annually. Capacity has been created within the SU to pursue sustainability projects, develop an institution-wide zero tolerance to harassment agenda, and build links between students and the local community.
Discussions with the University are no longer dominated by resource allocation, or financial performance, but are focused on strategic goals and project development. Whilst there is still a lot to do to continue to raise levels of engagement and improve the methods and range of the union’s communication with its members, there is far more clarity amongst all stakeholders about the purpose of the union and why we exist. During this period, Bangor University has improved its position in the NSS and Times Higher Student Experience Survey – with the SU scores similarly improving.
At the time, the decision was reluctantly taken to hand over the union’s commercial services, but as time has passed there is now a reluctance to start these up again. This does mean that the organisation’s primary risk is that the funding primarily comes from one source but it has also ensured that there is real synergy between the union & the institution in terms of strategy and partnership.
There was a real concern, back in 2010, that without a café and a bar the SU would lack identity and be incidental and obsolete. In fact, the removal of the commercial services provided the SU with an opportunity to better define and promote itself, change the basis of the relationship with the institution, and generate increased student involvement & opportunities.
From the perspective of 2014, this looks like the best decision that the SU ever made.