Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On trustee boards for students' unions

Currently one of the big issues consuming a lot of time at many students' unions across the country are the recent changes to Charity Law, including the requirement to have clearcut definitions of trustees. There are a lot of myths flying around about what the act does and doesn't require, and frankly some attempts to sneakily slip through other changes that are not required by charity law, but this isn't really the place to discuss those.

One common proposal is to have a trustee board, made up of a mixture of some Union officers, some ordinary elected students and external experts. My former students' union, Kent Union, is currently holding a referendum on such a model and, although I've not been following the internals of Kent Union for the last few years, I have to say this proposal is a strong improvement on the current set-up.

The last major constitutional rewrite (carried out in 2001-2002 by a working party including myself) frankly really only rearranged some officer positions, modified the decision making bodies to be practicable and semi-admitted that de facto the university and student body isn't really collegiate anymore (see my past comments on this in From Vision to Reality), but didn't really grapple with some of the more basics such as the often difficult relationship between democracy and charity law. This was because none of us on the working group really knew very much about the details of it, even though there had been an incident over charity law at the start of the year.

The said incident would undoubtedly have been handled better under this proposed new set-up. The Union affiliated to the National Abortion Campaign in late 2000, with not a little controversy and one individual was determined to end the affiliation by any means possible. Flash forward to the start of the new year and the incoming President Alix Wolverson received a letter from said individual citing dodgily obtained legal advice and comments from someone at a Scottish students' association that said the affiliation was probably beyond the Union's legal scope ("Ultra vires"). I know what some of you are thinking - Scotland has a different legal system so cases are not always automatically precedents for England & Wales. And "is probably" is not clear cut advice.

However the decision on this was taken by what was then the "Finance and General Purposes Committee" made up of just the six sabbatical officers. They didn't all have a training in law (from recollection at least five if not all six weren't even law students) and some didn't even know what a Constitution was (including Alix Wolverson, the President!). As a result a decision to disaffiliate got taken which proved messy because a) those dissenting didn't agree with the advice or its basis; b) the committee didn't actually have the powers to make this decision under the constitution; c) the decision was announced to the wider student body (and even the executive) in a very bad way, with the result that very few even understood the reasoning behind the decision; and d) there were subsequently attempts to reinstate the motion, including one that said that the Union should go all the way through the courts over this affiliation. (The fee was a mere £65 - all perspective was lost!)

Had there been a properly defined trustee board with expert members on it, and with continuity from year to year, then both the original decision to affiliate and the subsequent decision to disaffiliate would have been subject to expert advice and opinion from the outset, the mechanics would have been a lot easier to explain to the Union at large and it's probable that one of the two decisions would not have been made. Whilst diehards will always be diehards, the Union as a whole could have got on with more important matters without having to deal with a lot of bad feelings because of the way the matter was (mis)handled).


Simon said...

While I sympathize with the need for such an entity, the problem that jumps out -- from bitter experience -- is that when you make such an entity a gatekeeper for enacting union policy, the elected officers -- who in many unions will often lack familiarity with legal and administrative issues -- may find themselves manipulated, should trustees be so inclined. I don't want to name names, but I can remember several instances when the dreaded spectre of "ultra vires" was wheeled out to explain why the union couldn't do this or that by the general manager, and on at least one occasion, by advisers at NUS itself. The executive officers swallowed this hook, line, and sinker, and declared that any policy passed by Union Council that they determined was ultra vires would be considered void. As Madison observed, men are not angels, and those who seek election in student politics are even less likely to be so.

It seems to me that you're in a bind: the trustees should be disinterested in the day-to-day operation of the Union, but at the same time, by the very fact that they are trustees they are involved. It's a tough one.

cim said...

I think another problem is finding the external experts - given the often precarious position of SUs, having to take the blame if it all goes wrong is a big risk. So who'd want to be an SU trustee? The University could probably dig up some people, but that I think would be dangerous to having an independent SU - on the other hand, where else would you find them. Alumni networks are a possibility, but risk you getting the same people who messed things up ten years ago back for another go (of course, they might well have learnt from their mistakes a bit in the meantime, so this might be a good thing).

There are also questions about how you appoint the external trustees and whether they should be a majority (I say democractically and no, but others disagree)


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