What are students' union permitted to do?

With the world's leaders descending on Glasgow in November for the latest COP summit, many students' unions and their societies will be gearing up to take action on climate change. This article is a reminder of the activities which an SU may and may not engage with, be that protests, boycotts, campaigns or some other creative way of forcing the world to realise that we need to change the way we do things, urgently, to prevent a global catastrophe from getting any worse.

Excuse the language but.is it ultra vires?

During my year as a sabbatical officer, this phrase was the favourite of a certain type of student politician. Quite why people love this use of Latin is beyond me, but for those who would prefer a simpler approach, we're just talking about what an SU may do, in law.

Before engaging in any COP26-related activity, an SU should ask itself whether it has the power to do it. There are three aspects to consider:

  1. Is it permitted by the students' union's constitution, particularly the charitable objects? Chances are, the objects will say something about the students' union's objects being the advancement of education of students at a named institution. This means that everything the SU does must be with this aim: it must assist with the education of students, at that particular named institution.
  2. Is it compatible with being a charity? Is it for public benefit? Are the trustees complying with their duties in permitting the activity to go ahead, for example is it in the best interests of the SU?
  3. Is it compatible with the Education Act 1994? Does it further the interests of students as students? If you're funding a society activity, does it reflect the fair allocation of resources between societies?

Whatever decision is reached, it should be carefully minuted in writing, with reasons for the decision recorded. This all helps to demonstrate that the trustees have acted reasonably in the circumstances.

Campaigning and political activity

There are strict rules which govern what kind of campaigning and political activity a charity may do. Simply put, any campaigning activity must be justified as furthering the charity's purposes and the Charity Commission is clear that it must not become the sole activity or the reason for the charity's existence. The Charity Commission has useful guidance on this (CC9) (see here) and its Official Guidance for students' unions (OG48) has a handy section on political activity and campaigning (see here). It's well worth reading both of these if your SU is planning something COP26-related.

What about society activity?

Ah, the perennial question of whether an SU's societies are part of the SU or are independent entities. The lawyer's answer, as always, is 'it depends'. We sometimes see societies which are separate registered charities: they are not part of the SU. In contrast, where a society has a constitution prescribed by its SU, has no separate bank account and isn't affiliated to any external organisations, it's highly likely to be part of its parent SU. For these purposes, it's safest to assume that societies are part of the SU and that any activity a society engages in must be possible for the SU itself to do.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.