Filthy Capitalists

As I write I’ve just had my appraisal, where a key piece of feedback is my tendency to use- or rather overuse- polarisation and analogies to explain myself. The trouble is, I also have one in mind that I’d like to share having just been with a students’ union that’s planning its Freshers’ week.

You may well have seen a recent article on music in venues:

“Ear-splitting music in pubs helps to fuel binge-drinking, scientists said last night. A study showed cranking up the volume made customers buy more alcohol and drink it faster. The researchers said deafening music did not just drown out conversation, encouraging people to drink more, but it also aroused the brain, speeding up drinking. The findings will add to concerns about the binge-drinking epidemic and the rise of huge town centre pubs, which are known as ‘vertical drinking dens’”

I found this fascinating- principally because it is about the only complaint I had about AMSU Conference in Strathclyde- I couldn’t hear myself think in the main venue on night one. In fact, it’s also a complaint I have always had when visiting students’ unions, especially during Freshers. The music is always very loud. That makes it hard to catch up with old friends- and impossible to meet new ones.

Of course, if turning the music up loud means students drink more- funding clubs, societies and welfare into the process, then all is well. But in Agenda 88 I argued that defining students’ interests only in accordance with what generates income can be dangerous. Trading operations in unions are (almost uniquely for charities) activities within the charitable objects of a students’ union. Their link to the mission of a union is clear- at least in theory. They are places to learn from others, socialise and network. They are hubs of social capitalism.

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. The networks built up “at University” dramatically affect students’ future ability to go about their daily lives and successfully deal with its challenges. To a considerable extent, HE is sold by ministers and Vice Chancellors not just on qualifications- but on the basis that it increases students’ social capital.

Robert Putnam, in his classic book “Bowling Alone”, identifies two types of social capital – bonding (exclusive) and bridging (inclusive).  Bonding social capital tends to be exclusive by nature: here people have one or more similar interest in common. The individuals in these groups are likely to come from similar backgrounds with equal levels of education and income. Quite often these people share common history and experiences and thus develop strong ties. That to some extent can help to explain the relative success of children from Public Schools and graduate salaries in the Russell Group- and the fascination of policy makers with getting more “working class kids” in- they will get access to “bonding” social capital.

Bridging social capital involves bringing together people across diverse social divisions, which creates effective linkages to external assets and information. Members of these groups differ in their background and ethnicity as well as levels of income and education and their social ties to each other are not as strong. Bridging social capital contributes to a broader sense of identity and reciprocity among members. When we become a part of an inclusive network, we meet people with diverse backgrounds. As we get to know them, learning about their culture, we become more tolerant towards their needs and wants. This of course is also part of the romance of Higher Education sold by ministers and the media.

And it is easy to think of a students’ union as being a hub for the acquisition of both types of social capital. Clubs and societies- democratic events- coffee shops, volunteering and ents events all can contribute to the accumulation of increased social capital.

But they only do so when the focus is on building linkages, networks, exchanges and associations of students. Across the UK, and inside students’ unions, we have witnessed a shift from more convivial and participative forms of activity to more bureaucratic and professional forms. The trouble is, when we treat students like passive “consumers” and give them “what they want” we get an increasing interest in individual services by professional providers- and a decline in association and social capital ensues. The result of 25 years of professionalising students’ unions might be better outcomes- but the unforeseen side effect is often the decline of association.

One of the striking features of the lack of attention to association is the loss of benefits to communities and individuals. There are many contributing factors- digital entertainment, off versus on sales prices, and the sheer size of courses- but across society the youth club, the public house, the scout group, the union bar have all declined in significance as a place where people meet and spend time.

Robert Putnam’s discussion of social capital provides us with a powerful rationale for our work – after all the classic working pattern for students’ unions is the group, club or organisation. These settings are central to the generation of social capital within Higher Education. And we could do much more- making it much easier to form a society, focussing activities staff on supporting spontaneous activity, and letting students run and manage their own events. I’ve said it before- school plays always sell out. 9 out of 10 Broadway Musicals close within a month.

There is, of course, one more thing we could do. We could turn that bloody music down. That does take me back to my appraisal- it probably is an oversimplification to say that loud music is in the union’s interests and turning it down is in students’ interests. Avid readers of Agenda may remember that in a previous edition of Agenda, I questioned whether students’ unions should run bars if they were only being run for profit. It provoked a response article from Lesley Dixon at Leeds, rightly highlighting the positive, values based CSR credentials of many students’ union operations. She was right- if we drop the oversimplified “paradox”, 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 4 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, excellent CSR credentials- and places to build social capital.

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 meeting spaces 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, 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 publically 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 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. Three separate national organisations? Why? Sharing management costs with other unions? Why not?

For whilst we debate these issues endlessly, 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. 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 and Social Capital 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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