Fact checked: one semester of Students’ Union

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Illustration: Michael Schofield

By Rob Wells and Shane Croucher

The current Students’ Union team have been in office for about five months now. They seem to be making some effort, but it has been offset by multiple failures.

The Linc think that it’s important to see what kind of progress, if any, is being made. After all, the SU was given nearly £350,000 by the university this year, and the six full-time officers get paid about £19,000 a year. This money comes from students’ fees.

The SU also claim to be representing the students at the University of Lincoln, and their decisions are made in students’ names, though just 13% of eligible students voted in the elections in March.

Meanwhile, the SU don’t appreciate it when people point out their failures. An attempt was made recently to severely restrict The Linc’s ability to get answers from the Students’ Union. Thanks to our readers, it was blocked.

Abdul Alim Bachani may have been the face of this attempt, claiming The Linc take up too much of the SU’s time, but there seems to have been someone else behind it too. In an interview with Josh Jackson of Siren FM, Chris Charnley, the SU’s president, agreed with Bachani’s position and advised that The Linc should “probably just back off a little bit”.

Charnley said that by looking at The Linc’s reports, it would be “quite apparent what officers spend their time on”. There were ten articles about the SU from the start of August until the time the move to constrain The Linc was unveiled.

Without inside knowledge from the The Linc or the SU, it would be very difficult to gauge the amount of contact.

Conveniently, the Thursday before November 17th’s All Student Meeting, when the move was put to a vote, the SU published their own “newspaper”, The Agenda.

Unable to secure the uncritical coverage they’d like in the campus’s most-read outlet, thousands of copies were printed, at a cost estimated to be close to £1,000. Again, over 80% of the SU’s funding is provided by the university.

In The Agenda, the SU make several highly dubious claims and try to take credit for successes they had little influence over.
Propaganda should have no place at university, where people come to seek knowledge, not ignorance. In this issue of The Linc we have taken some of the most important issues, and claims of, the Students’ Union, and checked to see if they stand up.

Illustration: Michael Schofield
Illustration: Michael Schofield

At the Student Council before the All Student Meeting on November 17th, Chris Charnley, the SU’s president, and Dan Derricott, a part-time officer, unveiled The Agenda.

The SU felt the need to print a newspaper to “tell students what [they’ve] been up to” since the start of the semester.

But whether these are actually the SU’s achievements, or those of others, is highly suspect. It seems that they often overstate the influence they have on decisions taken around the university.

One recent example of the SU attempting to take credit for someone else’s idea is the “Come dine with Vito” scheme involving Vito Cataffo, who owns Gino’s and Zucchinis in Lincoln. Emma Devine, the SU’s vice-president for communications, says this “is a new SU initiative”.

By that logic it is also an initiative from The Linc as we gave Vito the SU’s contact details after our interview in September.
The Agenda contains claims of similar veracity, such as listing the university shop’s move as a “bullet point success”. The shop is moving into the former Opportunities@Lincoln office on the ground floor of the main building. That service has now moved into its own building.

With the shop gone, this also gives the university more options when they redevelop the ground floor of the library. It’s doubtful the SU has enough influence to insist on a new building so that the shop could be moved.

The 24-hour opening of the library is also listed, which the SU refer to as “exclusive”, in italicised, red, capital letters. It seems as if they are trying to claim that they are solely responsible for achieving this.

Ian Snowley, director of the library, told The Linc that the decision to do this comes partly from last year’s trial. He says the SU will be involved with picking the second set of dates, so while they had a hand in this, claiming it as their own achievement is a distortion.

The rest of their “achievements” consist of top-down measures, such as requiring more student reps, and PR-speak, such as putting the Student Council “right at the heart of the Student Experience”.
“The Student Opinion” page is also undermined by including staff members, and some students report being asked specifically for positive comments.

Accountability at the Students’ Union is in an interesting situation. Chris Charnley, the Union’s president, recently claimed: “The Union is in no form accountable to members of the press. As students yes, but as members of the press you hold no right to hold the Union to account.”

Whilst they declare themselves to be transparent and open, they have full-time, unelected staff. These staff are unaccountable to students, and their salaries do not appear on the Students’ Union accounts.

The amount of unelected employees will soon increase, with the hiring of a press officer for the next academic year.

We’ve also been analysing the SU’s accounts for the team’s first three months in office.

There are some large forecasting errors, with one misjudgement resulting in just over 2% of the predicted income actually being raised. The Union expected Publicity and Media to raise £2,970. The reality is that only £65 was raised, whilst the total spend reached £5,326 – just over a thousand pounds more than expected.

Another error in predicted income is with Bullet Magazine, where £550 was raised, less than half of the expected £1,200.

