Whose space is it anyway?

A few years back in Agenda I questioned whether students’ unions should run bars. It provoked a “response article” from Lesley Dixon at Leeds in Agenda XX, rightly highlighting the positive, values based CSR credentials of many students’ union operations. She was right- students’ union commercial spaces and operations matter; not just because they can fund other activity, but because they are valuable for all sorts of other reasons.

But some years on I have been caused to reflect on the attrition of students’ union commercial operations. For if the national picture is a barrelage reduction of 50% in ten years and thus locally many bars closing, franchised out or converted to more anodyne university space, we must have collectively lost an awful lot of that which we value- safe spaces, good student jobs, and excellent CSR credentials.

On a recent tour around Students’ Unions a number of senior managers highlighted 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) this makes 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 operations? 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 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…and that the union could still prove high demand and usage (albeit without high profit) then it would deserve to be subsidised and funded.

That was new to him and new to the union. We have had many years of only considering commercial operations on commercial terms, with CSR bolted on by the big and grabbed for by the desperate and tiny.

Some unions are of course ahead of the commercial decline curve- making tough decisions, surrendering space and doing so before the whole edifice collapses. Some are on the hop- making tough, snap decisions the likes and manner of which would be condemned if the University tried the same trick on a common room. Others, head in the sand, use the CSR/Values argument to prop up social clubs for sabbs and bar staff.

But as the future marches on, when barrelage is lower, the beer deal is good but not as good, and the rest of the world had even further consolidated, vertically integrated and horizontally integrated around us, my view is that we’ll all (even the ones ahead of the curve) need to consider so called commercial operations in a new way- non commercially.

This can never be used as an excuse to prop up failing and underused commercial spaces. But what we have a duty to do is preserve the idea of safe, used, shared communal spaces for students. They may well need some level of subsidised catering or bars to thrive and survive- but that should form a part of wider, subsidisable vision for student spaces on campuses.

The broadcasters are of use to look at here. The BBC operates small commercial arms but gets significant public subsidy on the basis that it demonstrates public value. Why can’t our students’ union spaces- safe, socially networked and face to face places for learners to meet and exchange command that kind of subsidy? Why are students only allowed to share learn and network together online now?

Channel 4 is supposed to innovate and do things that commercial rivals can’t- and gets certain benefits for doing so. But witness its inept handling of this specially allocated opportunity and its rampant and fairly desperate pursuit of profit and we see an organisation that is supposed to publicly serve on the verge of being sold off by Gordon. We need to be more BBC and less Channel 4 in the future.

What the BBC and other mixed economy organisations recognise is that some things that are on the face of it commercial deserve and command public subsidy. In other words- CSR and values policies have a price- either in subsidy or reduced expectations on profitability. In students’ unions, by and large, we still make the simplistic mistake of defining some activity as “commercial” and some as “non commercial”, always placing spaces which have bars, catering or social events into the former.

Some of this is about a new positive non commercial vision for commercial space for students- a vision that recognises that bits of bars and catering are essential for students to experience education together. But some of it is about slaying the so called sacred cows. Merger with TUCO? Why not? Sharing management costs with other unions? Why not?

For whilst we preserve these and other sacred cows for our own cottage industry bars and catering industries, we are losing bars, clubs, cafes and spaces forever to private operators, university departments or simply “the ether”

Look at the USA and imagine the alternative. Shared, multi functional social spaces. Healthy living. Safe. Often student run, controlled and serving. Organisational renewal in students’ unions is about a new vision for well run, student focussed, involving, diverse activities and services; deservedly subsidised organisations. Spaces- and some level of catering in them- count too.

Virtual spaces are vital and ever more important to unions and their members. But as our users migrate to myspace we should remind Universities that CSR not only has a price- but a purpose too. And in that way those spaces that are currently theirspace should remain so.

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