Student Grants

The furore over Birmingham University Guild of Students (BUGS) decision to effectively shut down the University’s Evangelical Christian Union rumbles on, with the Guild attracting all the wrong headlines.

In fact, tonight’s local press is carrying another story (not online as yet so no link) claiming that the National Blood Service has been barred by the SU for allegedly ‘discriminating’ against gay men – if the story is correct then it would appear the SU has decided that the National Blood Service’s observance of NHS policy, which classes gay men as ‘high risk’ for infections such as HIV and Hepatitis and therefore excludes them from giving blood falls foul of the SU’s anti-discrimination policy.

As I only saw this in passing, I can’t verify the validy of the story as yet, but if this is true then it would certain back up the view that those in charge of the Guild are distinctly short on common sense, like our friend below.

Going back to the Christian Union issue, the Birmingham Mail has published this ‘explanation’ from Union President, Richard Angell, in trying to justify the Guild’s actions:

Birmingham University’s Student Guild said it was merely enforcing the 1994 Education Act which states student societies have to be open to all.

It said 15 faith groups on campus – including the Islamic Society, the Sikh Society and a non-evangelical Christian body – had already complied with the regulations.

Guild president Richard Angell said: “It is not about faith, it is about complying with the law.

“Our members have the right to stand for the executive committee of any society they join. Our societies must be democratic and must not discriminate based on religion.”

A solicitor acting for the evangelists has warned the guild it will be issued with court proceedings unless the funds are returned.

Now, having read the relevant sections of the Education Act 1994, which relate to Student Unions (s20-22), either Mr Angell and his colleagues at the Guild do not understand the law or they are simply citing it to cover their collective arses.

I will omit s21 from consideration here as this mere1y defines in which kinds of educational establishments a Student Union may operate.

Section 22 is the section which regulates how Student Union’s operate, as below:

22.—(1) The governing body of every establishment to which this Part applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that any students’ union for students at the establishment operates in a fair and democratic manner and is accountable for its finances.

(2) The governing body shall in particular take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that the following requirements are observed by or in relation to any students’ union for students at the establishment—

(a) the union should have a written constitution;

(b) the provisions of the constitution should be subject to the approval of the governing body and to review by that body at intervals of not more than five years;

(c) a student should have the right—

(i) not to be a member of the union, or

(ii) in the case of a representative body which is not an association, to signify that he does not wish to be represented by it,

and students who exercise that right should not be unfairly disadvantaged, with regard to the provision of services or otherwise, by reason of their having done so;

(d) appointment to major union offices should be by election in a secret ballot in which all members are entitled to vote;

(e) the governing body should satisfy themselves that the elections are fairly and properly conducted;

(f) a person should not hold sabbatical union office, or paid elected union office, for more than two years in total at the establishment;

(g) the financial affairs of the union should be properly conducted and appropriate arrangements should exist for the approval of the union’s budget, and the monitoring of its expenditure, by the governing body;

(h) financial reports of the union should be published annually or more frequently, and should be made available to the governing body and to all students, and each such report should contain, in particular—

(i) a list of the external organisations to which the union has made donations in the period to which the report relates, and

(ii) details of those donations;

(i) the procedure for allocating resources to groups or clubs should be fair and should be set down in writing and freely accessible to all students;

(j) if the union decides to affiliate to an external organisation, it should publish notice of its decision stating—

(i) the name of the organisation, and

(ii) details of any subscription or similar fee paid or proposed to be paid, and of any donation made or proposed to be made, to the organisation,

and any such notice should be made available to the governing body and to all students;

(k) where the union is affiliated to any external organisations, a report should be published annually or more frequently containing—

(i) a list of the external organisations to which the union is currently affiliated, and

(ii) details of subscriptions or similar fees paid, or donations made, to such organisations in the past year (or since the last report),

and such reports should be made available to the governing body and to all students;

(l) there should be procedures for the review of affiliations to external organisations under which—