On a more positive note, all but one of the executive officers underspent on their non-pay related budgets. Only the president surpassed the estimate, by doubling it.

Also, the total predicted spending for the period was £112,539. However, actual spending only came to £99,192, which could be put down to the Graduation Ball. The event made a £14,625 net profit, a sum which was helped by a £2,265 underspend.

However, the SU’s actual total income was £142,868, which falls slightly short of their £145,798 prediction.

In their budget for 2009/10, £1,000 has been set aside for the Media Centre, which already had a £10,000 investment in 2008. Student Council has been allocated £775 for the year, but what costs are incurred from holding a fortnightly meeting on university property?

Publicity and Media has been earmarked £4,530, but the Students’ Union seem to use Facebook as their main point of contact. This is free, as are press releases. So are they really spending over £4,000 on posters?

While the SU claim they’re being open there is still much that is unknown about what they do, and how they do it.

And when they try to tell students what “successes” they’ve had so far many of them are of dubious veracity. When will they tell students what they are really up to?

3 Responses to Fact checked: one semester of Students’ Union

  1. Joe Hicks says:

    I’m a regular reader of The Linc, and have to admire The Linc’s writers in their wit and articulation, however the constant bombardment of negativity towards the Students’ Union is certainly putting me off… In a previous article, I commented referring to it as pathetic slander – or words to that effect – and evidently nothing has changed…

    Firstly, the opening paragraph; ‘they seem to be making some effort’ – with the Union team working all day every day, some even until the early hours of the morning; to name Steven Greaves and Emily Gough as two I have witnessed myself – Emily being a part-time Student Officer, I find it hard to believe anyone with a degree of logic or intelligence could truly believe the suggestion that they aren’t putting in effort.
    Furthermore, the majority of students agree that the Union has made significant improvements in the last few months.

    With regard to the motion blocked at the AGM concerning communications with The Linc; I chaired that agenda item, and can confirm that the motion was conceived, written and submitted by a student – not by Chris Charnley and simply faced by a student, as suggested later in this article.

    The Motion passed regarding the restructuring of the Students’ Union was passed by students; evidently this is what the general student body wants, and considering you criticise the Union for apparently doing nothing productive, surely giving them more time to concentrate on their representational roles by recruiting more staff is what you would want too?

    A 98% difference between predicted income from publicity and media is criticised, yet the fact that overall income made up 98%of the predicted figure – a very good performance considering the current economic situation – is simply disregarded, and shown as a much more ‘shocking’ financial figure.
    The suggestion that the SU Published ‘Agenda’ is Propaganda is simply absurd; Union members stating their success and progress is not propaganda.
    To quote the Britannica Concise Encyclopaedia, ‘Propagandists emphasize the elements of information that support their position and deemphasize or exclude those that do not’ – as far as I can deduce, The Linc is more guilty of Propaganda under this definition than the Union, displayed in the case above.

    This article simply contradicts itself; as stated at the beginning of this comment, i’ve always admired The Linc’s written abilities (disregarding the sensationalist criticisms of the Student Union), however the fact that in one paragraph Union members are criticised about over-spending, and then five paragraphs later again criticised for suggested underspending through using facebook as advertising, gives mixed messages as to what The Linc is trying to show…
    …again, supporting my argument that The Linc appears to want to find every and any – regardless of how small or insignificant – piece of information they can, and twist it against the Union in a Propagandistic manner.
    Facebook is a widely used system by students, and an effective means of communication.

    To end as I began, and have stated at least once before on a previous inappropriate article (and before the flaming comes in, my definition of inappropriate in this instance is spending every minute looking at how The Linc can criticise the Union in how they are not getting the best for students; could your efforts not be put into something more beneficial for the student body? …possibly informing them of something they’re actually unhappy about? …hell, i’d find a review of carpet world more beneficial) – The Linc’s views does NOT represent those of students; as a student rep, i know from first hand experience this to be the case.

  2. In response to the above article, it would appear to contain several inaccuracies related to the financial data that was freely provided by the Students’ Union. We also provided the opportunity for additional support to ensure inaccuracies such as this didn’t happen, when deciphering the accounts as we would offer any student.

    Firstly, quoted is an amount of £350,000 as being the block grant. The actual amounts were £324,000 for the year 09/10, and £338,443 for the previous year

    Secondly, you quote officer salaries as being £19,000. The actual salary of an officer is £17,519, so we are assuming you have incorrectly included the employer’s on-costs which do not form part of the salary.

    ‘The Agenda’ was a paper produced to promote the ASM and Students’ Union lead initiatives; at a cost of around £800, of which £400 was offset by advertising revenues, a saving compared to the printing of the “Annual Report” which it replaced.

