The University of Sussex Students’ Union could change its charity status if students vote ‘yes’ in a forthcoming referendum which will take place on 16 November, spanning over three days.

Before voting commences, students will have the opportunity to discuss the matter at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) on 16 November in Mandela Hall from 1.30pm.

Currently the Students’ Union (SU) is an ‘exempt’ charity, but due to stipulations within the Charities Act 2006, it needs to become ‘fully registered’ with the Charity Commission by December 2011 at the latest.

Nearly all other university student unions have already made, or are in the process of making, the alterations necessitated by the Act. The alterations mean that unions, like all charities, will be under the supervision of the Charity Commission.

Not all the changes that are proposed in the referendum are legally required. Some of the more controversial parts of the changes surround the issue of the Union forming a trustee board that will be the top governing body of the Union.

Traditionally charity trustees are external people whose job it is to scrutinise the work of the charity. In the case of Students’ Unions, the National Union of Students (NUS) has negotiated that students will be allowed to be trustees but agreed to recommend, along with the Charity Commission, that external trustees would also sit on the Board.

The controversy arises because Students’ Unions have in the past been led exclusively by students, but a national trend has seen the inclusion of external trustees on Trustee Boards in nearly all Unions, including the NUS.

At the University of Sussex, the Students’ Union has sought to ensure that the positions usually saved for external members will be ring-fenced to allow only the university’s alumni and current students.

These members will be required to have expertise the areas of business, law and finance as well as at least two years worth of experience in the relevant field.

Students and alumni who wish to be members will be short-listed and then democratically ratified by a referendum or at an AGM. Successful candidates will occupy their position for two-year terms, after which they will have the option to run for two more.

For the status change to succeed, the Union will first hold a referendum. At least ten percent of the student body – 1,298 individuals – must vote in the referendum for the result to be considered binding. If students accept the change, the union will form a charitable company by the name of the University of Sussex Students’ Union, and apply for the Charity Commission for registration, in order that the assets and functions of the Students’ Union can be transferred to the new charity as of 1 August 2011 when the current union would be dissolved.

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