(i) the current list of affiliations is submitted for approval by members annually or more frequently, and

(ii) at such intervals of not more than a year as the governing body may determine, a requisition may be made by such proportion of members (not exceeding 5 per cent.) as the governing body may determine, that the question of continued affiliation to any particular organisation be decided upon by a secret ballot in which all members are entitled to vote;

(m) there should be a complaints procedure available to all students or groups of students who—

(i) are dissatisfied in their dealings with the union, or

(ii) claim to be unfairly disadvantaged by reason of their having exercised the right referred to in paragraph (c)(i) or (ii) above,

which should include provision for an independent person appointed by the governing body to investigate and report on complaints;

(n) complaints should be dealt with promptly and fairly and where a complaint is upheld there should be an effective remedy.

(3) The governing body of every establishment to which this Part applies shall for the purposes of this section prepare and issue, and when necessary revise, a code of practice as to the manner in which the requirements set out above are to be carried into effect in relation to any students’ union for students at the establishment, setting out in relation to each of the requirements details of the arrangements made to secure its observance.

(4) The governing body of every establishment to which this Part applies shall as regards any students’ union for students at the establishment bring to the attention of all students, at least once a year—

(a) the code of practice currently in force under subsection (3),

(b) any restrictions imposed on the activities of the union by the law relating to charities, and

(c) where the establishment is one to which section 43 of the [1986 c. 61.] Education (No.2) Act 1986 applies (freedom of speech in universities and colleges), the provisions of that section, and of any code of practice issued under it, relevant to the activities or conduct of the union.

(5) The governing body of every establishment to which this Part applies shall bring to the attention of all students, at least once a year, and shall include in any information which is generally made available to persons considering whether to become students at the establishment—

(a) information as to the right referred to in subsection (2)(c)(i) and (ii), and

(b) details of any arrangements it has made for services of a kind which a students’ union at the establishment provides for its members to be provided for students who are not members of the union.

(6) In subsections (2), (4) and (5) the expression “all students” shall be construed as follows—

(a) in relation to an association or body which is a students’ union by virtue of section 20(1), the reference is to all students at the establishment;

(b) in relation to an association or body which is a students’ union by virtue of section 20(2), the reference is to all undergraduate, or all graduate, students at the establishment or to all students at the hall of residence in question, as the case may be;

(c) in relation to an association or body which is a students’ union by virtue of section 20(3), the reference is to all the students who by virtue of section 20(1) or (2) are comprehended by that expression in relation to its constituent or affiliated associations or bodies.

(7) In this section the expression “members”, in relation to a representative body which is not an association, means those whom it is the purpose of the union to represent, excluding any student who has exercised the right referred to in subsection (2)(c)(ii).

(8) In subsection (2)(j) to (l) the references to affiliation to an external organisation, in relation to a students’ union for students at an establishment, include any form of membership of, or formal association with, an organisation whose purposes are not confined to purposes connected with that establishment.

(9) Subsection (2)(d) and (l)(ii) (elections and affiliations: requirements to hold secret ballot of all members) do not apply in the case of an open or distance learning establishment, that is, an establishment where the students, or the great majority of them, are provided with materials for private study and are not required to attend the establishment to any significant extent or at all.

Now, unlike BUGS, I can actually read and understand primary legislation and what is entirely and absolutely clear is that this section set out the regulations that apply to Student Unions in their operations BUT NOT to any clubs or societies which operate under the aegis of a Student Union.

This is of particular relevance here to BUGS assertion that all clubs and societies must be open to all students. This is not true in terms of this Act, which requires ONLY that the Student Union as a whole must be open to all students.

