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Students’ Union constitution rejected: Proposed switch to charitable status delayed as university committee fails to approve crucial document

The Students’ Union’s proposals for a new constitution have been rejected by the university, meaning that plans to reform the union as a charitable company will be postponed at least until February 2011.

The Students’ Union is currently undergoing a transition to bring the Students’ Union in compliance with the Charities Act of 2006.

In order to conform to the national legislation, the Students’ Union must transfer all of its assets to the ownership of one single charitable company. The Students’ Union has described the change as a “legal exercise” and that “The key part of this process is that as a member of the University of Sussex Students’ Union you have to give your consent for this to be made legal.”

Registering as a charity involves drafting a new set of governing documents named the Articles of Association, or simply, the constitution.  This involves outlining the Students’ Union’s purpose and rules with information concerning its role as a charity.
Once completed this union constitution has to be approved by the university itself, who can clear the charity for registration by the UK Charity Commission.

The University of Sussex’s Strategy and Performance Committee conducted the review of the new constitution, but refused to ratify the document.
The committee indicated that they are particularly concerned with “the precise appointment process for the independent trustees and the ability for the Union to be flexible in future in terms of the number of its sabbatical team”.

Charitable organizations are controlled by a board of trustees, and the university committee is effectively challenging the composition of this board, refusing any composition that does not include members who have been away from the Union and the University for a minimum of three years.
The Students’ Union had been in negotiation with the University for three months prior to the committee meeting and had reached what it referred to as “the best deal we’ve had so far”.

The referendum, which would have enabled the change of constitution, was due to commence on 16 November, and would have asked for student agreement to transfer the union’s assets to a new union charity, and for student agreement to the new constitution as a whole.

This would have democratically formalized the procedure, providing the opportunity for students to oppose aspects of the constitution or put forward proposals for changes. The Students’ Union requires ten percent of students to vote in a referendum that changes  the constitution.

The Students’ Union released a statement, declaring postponement as a result of “circumstances beyond our control”. The statement continues “[the Strategy and Performance Committee has] overruled the agreement met between the union and the university”.

The university commented: “the committee has been exercising its scrutiny of these draft documents carefully and thoroughly, as is entirely proper.”�
Further, the university suggests a workable solution, stating: “The university will now be continuing to work with the Students’ Union to reach a final version, which takes account of the committee’s views.”

The university further asserted that the committee “has been a strong supporter of the creation of the new constitution seeing it as an opportunity to embody best practice in Students’ Union governance”.

Despite this, relations between union and university are at a highpoint following the university’s open support of the Students’ Union’s participation in the 10 November national student protests in London.
The university expects approval for the constitution in the spring term, which is significantly later than the  original union plan.

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