Our Sector: Who’s really pulling the strings?

In this fascinating preview of his Membership Services 2016 workshop, CUSU’s Mark McCormack shares some findings from his research on block grant as indicator of SU autonomy

As students’ unions we want it all when it comes to our institution: accepted for who and what we are; fiercely independent; and capable of influence and protest mutually. As representative of our members we will be sufficiently, and often proactively, on the side of our institution; yet we’ll reject any explicit loco parentis condescension at an individual or institutional level. We expect inherent acceptance and respect for our ability to contribute to the successes of our members, which in-turn therefore contributes to the success of the institution. And we expect to be supported in our endeavours with recurrent funding and facilities.

Students’ unions might appear unique among other charities and nonprofits (and trade unions) as far as the academic literature and research is concerned. Charities might normally be encouraged to diversify income as opposed to become reliant on a single grant of essential funding for fear of the charity becoming open to ‘external control’. The research is fairly consistent in suggesting that, as charities receive greater funds from singular sources, the more those charities are likely to become less autonomous in their organisational decision-making. This ‘control’ may imply resource dependence; or it imply the charity becomes institutionalised in some way that undermines the true autonomy of the charity itself. For example:
1. Dependency on resources, such as a block grant, so much so its retention influences the organisation’s work and the wider deployment of available resource towards the union’s objectives; and/or,
2. Succumb to institutional forces that align the union’s actions or behaviour via, for instance, a precedent that is enforced by social norms (e.g. a partnership MoU, Quality Students’ Unions, drive to professionalise); an influential actor (e.g. its university); or, via coercion leveraged against somebody else’s goals or expectations (usually involving resource transactions, standards, regulation or compliance) – these are all drivers that make organisations start to act like each other and be like each other.

Unions are unique organisations in any respect, and so it would be careless to assume external control as described could be apportioned to the sector so readily; but I do think it valuable to the student movement to reflect on the extent to which any reliance on funding, legitimacy within our institution and, to a certain extent, our performance against others unions nationally, can be indicative of risks to union autonomy.

For example- a common feature of trade union analysis in the last twenty years is that of a cynically perceived shift from challenge-orientated activism to pro-employer ‘employee engagement’. Whilst this at least offers the cynics a reason to question the intent of student engagement in the sector, the narratives in the movement around partnership; the professionalising of the workforce in the last ten years (and the rise in senior manager salaries); the reduction in traditional, non-University income sources for the sector; and our embracing of a ‘charity’ personality within wider civil society all mean that it’s not hard to paint a picture that could seem consistent with the literature. There are also rare rumours of coercive influence: VCs pressuring CEOs to exit the union; unions being told to downsize; or intervention in democratic matters; or leveraging grant agreements with priorities, some that require unions to give-up long-held services or provision.

Here at Cambridge, we don’t receive much funding from our institution, and what we do receive is strictly allocated to fixed areas of expenditure. So with the prospect of block funding a long-term aim, I undertook some research to expound what we may look forward to in an era of funding. Receiving responses from 50 senior managers and CEOs from unions, the findings contributed to a growing recognition of the challenges facing smaller students’ unions. The findings propose that, rather than the size of a union’s block grant being an indicator of a loss of autonomy, it was the proportion of block grant to turnover that affected the extent of external control.

As block grant and turnover rose unions were more autonomous in their decision-making; more strident or demanding of their institution; and, they perceived their institution respected them more, trusted them, and perceived value in the resources granted to the union, so far so, there were far fewer restrictions and conditions in place surrounding the funds, and fewer attempts by their university to influences areas of SU business. The larger the block grant, the more freedom the union perceived they had to allocate resource; the more the union could choose to change strategic direction without external input; and the less likely the union was to set strategic objectives that complied with the preferences of their HEI.

  • Students’ unions with higher turnovers (£5m+) most definitely demonstrated more individualistic and empowered behaviours; their chief execs had on average been in post much longer and felt they could disagree with their institution more readily; they approached conflict with more appetite; they were as equally ready to set rigid demands with their university as they were to accommodate; and, they were willing to take higher risks.
  • At the negative end of these correlations were unions with lower block grants and turnovers (<£1m): they were far more likely to be coerced or pushed towards institutionalisation; and there were strong indicators of dependence upon what resource they received.
  • Smaller unions were characteristically risk averse; more likely to see students mutually as consumers and beneficiaries (as opposed to mainly beneficiaries); and, more likely to conform to University processes, requests and demands. It was more likely that their work would be as influenced by their university’s strategic objectives as it was elected officer campaigns.
  • When grants were smaller, unions felt under more pressure for available resource to fund core activity and were less likely to dismiss demands from funders that were outside the scope of their mission. This pressure seemed to materialise into a lack of independence and autonomy. These unions could be characterised as less empowered to manage their own affairs, or at least in rebutting HEI involvement in them.
  • It was clear that larger unions were more respected by their institution; seen more on an equal footing; respected for their definitive characteristics as a union and for their contribution to the university community. In contrast, those with smaller turnovers didn’t seem to support much mutuality at all with far less confidence received from their institution and more demands made. That they’d have a lower grant might be an obvious example of a lack of confidence, yet it risks sustaining a catch22 situation: how does one begin to get that respect without having the resources and support to earn it?

“Boundary-spanning” refers to the strategic management of key stakeholders (inclusive of funders and suppliers, and commonly of a resource and/or governance relationship), especially where their actions can have consequences for those of one’s organisation. Importantly for the sector, the research identified a lack of awareness of the value of boundary-spanning: these activities were increasingly important to unions as grants got larger, but less important to smaller unions. In unions this may involve proactive engagement of university representatives in the union’s work or governance; initiating positioning strategies or mapping key officials and their interests; or simply schmoozing influential people.

Coming from a small and specialist union, my own experiences in the movement supported findings in the research. Those with excellent university relationships whereby the receiving of a decent-sized grant was common-place and access to senior decision-makers was simple and welcomed by their institution, saw University pressure as “significantly less onerous” than other charities may face – this is undoubtedly true. Yet there’s an element of context too often missed however – that of size of block grant or turnover; and whilst larger unions reported their uni exerting pressure upon them as other unions, smaller unions indicated experiencing twice that of larger unions. Some wider awareness is perhaps welcome of unions with less resource who are held to the same benchmarks as larger unions, be it from the press or the senior manager’s mailbase.

On day two of the 2016 Membership Services Conference I’ll be running a session where I’ll present some more findings from the research and introduce the topics of resource dependence and institutionalism in more detail. As a group we’ll discuss our local experiences related to university-gifted funds, the union’s relationship with its uni and the extent to which autonomy could be inhibited or pressures could arise. We’ll examine a range of factors that might be considered coercive forces and the extent to which they may be at play in our unions. We’ll then talk about some strategies to overcoming these with positioning strategies and boundary-spanning, and at how activities in the union contribute to mission, resources and reputation and standing.

Posted in Our sector.

One Comment

  1. An interesting piece – sorry to be so late to commemt but would you be able to email the raw data from your research? Or post a link to it?

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