The Union of UEA Students (UUEAS) is experiencing financial difficulty after it underestimated costs in its July 2015-16 budget by £160,000, a Concrete investigation has uncovered. Since the oversight in the budget, UUEAS has burdened students with increased prices in union outlets, considered reducing sports clubs and has accused UEA of not giving enough funding to the organisation.
Errors made when budgeting for the 2015-16 academic year have resulted in the union unwittingly planning £160,000 of unfunded expenditure. Costs associated with hosting events in the LCR were “significantly underestimated” when the original budget was prepared over the summer. The union had planned to run a break even budget, making neither a profit nor a loss, for the year between July 2015 and July 2016. However, the discovery of the missing costs now puts this in serious doubt.

The blunder, which was discovered in October, is another headache for the organisation which has been in financial difficulty for several years. Losses in the 2014-15 academic year amounted to £712,000, of which £261,000 was not budgeted for. This represented a 46% depletion of the union’s cash reserves, leaving it with significantly less cash to fall back on after the latest monetary loss.

Minutes from union meetings, which are publicly available, indicate unforeseen losses in 2014-15 that stem from poor cost control in Events, the branch of the union that co-ordinates gigs, bars and club nights.

Concrete first reported on the union’s financial difficulty in 2012, when it was discovered that falling revenue from retail outlets and LCR had contributed to the union running a £250,000 deficit in 2011-12 academic year. Since then, Union Council has voted to prevent the organisation from making further redundancies, and from either cutting or freezing staff pay. UUEAS believes that no further efficiency savings can be made without harming frontline services and student activities.

Documents presented last September to the Trustee Board – which is the union’s ultimate decision-making body under charities law – indicate that UUEAS has “considered actual reductions to student activity including the reduction of sports clubs”. Concrete understands that this exercise resulted in the union putting pressure on sports clubs which had fewer than 30 members to show how they were planning to increase their membership; or else plan how they could bring down costs such as training fees. Speaking anonymously, sources have indicated that if such provisions were not considered, some groups may have faced a reduction in their funding or even closure.

In another attempt to raise revenue, the Finance Committee was advised in October of a then on-going review of prices in union venues. Despite the fact that a number of candidates in last year’s union elections had pledged to oppose any increase in prices in the bar, the Development and Oversight Board concluded that it did not think an increase in price “would be a particular issue for students”. Since then prices for certain drinks at the union bar have been raised.

Even before the discovery of the error in the 2015-16 budget, the union was weighing up measures to “increase gross profit where the union lagged way behind both the high street and other [student unions]”, minutes from the organisation’s Development and Oversight Board reveal.

In addition to trying to raising income from its commercial operations, the union has launched the Save Our Union campaign to persuade the university to increase the amount of money it gives to UUEAS each year. At present, this grant is one of the smallest in the country, leaving the union uncomfortably dependent on its flagging commercial income.

In order to retain current service provision, and without a significant increase in profit from sales, the union estimates that it will need an additional £150,000 – which is an increase of 23% – from the university by 2019-20. However, this projection was before it became apparent that an even greater sum was missing from this year’s budget. In the event that no increase is forthcoming, the Trustee Board was warned that the union would have little option but to “consider closing services which will directly impact on the university’s overall ‘offer’ to students.

Commenting on the union’s financial issues, Activities and Opportunities Officer Yinbo Yu said: “Following a difficult budgeting period last summer the union’s financial position has now been stabilised and in 2015-16 we are unlikely to see operating losses of the scale seen in recent years.

“However, in the medium term the picture looks bleak. For every £1 the union spends on students, about 33p comes from a UEA grant and the rest comes from profits from things like the LCR and the Shop. The university has recently assumed that most of the increases in costs faced by the union in terms of inflation or pressure on services from more students could be met by bigger profits, but the Shop and LCR are pretty much at capacity and a big concern for students is prices and cost of living.

“So if the union can’t increase profit from the Shop or LCR, and the university won’t increase the union’s grant, major services in the union will get cut or disappear – meaning fewer clubs and societies and less access to advice or housing support. With the union finances now stabilised every extra penny into the union would help to keep costs down for students and keep vital services running”.