Regulars drink to social market

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The Independent Online
REGULAR drinkers at the Rising Sun pub need not fear a socialist dawn now that Sheffield University students' union has bought their local, writes Jonathan Foster.

Social market principles have eclipsed campus Marxism in the union at the forefront of an entrepreneurial movement gaining ground nationally. Sheffield has ended subsidies and streamlined management of commercial services which accounted in 1990-91 for pounds 3.6m of the union's pounds 4.6m turnover, an increase in business during the last nine years of more than 400 per cent.

The union now runs two city pubs and its travel agency's successes include the tender for the university's business travel account.

Bars, restaurants, retailing and printing all contribute profits to union budgets during a period of depleted income from government grant. Reorganising the union's amusement machines, for example, increased use and more than tripled annual profits to pounds 70,000.

The financial shakeout explains why elected officers are anxious to find a compromise with ministers over reform of student unions.

Pressure from the Tory right could, if turned into legislation, break up what Sheffield believes is a commendable balance between aggressive business and social service.

Reforms have, leaders claim, made the union into more of an agency that devolves power to groups of students responsible for running their own budgets, with students elected to run them given management skill training.

An end to direct public funding channelled through the university - with individual students instead given about pounds 100 a year with which they could choose whether to join the union - would be a calamitous move, Sheffield claims.

Commercial activities would be thrown into turmoil without the guaranteed basic grant income essential to providing services.

Sheffield says its travel service - owned jointly with the Warwick and Cardiff unions - is an example being imitated on many other campuses. Margins are much greater for travel agents selling airline tickets than coach fares, but low-income students need an efficient coach-booking service.

Profits have also been used to improve Sheffield's welfare advice centre, which now has seven full-time staff.