Patten faces legal problem over plan for student unions

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The Independent Online
Ministers have run up against serious legal difficulties in their proposals to make student union membership voluntary.

The existence of students' unions is laid down in university charters and some university statutes explicitly require that all students shall be members.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, revealed at the Tory party conference that he wanted to make membership voluntary. But it now emerges that to do this, it might mean changing the statutes or charters of every university - a mammoth task.

Another possibility would be to pass legislation retrospectively amending statutes. But this is seen as a non-starter because of the furore in 1988 when the Government was seeking ways of ending academic tenure - job security - for lecturers.

The Government then was forced to set up a body of university commissioners, whose job was to go round the country amending statutes one-by-one.

Ken Kitchen, registrar of the University of Manchester, said last night: 'I think the Government has real problems here. We have only a short statement saying 'there shall be a students' union'. But many universities have longer statutes or ordinances that lay down various regulations and policies in relation to the terms in which student unions can occupy premises, or what things can be changed by councils. There could be a problem in that it will vary from university to university.'

Another registrar said: 'The House of Lords have always said that retrospective legislation is wrong, so they cannot go down that road. Finding a solution that fits us all will be very difficult.'

The University of Kent's ordinances state that full membership of the union 'shall be obligatory upon all full-time registered students in the university'. Keele's ordinances say there shall be a students' union and members will be 'all matriculated students of the university'.

The statutes of the University of Newcastle say there shall be a union of students called the Union Society, and the calendar, which describes all the rules and regulations, says that all full-time students belong to the union.

Hull's charter also requires the existence of a students' union. Likewise, the City University, which adds that the powers and functions will be as prescribed in the ordinances. Kent's ordinances state that full membership of the union 'shall be obligatory upon all full-time registered students in the university'.

The position is different in the new universities, or former polytechnics, not governed by charters. Some articles of association do not refer to student unions. Others do, and governing bodies would have to make any necessary changes.

Ironically, in recent years, the Privy Council, whenever it has been asked to approve statute changes, has always insisted that there should be reference to a student union.

Oxford and Cambridge are separate still from all other universities. They are subject to various Acts of Parliament. The Oxford and Cambridge Act of 1923 has an appendix which refers to a students' union.

Meanwhile, the university commissioners have so far made firm decisions on statute modifications for 26 institutions. All are with the Privy Council, which has the final word.