The Oxford Union is in serious financial jeopardy following a backlog of financial mismanagement and a loss of sponsorship.
The accounts of the Oxford Union have shown that were membership or sponsorship to fall, the Society would have insufficient funds to cover its costs for a year.
A backlog of missed targets has resulted in the financial difficulties. In the year leading up to June 2007, the Society lost 18,000. Last year saw only 16,000 of the £20,000 target being raised.
In 2003, its losses totalled £100,000.
One Union spokesperson attributed the losses to “unforeseen maintenance costs”.
However, they are part of a wider problem that the Union faces in getting sponsorship to help fund its yearly expenditure, which in 2007 was over £687,000.
Several committee members have blamed the termly changeover of Treasurer for leading to a purely short-term focus to the Union finances.
Current Treasurer James Langman criticised the “lack of long-term planning on the part of past treasurers”, whilst an anonymous member of the Union has stated that treasurers have purely used the position of Treasurer as a necessary step in the career in the Union.
One committee member said of Roche, who raised less than £1,000 in sponsorship during his time in office and fell well short of the Hilary target of £8,000, that he “didn’t give two figs about the finances, he just wanted to be President”.
Union sponsorship is usually arranged by each Treasurer on a termly basis, and there is currently no on-going sponsorship that might secure the Union finances long term.
The Union’s Bursar, Lindsey Warne, admitted that the situation was not ideal, stating that “in a perfect world, sponsorship would be on-going but most has just been for a term or two”.
Langman, who has so far raised £8,150 in his term and thus exceeded the Hilary target of £8000, has nevertheless expressed fears about the Union’s long-term financial security, stating that “It is one of the things we are quite worried about”.
Warne stated that “it is harder now to find sponsors, when it has already been increasingly difficult over the last few years due to competition”.
Langman reiterated this, adding that the recession had “massively” affected this term’s drive for funding and that attracting sponsors had become “very tough”.
He stated that sponsorship this term had been secured “substantially due to personal contacts”.
He added that competition with other University societies had contributed to the difficulties, saying, “the treasurers in the future are going to have to work harder than treasurer have worked in the past few years, particularly because of the competition that we are facing with other societies. Law Soc, in particular, now attracts more sponsors.”
Due to a backlog of financial failings, the Union’s reserves would be unable to cover its costs if membership and sponsorship were both to fall significantly or if continued to lose money as in 2003.
The Union only owns about one third of its buildings, the rest being owned by the Oxford Literary and Debating Union Trust (OLDUT), a charitable organisation set up in the 1970’s to ensure that the buildings would be saved even if the Oxford Union Society went bankrupt.
OLDUT now sporadically offers grants to the society to help with its running, and in 2005, they paid for building works in the Union library.
Langman stated that the trust is essential to the financial health of the Union, stating that the this year, “there was a small surplus, but only due to a grant from OLDUT”.
However, as it is a charitable trust, OLDUT will only give the Union money for projects that coincide with its objectives, for example the upkeep of the library. They do not fund social events.
Lindsey Warne said that “we are doing everything we can to make sure that the Union doesn’t lose money again”.
Langman explained that the Union has set up an alumni scheme to get donations from ex-presidents, which he stated “should hopefully raise some money”, despite a previous bursar’s destruction of about ten year’s worth of records meaning that the society is “losing out on quite a few people”.
Langman has also had plans approved to form a business team that will operate in a similar way to that of OUSU. He plans to recruit a team of Union members who will work to raise sponsorship over the Easter holiday.
The volunteers will receive commission on any funds that they raise that exceed £20,000.
The Society has also been forced to increase its membership fees, which have risen from £168 to £178 in two years.
The Access Scheme, which is supposed to offer students receiving a full maintenance grant a reduced membership under £100, has been pushed up to £99.
Some students have expressed anger at the rise, suggesting that increased fees would deter future members.
James Maclaine, a Union member and graduate of Lady Margaret Hall college said,
“if I could start my time at Oxford again, I wouldn’t join the Union. I spent so much money on membership and I just didn’t go enough to make it worth it. I bet if membership goes up any more, fewer and fewer people will join”.