    With reference to the forecasting errors, budgets are continuously reviewed to account for differences in incomes. Management accounts represent a snapshot in time, however your interpretation of the information contains a number of misconceptions and presenting information in isolation of the broader picture can be misleading.

    The figure for Publicity and Media you quote excludes the majority of invoicing for the Fresher’s period, also central suppliers would not have been invoiced and received for this period. Although the account remains behind, it is expected to reach target for the year. Current income exceeds £2,500 which, given the current economic climate, is fantastic.

    As for Bullet Magazine for the period in question, a number of invoices would have been outstanding – hence the shortfall in budget. Our understanding is that is now in hand and income is in line with expectations.

    Graduation ball will make a profit of £8,000, in line with budget, as there are costs associated with the event that do not show in this period.

    With regards your comments related to expenditure in other areas, particularly Student Council and the Media Centre, there are a number of costs including training, materials and promotion which are paid from this allocation.

    With reference to Publicity and Media costs, we are sure you are aware that the Union produces a large number of printed materials which includes but not exclusively SU handbook, housing guide, sexual health booklet, flyer and publicity material and an increase in activity within the Students’ Union has resulted in costs associated to this budget.

    On the question of staffing

    Staff Members within the Union provide professional services and support in line with policies and procedure established by the Union and the students it serves, without the contribution of these staff, development of the Union and delivery of Union’s services would be impossible.

    Staff Members are not employed to represent student views but to ensure the Union runs smoothly on a day to day basis, carrying out the above duties; the full time Executive as elected Union members hold full accountability and are responsible for representing student views.

    We thank you for presenting is with the opportunity to correct your inaccuracies and wish you the very best for the Christmas period.

    Should you require any further information, please contact our SU President, Chris Charnley: president@lincolnsu.com

    University of Lincoln Students’ Union
    Brayford Pool, Lincoln LN6 7TS

    Tel: 01522 88 6006 | Fax: 01522 88 6628 |
    Mail: SU@lincoln.ac.uk | Web: http://www.lincolnsu.com

    Representation, Participation, Inspiration

  3. “Firstly, quoted is an amount of £350,000 as being the block grant.”

    No, we said the figure was near to £350,000, not exactly £350,000.

    “Secondly, you quote officer salaries as being £19,000. The actual salary of an officer is £17,519, so we are assuming you have incorrectly included the employer’s on-costs which do not form part of the salary.”

    On your management accounts for the 3 months leading up to September, the total for each officer under the column “Pay” is £4,758. If we multiply this by 4 (four lots of 3 months) then the total “Pay” for each officer (excluding Education who receives more) is £19,032. Now, I’d accept what you’re saying as the salary is the amount you have quoted, and the rest is allocated to their budget for their respective areas. However, next to “Pay” is “Non-pay” – what were you receiving non-pay money for that is separate to the expenses included in the £19k you receive?

    “With reference to the forecasting errors, budgets are continuously reviewed to account for differences in incomes. Management accounts represent a snapshot in time, however your interpretation of the information contains a number of misconceptions and presenting information in isolation of the broader picture can be misleading.”

    The fact remains that large forecasting errors were made. 2% actual return from what was forecasted is something that should be highlighted, no matter what the “broader picture” is. It’s a large misjudgment.

    As for the value of The Agenda, we can debate its existence and substance til the cows come home!

    “With regards your comments related to expenditure in other areas, particularly Student Council and the Media Centre, there are a number of costs including training, materials and promotion which are paid from this allocation.”

    Why does £775 need to be spent on Student Council? Investment in the Media Centre is slightly forgivable, but it has already had £10k ploughed into it! What were the extra costs exactly for?

    “With reference to Publicity and Media costs, we are sure you are aware that the Union produces a large number of printed materials which includes but not exclusively SU handbook, housing guide, sexual health booklet, flyer and publicity material and an increase in activity within the Students’ Union has resulted in costs associated to this budget.”

    And this can’t all be done at a lower cost?

    “Staff Members within the Union provide professional services and support in line with policies and procedure established by the Union and the students it serves, without the contribution of these staff, development of the Union and delivery of Union’s services would be impossible.

    Staff Members are not employed to represent student views but to ensure the Union runs smoothly on a day to day basis, carrying out the above duties; the full time Executive as elected Union members hold full accountability and are responsible for representing student views.”

    So, I reiterate – they are not directly accountable to the students. Their salaries don’t appear on your accounts, so who pays for this admin support? The university? If they do, then it certainly doesn’t do your argument that you’re independent from the university any favours. You want to get another person in to help deal with communications. Given that they will be partly responsible for the Union’s PR and promotion, isn’t it important that they’re accountable to students?