This investigation also includes Tom Carter describing the role of a JCR treasurer, Alex Stronell examing how different JCRs give to charity and Charlie Atkins comparing student union spending at Oxford to other universities.
When deciding to launch an investigation into how different JCRs spend their money, C+ knew that there was quite likely to be a fair amount of variation between different JCRs, due to the nature of the collegiate system. In terms of the method in which the investigation was conducted, we emailed every undergraduate JCR President, over this term and the last, asking if they would be willing to answer ten questions concerning their budget. This included how much they spend, how they spend it, how the budget is funded, how they use levies, and how much their JCR gives to charity.
What we found was that in broad terms JCRs across Oxford offer fairly similar services to their members, but spend substantially different amounts of money. Therefore, despite forums such as the JCR Presidents’ Committee (‘PresCom’) in which best practise can be shared, it turns out that the college you are at really does matter after all.
For the most part, we found JCRs perform similar functions and responsibilities. All of the JCRs that were willing to speak to us seemed to share a core set of services. Typically, JCRs seem to spend around half of their money on welfare and entertainment. We also found that many — although not all — of the JCRs we spoke to offer a number of amenities in their common room, including newspapers, coffee, a pool table, or Sky television.
However, C+ found a level of variation both in how much different JCRs spend per student, and how much they save per student. Most JCRs told us that they were predominantly reliant on college grants for funding, with JCR levies acting as an additional form of income. For instance, St Peter’s JCR has a £5 levy for membership. Of the colleges who spoke to us, the only partial exception was Balliol JCR, with most of their headline figure for how the JCR is funded being constituted from the profits of the bar and café. It was quite common for JCRs to operate a levy for punting, with Balliol, Trinity, St Peter’s and Worcester (amongst others) all telling us they did this. Other levies we encountered included charity levies, which Corpus Christi JCR uses to raise £9,000 for charity annually.
We also found that Balliol JCR had far greater savings than any other JCR. An explanation for this may lie in the fact that Balliol JCR directly runs its own bar and café. This means Balliol JCR has a much higher turnover than most of the colleges to whom we talked — in the region of £250,000, and consequently a reserve of £100,000 — also much larger than the others. By comparison, Corpus Christi JCR reported the fewest savings, with only £6,000. In addition to savings, Balliol and Magdalen JCRs mentioned having additional assets, mainly in art, valued at several hundred thousand pounds, which no other JCR reported.
Despite all this seemingly copious spending, in terms of the financial health of Oxford’s JCRs, all those to whom we spoke seem to be operating a small budget surplus, or were aiming for a balanced budget. For example, Balliol JCR, we were told, have had a small budget surplus for around 10 years. However, this is not to say that JCR budgets are all roughly the same size. JCRs are divisible into three rough categories: low spenders, medium spenders, and high spenders.
Low spenders include Teddy Hall and Trinity JCRs. These both share the characteristic of authorising over half of their expenditure through JCR motions, meaning that members of these colleges exercise stronger direct control over how their JCRs spend their money, potentially explaining why their overall spending appears lower.
In contrast, medium spenders, such as the JCRs of Balliol, Corpus Christi, LMH and St Peter’s appeared to spend more overall on core services, particularly welfare.
Meanwhile, what distinguished high spenders, such as Magdalen JCR, was the size of discretionary spending, with £8,700 spent on general meetings at the College in the academic year 2013/14 — although the budget allocation for 2014/15 for this item was greatly reduced, at £3,500. In addition, like the medium spenders, the high spenders also spent a greater amount overall on core services.
All that being said, it is worth noting that the real determinant of JCR spending is not, in fact, the preference of their members, but how much colleges provide in grants to students, particularly if JCRs do not run their own bars or cafés, and so have only minimal independent income.