Leader: Help the union to avoid last orders

March 26, 2004

The National Union of Students holds its annual conference next week with top-up fees naturally uppermost among the concerns of delegates.

There will even be a day's break in the proceedings while the conference-goers decamp to London to lobby MPs at the report stage of the bill. Before that, Blackpool will see the normal infighting over the leadership of the union, as the left tries once more to wrest control away from Labour supporters.

At some point during the week, however, delegates should pause to consider the implications of tomorrow's closure of union facilities at Aberdeen University (page 4). Unions have come to rely on their bar takings, and at the Gallowgate Union trade had declined to such an extent that the building was opening only three nights a week. Now even that cannot be justified financially, and the union's subvention will go into welfare work and other forms of student support.

The recreational side of student unions tends not to be the prime interest of those who attend NUS conferences. But without successful commercial activities, unions' campaigning will be severely restricted and the link that broadened the interests of generations of students will be broken.

Many came for a pint but were drawn into the social and political debates that went on around them. Already the NUS is losing members, as large unions such as Bristol and Southampton universities question whether the thousands of pounds going on subscriptions could be better spent. The last thing it needs is for the tangible manifestation of student unionism to start to crumble at the same time.

Aberdeen is an extreme example, but other unions are feeling the impact of falling bar takings. They point to student poverty and rising numbers of home-based students as the explanation, but increased competition is at least as significant a factor. Clubs that will match union bars on price, as well as providing transport and a more glitzy environment, are proving more attractive than some of the dingy and crowded campus alternatives.

In the days when deals with brewers made student bars the cheapest places in town, many unions took their members' support for granted. Now they are falling out of fashion, and it will not be easy to find the cash or the creativity to rescue them.

Universities should do what they can to help: those institutions where the union remains the centre of student life exude a vitality that makes others seem dull by comparison. Student unions may be troublesome, but it is a price worth paying.

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