Why are student unions dying?

While some are flourishing, others are floundering. We look at the problems facing student unions today, and ask what can be done to save them.

Main bar empty.jpg

It's Saturday night and Cardiff Student's Union is buzzing. The dancefloor is packed, bar staff are rushed off their feet and outside a long queue of eager revellers wait to get in.

If this is the typical scene at your student's union, then you might be surprised to hear that for many of these establishments, things are going downhill. In fact, the figures are startling, with unions reporting an 81% decline in profits over the past 5 years. The past year alone has seen a downturn of 8.3%, and closures have started, including the demise of Bristol Student's Union bar, shut in 2009.


The reasons for this decline are multiple, with the recession inevitably pointed to as a key factor. Economic pressure on the market means student unions have less arena for profit, and money-conscious students are being far more careful with their spending. However, the downward trend at unions has lasted at least five years - too long to blame losses solely on the recent credit crunch, even if it is a major influence.


What else is causing the drain on income? One reason is undoubtedly the increase in competition from other bars, pubs and clubs. While at one point student unions were the place to head for a cheap night out, city streets are now bursting with bargain booze offers. Pub chains such as Wetherspoons offer ultra-competitive prices and supermarkets are even cheaper - we doubt many unions can rival the £2.68 price tag of a Sainsbury's Basics bottle of wine, even if the taste is easy to beat. Pre-drinking at home is now seen as the most budget-friendly way to start a night out, and, unfortunately for student unions, they can't rely on loyalty alone to tempt students away from cheaper options.

Cheap drink deals are everywhere


For many unions, image is also a problem. Lack of money for refurbishments and commitments to sensible drinking policies make it difficult to compete with some slicker establishments. The simple fact is that in some universities a night out at the student union is seen as uncool - the type of thing freshers do before they learn better.


It's not just the pubbers and clubbers who are heading elsewhere. Live music, once a mainstay of many student unions, has been taken over by new venues which have the money, facilties and marketing know-how to attract popular artists and, of course, their fans.


There's also the fact that lots of students are unaware of just how much their student union does. While for the many 'the union' is just a shop, bar and maybe a cafe, the truth is that they're responsible for a huge amount of university life, including organising societies, campaigning for student welfare and providing support for those in need. And how are all these free services funded? By that shop, bar and cafe everyone's been avoiding.


It's not all doom and gloom though. Certain unions, such as Cardiff, have been able to to escape the downturn. This, as Cardiff's Welfare, Campaigns and Communications Officer Rose Savage explains, is all down to listening to what students really want. 'By consulting, communicating and engaging consistently with our student body, we can ensure that the Union provides exactly what its members need' she says. 

As well as club nights, that includes 'non-alcoholic venues, sports clubs and a diverse array of societies from Cheese Appreciation Society to the Debating Society'. Additionally, it means 'staying aware of external problems that effect students today', so that appropriate advice and support is readily available for those who need it.

Innovation is key if unions are to stay relevant. At Cardiff, for example, the SU has successfully launched the Cardiff Students Letting Agency. The first student union-owned venture of its kind, this service is dedicated to finding quality student houses from reputable landlords, and benefits students by not charging any agency fees.

Student unions need big live acts

Other approaches have involved teaming up with private firms. The Academy Music Group (AMG), which runs O2 Academies across the country, has collaborated with three universities this year in order to boost their live music venues. Herfordshire Students Union, Liverpool Guild of Students and Leicester Students Union will all benefit from AMG's entertainment industry expertise, with CEO John Northcote explaining that they'll give help with everything from 'booking gigs and club nights, to promotion, marketing and technical infrastructure'. 


In Leicester, a £15m development has been undertaken to produce the 1,450 capacity O2 Academy Leicester - a partnership between AMG and the Students Union that will be launched with a gig from Professor Green later this month. Although some might shirk at the idea of student unions becoming too commercialised, it's these kind of ventures and collaborations which might just keep some of them afloat, and no one's going to complain about first class facilities and big name acts coming to town.

In all the success stories, it's clear that the way forward for student unions is to keep abreast of what students really want, and be willing to adapt quickly to meet those needs. In the meantime, popping along to your union for the odd drink or sandwich can't do any harm, and will certainly help prevent the misery of them disappearing altogether.