The National Postgraduate Committee welcomes the opportunity to comment on `A charter for Student Unions', the publishing of which the NPC considers to be a very positive step. Our views on the document are as follows.
The proper use of public funds and The scrutiny of student union expenditure
Student union finances are already usually very well scrutinised by their parent institution, and as such the proposals outlined here for charitable status and a registrar of unions would present few difficulties and would be welcomed. Many of the NPC's members already have charitable status and do not feel adversely affected by it in fact, the NPC has itself seriously considered becoming a charity.
All organisations, in whatever field, who spend money on others' behalf should submit to proper accounting and auditing procedures.
The NPC would be pleased to see the establishment of proper mechanisms for funding which would allow for long term planning and consequent efficiencies.
While agreeing to most of these proposals, we would be concerned at any suggestion under section 4.2 and 4.3 that students unions should only be able to represent their students nationally through national organisation. Student unions should retain the fundamental right to represent their students at all levels in any way they choose, and this may mean doing so directly without affiliating to other bodies should they wish to do so.
Student union councils provide a good method of holding the executive accountable to the membership. Council membership should consist solely of elected students and consist of the executive (elected by all students), course representatives (elected by their course) and special interest groups (Clubs and societies rep, overseas rep, postgraduate rep, etc, elected from within the group concerned or by the council). The institution should not be able to choose course representatives (as happens at some institutions).
We are concerned with the ombudsperson proposal in its present form. It is very loosely defined, and could be used to provide for external control over the SU which we would oppose. Complaints should be dealt with by an agreed disciplinary procedure with the SU in the first instance, and only referred to the institution upon failure of such procedures. Any powers of redress must be very clearly defined.
The idea of a conscience clause needs to be very carefully considered. This concedes the argument on voluntary membership just at the point when the government seems to have accepted it with its proposals for core services available to all. The strongest argument of the existence of SUs is one of providing representation, since all other services could be provided elsewhere (with varying levels of difficulty). Representation cannot be opted out from, so at most a conscience clause should be considered only for ancillary services like to right to use bars or join clubs. Some form of membership would therefore be necessary for all students so that they may always seek representative from the Union if this becomes necessary.
The National Union of Students
The NUS provides a valuable resource, and should continue. Charitable status for the NUS would be a very good idea, and the moral authority gained would outweigh any restrictions on activity which might be involved.
With regard to ballots for affiliation, while we agree that affiliations should be subject to regular review, we are not certain that cross campus ballots are the best way of achieving this. The arguments against government by ballot are well versed, especially by the present Government with regard to the Maastricht Treaty, and a decision made by a well informed Council may be a better approach. We note, however, that the proposal is unlikely to harm the NPC, since ballots would be likely to run concurrently and consist of a list of organisations along with such organisations as UKCOSA, etc, with executive approval. In fact it may actually provide useful publicity. However, since it is a very small step to append the actual cost of affiliation to each ballot paper and regulations based on this charter may insist on such an idea it may become common for students to tick every box on the list except that of the NUS in a mistaken belief that they will be obtaining better value for money. It might be in the interest of the NUS that affiliations with a small monetary value be decided by the Council alone.