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Punk and Politics Investigates:
Abuse of Power at UWSU
Former VP uses students union at University of Westminster to build a company and pocket profits
As a student, you might expect part of your £9000 fees, which fund your student union, to be spent diligently and with good intent. However it seems the University of Westminster Student Union (UWSU) has been through a period that this has not happened. UWSU recently announced its events company, So Fresh ‘N’ So Clean (SFnSC) was going it alone. They have split from the union and are setting up the operation up as an independent company. Latest figures show that the operation lost £100,000 from the union’s broader £500,000 deficit. The split means that even if the events company now begins to make a profit, UWSU will not benefit from this.
Thus any future profits the SFnSC company makes will no longer be going back into the UWSU. However the figures and sources at the student union have said there were problems with the operation, and union’s relationship. They also suggested that there were problems with the finances, so were So Fresh’s profits ever going back to the union?
According to a UWSU statement the students who ran the team were looking to set up a company and take on the company and this change would fit in-line with an already planned restructuring and development of the events they offer. Therefore the split initially appeared to be of a mutual agreement. I wanted to investigate further, because the statement seems friendly at first, but hints at problems between the union and events company.
But as Jenny Chan Vice President of Marylebone, who founded the operation, did so whilst she was Sabbatical Officer (and before the roles changed in 2013 she was the Vice President (VP) for Sports, Societies & Activities.) The Student Union is registered with the charity commission, and therefore everything it does, must be in the interests and welfare of its students. So has it been an abuse of the power, entrusted to Jenny Chan as an elected official to build up a company, and split it off in order to keep the profits?
As a graduate of Business Finance, Jenny explains in her SFnSC bio says how her “passion was working in the entertainments industry and in particular organising events; working for the students’ union provided the perfect opportunity for this.”
I asked Jenny and So Fresh ‘N’ So Clean for comment. We wanted to know whether she thought it could be considered a conflict of interest to set up a company, whilst on the pay roll of the student union, and to then later split the company off, after using the SU’s influence to build an audience and client base? She simply replied, “That wasn’t what I did” and “I love the union”.
I asked several former and current Sabbatical officers at Student Unions and societies across the country whether they thought it could be a conflict of interest. All of those we spoke to agree it seemed a strange situation. Due to the nature of the time, no one was prepared to go on record and risk being pulled into a controversy just as the student election period begins. But how do Westminster students feel?
Hayden Walmsley, 20 studying politics at the Regent Street campus and Secretary of the Conservative Future Society said “Its good business practice for small companies to set up infrastructure, gain brand recognition and an audience; then sell this commodity. But, given their (Jenny’s) position, this seems a questionable way for a VP to behave” Even, Hayden, who comes from a pro-business and generally anti union party, seems to believe there was malpractice.
Despite the split, the union seems to be spending a lot of time, defending the operation that used to be part of their institution. One source at the Student Union suggested that the arrangement whilst SFnSC was under the SU’s management was that any profits the operation made, the SFnSC company kept. Whilst any losses SFnSC events accrued, were made at the union’s expense.
This worrying suggestion is not unheard of within union walls, in fact, an anonymous source said it led to an investigation into the finances and procedures between UWSU and SFnSC. However we understand this internal investigation found no evidence to support the rumours. However since the split, financial procedures have been altered. Andy Smith, the CEO, stressed this was to be expected with any review.
Andy also said if any evidence came to light of union money going into the pockets of any students, officers of staff members inappropriately; those responsible would be speaking to the police, and not an internal UWSU investigation.
In the UWSU statement, although it encouraged free choice, it did suggest that students who had signed up to the group’s mailing lists and social media may wish to un-subscribe now as the premise for them signing up was because it was part of UWSU.
It seems there were some disagreements about how events at the union should be run, with UWSU opting to bring the events team under one member of staff and not allowing the So Fresh team to run semi-independently. The anonymous source said there were differences between the two parties in the way the event strategy should develop, which seem to have led to frictions between the two parties.
The tone of the statement seems to stem from the union’s attempt to now protect the marketability of its events considering that So Fresh ‘n’ So Clean are now effectively competitors.
