Explainer: How the SU’s Finances work

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Explainer: How the SU’s Finances work

Why do the SU’s finances matter?

In recent weeks, some misinformation has been circulating online and in the student press about how the SU’s finances work. This article aims to provide reassurance and clarity for students, and signpost where to find out more if students are interested.

The SU’s finances matter because money is needed for everything the SU does - from funding the Shadowing Scheme, to running Freshers' Fair, to providing professional advisors running our Student Advice Service.

The SU is legally a charitable company, meaning that the Board of Trustees are ultimately responsible for matters like budgeting and expenditure. Nonetheless, all money has to be spent in a way that aligns with the SU’s charitable objects, which are explained in full in the charity’s Articles of Association. These are broad objectives specifying what the charity should do, including things like  ‘promoting the interests and welfare’ of students at the University, and ‘providing social, cultural, sporting and recreational activities’ for them. 

All students therefore have a right to know how money is being spent, because it’s being spent to their benefit and on their behalf.

Where does the SU’s money come from?

The SU’s income comes mainly from the University itself. This ‘block grant’ model of funding (whereby the higher education provider provides a direct grant to the students’ union at that institution) is now ubiquitous across the sector, having effectively been enshrined in law in the Education Act 1994, replacing other forms of funding like subscriptions or membership fees. This is similar to the way the vast majority of JCRs and MCRs get funding from their colleges.

The SU also receives a smaller direct grant from the Colleges as a collective (via an intercollegiate panel) to fund the Student Advice Service specifically. This means that JCRs and MCRs don’t pay for their students to be members of the SU (or pay the SU for any other reason), as used to be the case for one of Cambridge SU’s predecessor unions, CUSU, until the late 2010s.

This model of funding has significant benefits: it means that lots of services can be provided to students for free, without them having to pay either directly (at the point of use) or indirectly (via a membership fee or via their J/MCR). It also means that the SU can plan its budgets in the long term with the amount of income it receives remaining fairly predictable (rather than being based on annually varying membership numbers).

In the most recent full financial year (up to the end of June 2023), approximately 70% of the SU’s income was composed of the direct grant from the University, 14% was the direct grant from the Colleges, and 16% was commercial income and fundraising (such as income from digital advertising).

What’s the University’s role in the SU’s finances?

As well as being the SU’s largest single funder, the University is required by law to oversee certain elements of how the SU functions. The University Council (the University’s trustee board) has a specific sub-committee that fulfils this function. 

In terms of finances, the University has a legal role in reviewing the SU’s budget and monitoring its expenditure, and more generally in ensuring that the ‘financial affairs’ of the SU are properly conducted. The University Council sub-committee fulfils this role by overseeing how the SU plans its budget, and monitoring how the SU’s expenditure and income match against that. 

Crucially, the sub-committee is never involved in ‘political’ decisions about what the SU should prioritise, and it never instructs the SU to fund one thing or another: instead, its role is supervisory, ensuring that appropriate processes are in place and followed correctly.

How has the SU spent its money previously, and who monitors this externally?

In addition to direct oversight by the University, the income, expenditure, and reserves of the SU are set out in a comprehensive set of financial statements, which are filed with the Charity Commission and Companies House annually. These provide a transparent account of where the charity’s money comes from, and where it goes. They are created by the SU’s accountants, before being reviewed by external auditors, who conduct an audit of the organisation. The audit process allows for any issues or problems to be spotted and raised, and all charitable organisations over a certain size are required to conduct such an audit annually, as Cambridge SU does.

Students (and indeed all members of the public) can find the most recent set of audited accounts available online here, covering the period 1st July 2022 - 30th June 2023, alongside those for previous years.

What does the SU spend its money on?

As noted above, the SU funds a range of activities and services for students, ranging from staffing the Student Advice Service, to disbursing Society Grants, to organising major events like the Freshers’ Fair.

Detailed breakdowns of the SU’s annual draft budget are provided to the Annual Student Members’ Meeting each year, most recently the March 2024 meeting, for student members to comment on and ask questions about. 

Student members can find (behind a login portal) the breakdowns of draft annual budgets sent to Annual Student Members’ Meetings for financial years 2021-22, 2022-23, 2023-24, and 2024-25 (i.e., next year) on the Student Council webpage here.

How can I find out more?

Students can always email in to ask questions or find out more - in the first instance, it’s sensible to email a Sabbatical Officer or a member of the Board’s Finance Sub-committee with questions; that sub-committee includes the President (UG), who can be contacted with queries here.

In addition to all of the documentation given above, Cambridge SU will be holding two drop-in sessions, entitled “How the SU’s Finances Work”, in which student members can attend to ask any further questions to a member of the Board’s Finance Sub-committee directly. You can sign up to attend either of these via the event page on our What’s On calendar.


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