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The Straits Times

Of Financial Accountability and Transparency

Last week, NUSSU came under fire for not being able to give a detailed breakdown of its yearly income and expenditure” (Unions’ Finances Are Clear: Varsities, Miss Amelia Teng).

Precision in communication, as it is with the reporting of finances, is important. While it was reported that finances of the student unions of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University are “clear” (ST, Oct. 2), this clarity seems to confuse accountability and transparency. In other words, the student unions – by virtue of their financial due diligence and responsibility to their students – may be accountable, yet the absence of more detailed breakdown of finances still raises questions about transparency.

There is little doubt that the NUS Students’ Union (NUSSU) adheres “to the university’s policies and procedures [of procurement and payment policies]”. External, independent auditors also ensure that the accounts are generally in order. Nonetheless, the crux of student queries was that substantial portions of income and expenditure were unexplained. For instance with the operating expenditure of $1.28 million in the 2013 reports, $26,000 went to manpower, $10,000 to depreciation, $30,000 to rental, and $78,000 to printing and publicity. The remaining $1.14 million was classified as “other operating expenditure”.

NUS and NUSSU may be transparent over their financial processes, but students would like to – quite justifiably – understand how monies were spent. What constitutes the $1.14 million of “other operating expenditure”, for example?

Curiously, the NUS spokesman said more financial details “can be made available to NUSSU upon request”, and that the university administration can be in touch to provide more help. In the first place can details be published without such requests, at least on an event-to-event basis? If not, what are the constraints? How many requests has NUSSU made to the NUS financial offices, and has the information been useful? More fundamentally would NUSSU, despite the administrative challenges, push for financial independence, which should – in theory – give it greater autonomy to push for causes and activities? It would also be free of the “administrative constraints” of the university, so as to surface more details.

This is no easy task. NUSSU is helmed by an executive committee, but the NUSSU Council is represented by 14 constituent clubs, eight associate bodies, as well as the hall committees and the residential college student committees. These clubs and bodies cannot set up private bank accounts, so governance as a whole is complex. It may be tempting to decry those calling for transparency as rabble-rousers, and that the opportunity costs of preparing more detailed financial statements is too high. However, these questions should get us thinking about how our student unions are structured, and whether we agree – collectively.

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About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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