Social Justice

Birmingham Uni slammed for asking staff to donate to a food bank for students while in £58m surplus

'At a time of hardship and austerity, it's time UoB looked to its civic roots and shared its prosperity with all those on campus'

University of Birmingham

The university's most recent accounts show its vice chancellor was paid £401,000. Image: Elliott Brown/flickr

The University of Birmingham has been slammed for asking staff to donate to a food bank for students while the university’s finances run at a £58million surplus.

Staff were emailed on Thursday and “encouraged” to donate to a “community pantry” set up by the university’s Guild of Students – its Students’ Union – which hands out food parcels with emergency food for five days.

Birmingham’s most recent accounts, for 2020/21, show a budget surplus of £58million and total pay for its vice chancellor of £401,000.

The accounts also show the university had, as of 31 July 2021, £172million in “cash and cash equivalents”.

University of Birmingham
The email, sent to staff as part of a “University Briefing”. Screenshots: Big Issue

The email led to condemnation from a representative for staff at the university, who said the need for the food bank was “concerning” and called on the university to spread its wealth.

Mike Moore, the joint secretary of Birmingham’s UNISON branch, told the Big Issue: “While this is a genuine and community spirited initiative that staff will respond energetically to, the very fact this is warranted is deeply concerning. 

“No member of the university, staff or student, should be relying on foodbanks – our own branch has recently been accepted as a referring organisation by the Trussell Trust precisely because many of our low paid members are also struggling.”

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The University of Birmingham told the Big Issue it had already given £10million in hardship payments to students this academic year, and provides “micro-awards in the form of supermarket vouchers for students with immediate support needs”.

In the email, staff and students were “encouraged to donate (if they can)” and also told how to refer students to the support.

Students, so far, have seen no increase to maintenance loans despite soaring prices. It had led to warnings that as many as 300,000 students in the UK could be forced into financial peril by the cost of living crisis.

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The NUS has warned that “no amount of budgeting” will stop students falling into poverty, and said that one in 10 students were using food banks.

The pantry is designed to help students struggling with the cost of living crisis, with students able to book a collection slot for free.

Moore added: “We are in talks with the university at present that could lead to significant improvement in support staff pay, and this only underlines the urgency of this. The university generates a healthy, multi-million pound surplus every year, some of which comes from the sale of food on campus at commercial rates. At a time of hardship and austerity, it’s time UoB looked to its civic roots and shared its prosperity with all those on campus. 

“The university and the student union itself should become accredited living wage employers (which would also help support casual student workers) and look at the provision of subsidised food as well, rather than solely relying on philanthropy”.

A spokesperson for the University of Birmingham told the Big Issue: “Both the University of Birmingham and the University of Birmingham’s Guild of Students recognise the increased financial challenges students are facing this year and we are working together to offer additional support. The university’s wellbeing teams are available to offer advice, support and information to any student who is struggling, in parallel with the Guild advice team which includes a dedicated money adviser.   

“The university increased rental levels this year, in its own accommodation, below the rate of inflation and offers a range of accommodation at different price points – all of which are fully inclusive of utility costs, increases to which are not being passed along to students in year.”

The spokesperson added that the university takes part in the ‘Too Good to Go’ initiative with its campus food outlets, and added: “We have introduced a range of affordable meal deal options for students and staff in campus outlets, and we have made additional microwaves available for everyone, who would be welcome to bring their own food from home to eat in any of our social and retail spaces.”

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