What is happening here is that BUGS are misinterpreting S22(6)(c) of the Act as applying to clubs and societies on the basis that it states:

(6) In subsections (2), (4) and (5) the expression “all students” shall be construed as follows—

(a) in relation to an association or body which is a students’ union by virtue of section 20(1), the reference is to all students at the establishment;

(b) in relation to an association or body which is a students’ union by virtue of section 20(2), the reference is to all undergraduate, or all graduate, students at the establishment or to all students at the hall of residence in question, as the case may be;

(c) in relation to an association or body which is a students’ union by virtue of section 20(3), the reference is to all the students who by virtue of section 20(1) or (2) are comprehended by that expression in relation to its constituent or affiliated associations or bodies.

However this refers back to the definition of a Student Union in s20 of the Act, and in particular to s20(1)-(3), this section reading as follows:

20.—(1) In this Part a “students’ union” means—

(a) an association of the generality of students at an establishment to which this Part applies whose principal purposes include promoting the general interests of its members as students; or

(b) a representative body (whether an association or not) whose principal purposes include representing the generality of students at an establishment to which this Part applies in academic, disciplinary or other matters relating to the government of the establishment.

(2) References in this Part to a students’ union include an association or body which would fall within subsection (1) if for the references to the generality of students at the establishment there were substituted a reference to—

(a) the generality of undergraduate students, or graduate students, at the establishment; or

(b) the generality of students at a particular hall of residence of the establishment.

(3) References in this Part to a students’ union include an association or body which consists wholly or mainly of—

(a) constituent or affiliated associations or bodies which are themselves students’ unions within subsection (1) or (2), or

(b) representatives of such constituent or affiliated associations, and which fulfils the functions of a students’ union within subsection (1) or (2) in relation to students at an establishment to which this Part applies.

To be absolutely clear here, in law a Student Union represents the Students of a University in general to promote their interest as students in academic, disciplinary or other matters relating to the government of the establishment; i.e. in their relationship with the University itself – s20(1).

An association which represents all students at a university OR all students at a particular hall of residence within a university is, in law, a Student Union – s20(2).

An association which is made up mainly or wholly of affiliated Student Unions is also, in law a Student Union. This, obviously, includes the NUS, but also SUs at universities where individual colleges or halls of residence have their own SUs.

Nothing in this definition of a Student Union would apply to an individual club or society that is affiliated to the Student Union as individual societies, such as Christian Union, an LGBT society or a roleplaying club are NOT Student Unions in their own right and do not fulfill the purpose and function of a Student Union.

In fact the only element of this Act which set a specific requirement in relation to clubs and societies is this:

the procedure for allocating resources to groups or clubs should be fair and should be set down in writing and freely accessible to all students;

I have, in reading various comments about this issue, seen ‘charity law’ cited as a possible issue here – as far as I can see, it is not an issue, at least not in terms of the reasons given by BUGS for its decision.

Charity law permits reasonable restrictions to be placed on eligibility for membership of a charity, in line with the objects of a charity.

It is, therefore, entirely permissible for an African-Caribbean community organisation to restrict its membership solely to those of African Caribbean descent. It is also permissible for a women’s organisation to restrict membership only to women, and LGBT organisation only to those who self-indentify as being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transsexual and it it is entirely permissible for a religious organisation to restrict membership only to those of a specific religion and such restrictions can include restrictions based on a specific doctrine. I know this for certain having registered several such charities – in the main Evangelical churches and congregations, over the last 6-7 years and on no occasion did any difficulties arise with the Charity Commission.

And yes, in taking these groups through charity registration, the issie of equal opportunities, particularly in relation to homesexuality did come up on numerous occasions and in some cases the church in question insisted that equal opportunities statements were ‘diluted’ to remove references to equality on grounds of sexuality and transgender because it did not fit with their doctrinal beliefs…

…and not once was this raised or challenged by the Charity Commission during registration.

BUGS other cited ‘problem’ with the Christian Union relates to its internal democratic processes, which were reported to the Guild committee as allowing the outgoing committee to nominate its replacements without recourse to election or nominations from the wider membership of the group.

