• Just 38% of the over 2,000 Lancaster students surveyed felt that LUSU represented them effectively
  • Students voted for sweeping democratic reforms in October, which LUSU has failed to implement
  • Questions about serious irregularities in last month's presidential by-election remain
  • LUSU faces massive financial pressures in the coming year

The 2020 National Student Survey (NSS) has revealed that Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU) is one of the most unpopular students’ unions in the country. Less than four in ten of the Lancaster final year students surveyed thought that LUSU represented them effectively, the second-lowest result for any UK university.

The NSS is taken annually, although it has been criticised for driving a competitive, marketised atmosphere in higher education. The National Union of Students and the University and College Union have called for boycotts of the NSS in recent years, while some students’ unions, such as Cambridge, have successfully pulled off a boycott. If fewer than 50% of eligible students complete the survey then the results are not published. In January, LUSU VP Education Bee Morgan threatened a boycott of the NSS if the University did not take action on unsustainable student numbers, but these concerns have effectively been nullified in the short term by the anticipated drop in student numbers due to the pandemic.

LUSU has had a year of crises, beginning with the Trustee Board’s attempt to secretly sell off the Sugarhouse nightclub at the behest of University management, and ending with last month’s presidential by-election controversy after RON votes were disqualified (‘RONgate’). The only students’ union with a worse NSS result than LUSU is Durham Students’ Union, which had a similar election controversy earlier in the year. Analysis in The Tab compared the two elections more closely.

In protest over RONgate, the largest undergraduate college almost disaffiliated from LUSU, and the Womens’+ Officer resigned, both without a hint of acknowledgement from LUSU. LUSU has yet to respond to Spineless’ request for comment on RONgate, and the key questions that we posed about the conduct of the by-election last month remain unanswered.

Before taking office, the new LUSU President Oliver Robinson called for the full by-election results to be published, but several weeks into the job, this has yet to happen. Without even being able to prove that he has a mandate to serve, it will be incredibly difficult for Robinson to push through the wildly ambitious democratic reform package he has promised to students.

Students hoping that a new team of sabbs would bring a change in LUSU’s approach will so far be disappointed. It has been a month since they started working part-time, and nearly three weeks since they began working full-time, but the new sabbs have largely been hidden. They have made very few public statements or updates about their work, leaving students in the dark as to what their representatives are doing. Even as a recent student petition calling on the vice-chancellor to revoke Dr David Starkey’s honorary degree following a racist outburst hit the headlines, the new sabbs chose to not make any public comment or endorsement of the campaign.

As LUSU prepares to enter a year of unprecedented financial uncertainty, Spineless analysis of UK students’ unions’ budgets has revealed that LUSU's budget is 2.5 times larger than that of the average students’ union. In the 2018/19 financial year, LUSU's overall budget was £8.4 million, the ninth largest nationally. This is in large part due to LUSU's extensive commercial activities, including the Sugarhouse nightclub, the student letting agency LUSU Living, and Central, a campus supermarket.

The full extent of the impact of the pandemic on LUSU’s financial situation remains unclear, but in an April Executive Committee meeting, the interim CEO, Misbah Ashraf gave students a rare public insight. Ashraf described ‘a significant issue in the organisation around cashflow’, with expected takings from the Sugarhouse disappearing due to the lockdown, and a drop in LUSU Living rental income. If the situation didn't improve, she said, redundancies would be inevitable:

For example, our cashflow issue at the moment with LUSU Housing Limited, if we do not sort this cashflow issue out, that business will go insolvent. And when I mean insolvent, I mean bankrupt, shut down, there will be no LUSU Living standing next year… LUSU Living provide a third of the commercial revenue that goes into the charity, it pays for a significant number of jobs in the charity. If LUSU Living went under, we will have to make redundancies on the charity side. There is no other solution to that.

Despite its multi-million pound budget being much larger than most students' unions, LUSU's financial affairs are unusually secretive and undemocratically managed, with repeated attempts to open up LUSU’s financial affairs to greater scrutiny and democratic control thus far failing. Motions passed at October 2019’s AGM to establish a Budget Committee and introduce participatory budgeting have been roundly ignored by the Trustee Board. At present, most financial matters are dealt with by the Trustee Board’s Finance and Risk Committee, whose membership is unknown and whose business is not open to student scrutiny. In March, Spineless reported that several sabbatical officers had breached a financial transparency policy by refusing to disclose their individual expenses. The overall ‘Officer and Committee Expenses’ budget has soared by 32% in the last four years, to a whopping £57,707 in 2018/19.

With significant (but as yet publicly unquantified) reductions of LUSU’s commercial income due to the pandemic, spending cuts over the coming year are inevitable. And as the University predicts multi-million pound losses next year, the chance that they'll increase LUSU's annual block grant, as the Executive Committee recently asked for, is low.

In the absence of the implementation any of the democratic reforms students have called for, and with the Constitutional Convention replaced by a toothless ‘review’ by private consultants, it appears that significant budget cuts, and possible redundancies, will be decided in secret, without the democratic input or basic transparency that LUSU’s student members deserve.