Keith True, 34 from south London, is a long-term events organiser and promoter studying Radio and is an avid supporter of Student Union events; on the SFnSC operation, Keith spoke of his disappointment at their events this term which were blighted by big names, including Wiley and Little Nikki cancelling last-minute. Keith was unsurprised by the split but said “I just hope the SU, as owners of the company, managed to secure a good price for what that company will be worth to its owners now it is a business”. UWSU said there has been no financial impact from the split – So it seems not.
Keith who is studying at the Harrow campus said he looked forward to the UWSU putting on events that represent the range and vibrant culture the University of Westminster should be so proud of.
I asked National Union of Students, of which the UWSU is part of, what the national policy was for Sabbatical officers and their relations to businesses. The NUS is historically progressive in its views, often led by left wing Labour candidates for the majority of its history. Therefore I expected them to have a clear policy similar to how MPs have to register all their financial interests that may affect their decisions in parliament. The NUS has no national policy on this. I was advised in a phone call to their helpline this guidance is devolved to every Student Union’s own constitution to state.
The UWSU constitution has a conflict of interest clause that says all sabbaticals must register any conflicts of interest with any decisions made. A conflict of interest is defined as “direct or indirect interest of a Trustee (whether personal, by virtue of a duty of loyalty to another organisation or otherwise) that conflicts, or might conflict with the interests of the Union”. However it does not contain any specific guidance or rules on being involved with companies whilst working for the union.
It also states that minutes of monthly Trustee meetings should be published as should the audited account files. Despite several requests and several on air promises on Smoke Radio by the current President and VP of Cavendish Miriam Hanna, the last minutes published were in October 2013 and last years accounts were only published this week. They contained far less detail than previous year’s and did not detail a split in finances to SFnSC.
When compared with her first year, these accounts show during her time as a VP Jenny Chan over saw a pay increase for her and fellow VPs, Jenny Ybanez, Jamal Achchi, and Tarik Mahri of approximately £4000 from around £19,000 to £23,000. This 21% increase was unlike the 1% interest the rest of the staff enjoyed.
Other controversial decisions included stopping the Equality and Diversity committee, which actively recruited representatives of the black, disabled and LGBT communities among others. The team did this as part of move to make the union more ‘A-Political’ in order to represent more students. This concept was criticised by many, like the Westminster Student Left who argued, no decision was unaffected by politics and the idea of “treating every student with the same brush” was out of touch. It also went against the constitution, which states in order to further the unions objectives of promoting the interests and welfare of students at the university of Westminster, its will:
“5b) seek to influence public opinion, and;
5c) make representations to an seek to influence governmental and other bodies and intuitions”
During their second term in office the sabbaticals oversaw the Student Union running out of money. The SU had to apply to the University to fill the funding gap. However already committed events, including the So Fresh n So Clean end of year boat party and Student Union ball still went ahead.
Although no SFnSC accounts have been published, based on number of attendees, ticket cost and the estimated cost of each event,we believe both events made a loss for the union last year.
We have come to these estimates based on quotes from the companies used and number of attendees, whilst also considering the many free tickets offered to student union staff members and the discount some sports teams received.
On top of this, at the UWSU Annual General Meeting, the Union admitted it had a £500,000 deficit, and Andy Smith the CEO admitted the 2012/2013 events cost the Union “to a tune of” around £100,000 that was due to the events done at UWSU and in collaboration with SFnSC.
All of this has led to a major disillusion to the union. A report done by the LGBT society shows 36% of LGBT students don’t think the Student Union do anything for them, and a further 32% thought the union should be doing a lot more. This is mirrored across the whole union. Nine students attended the AGM, down from 30 last year. Neither year reached the 100 student Quorum set out in the constitution for the meeting to be binding. The union ended their AGM by setting out their key goal over the next year, Brand Awareness and student engagement. After a rise in tuition fees, an a-political stance, and corruption hanging over the union – that will be a difficult mission. How the union meets the challenges, such as an allegation of personal profiting from student union money, by abusing their positions remains to be seen. However, it will be a key part of its future.
Photo Credits: sfnsc.com & So Fresh n So Clean facebook page