As I now understand it, this is not an entirely accurate picture – it is true that the outgoing committee nominates its replacements but if my information is correct, all such nominations are subject to ratification by the membership, who have the right to vote against a particular nominee and exclude them from the committee.

In practical terms, therefore, this is little different from the kind of candidate selection practices used by political parties, in which potential candidates are vetted by the party heirarchy before going on to the panel of candidates (excuse me for using Labour terminolgy here, its what I know best). It is also close enough in approximation to the process used the US for appointments to the Supreme Court and to the position of UN ambassador, where nominations are made by the President but subject to democratic ratification by Congress. This may not meet the ideal of democracy in membership organisations, as some see it, but it is not – if this is indeed the Birmingham Christian Union’s practice – an undemocratic process.

On this basis it certainly does not appear that the Birmingham University Guild of Student’s stated reasons for derecognising the Christian Union and freezing its bank account stand up to scrutiny – to be a little less polite about it, they appear to be making a complete bunches of arses of themselves.

As for what happens next, the Christian Union have engaged the services of a lawyer to fight their case and, quite frankly, if, because Student Unions are governed by an enactment in the Education Act 1994, the lawyer can make the argument that BUGS is acting as public authority here, then the Christian Union has a fair chance of making a case stick under articles 11 and 14 of the Human Rights Act, which cover Freedom of Assocation and the right to enjoy right accorded under ECHR without discrimination.

If such a case were brought successfully, this would not only have ramifications for Birmingham’s SU but for every SU in the country and for the NUS as well, which is why it would seem to me to be a sensible move for the NUS to intervene and, at the very least, get a lawyer who understands all the relevant legislation to look over this case and advise them as to where BUGS stand and how this might splashback on other Student Unions. Someone needs to applying some common sense to this situation, and the NUS may be best placed to do it if they’ve a mind to.

Of course, there is another route through this, if Students at Birmigham University wish to take it. I dare say that BUGS is little different to most other SU inasmuch as the vast majority of students at the university really don’t give a toss about how its run as long as the bars open on time and couldn’t care less about Union politics, which is, broadly-speaking, why things like this happen as most SU end up being run by a minority of activists whose claim to actually represent the student body as a whole is, to say the least, somewhat questionable.

And that route?

Nothing more than a good old fashioned no-confidence motion, which, unless BUGS can come up with something more substantive to back up their actions, is only really what they deserve.

Oh, and in case anyone gets any dumb ideas about claiming bias on my part here, I should just point out that, as regular readers know well, I am an atheist and completely open in my dislike of religion. It’s just that I dislike this kind of discriminatory illiberal crap even more.

  • Jesus Christ, Unity: you really are something else. Anytime that you want to write at The Kitchen (yes, even from a horrible Labour perspective), then please feel free!

    Great article.

    DK

  • Unity

    Thanks… I think? 😀

    I will take you up on the offer of writing for DK in due course, in fact I have something in mind which may suit and is only mildly socialist in the sense that it builds on Orwell’s characterisation of ‘Englishness’ from his ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’.

  • Here-here (or is it hear-hear). The research that goes into these posts is second to none, and as a fellow aetheist I wholeheartedly support the closing seniment too.

    I’m not sure whether this is a classic case of Political Correctness Gone Wrong or a Nanny State in Miniture, but the underlying sentiment behind BUGS action does seem to be one of overadministration, not trusting their students to make sane decisions about clubs.

    Why would a non-Christian want to join the Christian Union anyway. It reminds me of ‘Reg’ (I think) in ‘Life of Brian’ fighting for the right to have babies.

  • Eleanor

    As a Christian student at Birmingham University, well done, I hope and am sure that the CU’s lawers will look at it the same way.

  • I’m grateful that you reference the law. There is a lot of fear of political correctness, and a presumption by many of us that the law is unfair to normal people. It is therefore refreshing to find out that, in fact, it is not.

    Whatever will these BUGS people be like when, in twenty years time, they are legislating what the rest of us can and cannot say?