Students' Unions: Practical Tips On Dealing With Contentious Topics

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We recently hosted a webinar on contentious topics within students' unions, looking at how to prevent problems arising. This article is a short summary of some practical...
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We summarise some useful advice on how to manage contentious issues within students' unions.

We recently hosted a webinar on contentious topics within students' unions, looking at how to prevent problems arising. This article is a short summary of some practical steps covered during the session.

SU officers and staff should:

  • Understand the rules on ultra vires. A students' union must only take actions which are within its powers, i.e. which are permitted by its constitution, compatible with being a charity, compatible with the Education Act 1994 and, where the SU is a company, takes into account directors' duties under the Companies Act 2006.
  • Understand what the SU's charitable purposes are. In virtually all cases, the overarching charitable purpose of an SU will be to advance education, but check how this is worded in your governing document.
  • Familiarise themselves with relevant Charity Commission guidance on (for example) trustee duties, campaigning and political activity.
  • Familiarise themselves with the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, including the guidance from the Office for Students. This is currently in draft form and is not without its problems, so we urge you to respond to the consultation before the deadline closes on 26 May 2024.
  • Attend regular training on these principles, and arrange such training for other people within the SU who might benefit from it, such as society officers. We can help with this training!
  • Consider allocating responsibility to a particular committee, officer or staff member to review resolutions before they are put to a student vote. In some cases, a resolution can be reworded to frame it in a way which makes it permissible for an SU, for example framing it around the advancement of education. There could also be a process for referring difficult cases to the board of trustees, or for external legal advice.
  • Record any resolutions which are passed, and discussions leading up to it, to demonstrate the reasoning behind a particular decision.
  • Ensure there are clear delegation arrangements in place, setting out which people or committees can decide on what and where reporting lines sit.
  • Be clear on which issues need to be referred to the board of trustees. We have seen the Charity Commission ask for confirmation that the whole board had signed off on a particular statement.
  • When issuing statements on controversial topics, check them multiple times to ensure they comply with the law and don't expose the students' union to an unacceptable level of reputational risk. Sometimes the person receiving it may not read it in the way that the person issuing it intended. Consider taking PR advice.
  • Review all policies, terms of reference etc to make sure they are up-to-date and reflect new legislation and guidance (particularly on freedom of speech). This is also a useful exercise to do anytime you deal with a contentious matter, to review in light of practical experience.
  • Consider putting in place a 'communicating well' or 'co-existing well on campus' policy. Some useful resources include the Chicago Principles and the Charter for Responsible Debate.
  • Stress-test your constitution, bye-laws, policies, procedures and employment contracts with hypothetical scenarios. How well do they cope? Do they all work together as they should?

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.

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