Rethinking Students’ Union Structures: “Trustees”

For larger students’ unions; say with a turnover of £100,000 or more- demonstrating good governance may require us to look critically at the current make up of “Trustee” boards in students’ unions.

Where this is effectively the “F&GPC” or “Finance and Staffing Committee”, it may be wise to consider widening the membership to include community or university representatives. There are some models of use from around the world.

Perhaps the key issue when looking at “Boards” in democratic organisations is ensuring that a single, “all powerful” board is not the model- this robs structures like the General Meeting, Council or other policy making and accountability bodies of their power. In addition, whilst a simple service provider or membership charity may find it easy to have a single, powerful board, in a students’ union the need to discuss campaigning and representational activity, along with the other functions of a traditional “board” may sit uneasily with a single, all powerful “board”.

The challenge is to generate structures which

  • Demonstrate legitimacy in the face of structural and cultural differences to usual charities
  • Ensure that the “compliance” role is in place and effective
  • Ensure that any (even constructively defined) trustees are empowered

Wearing Hats

One way to consider changes that can be made is to consider that elected student officers often have to wear different “hats” in their role- each hat having a set of skills, behaviours and knowledge that in the outside world would be distinctive roles.

For example- we could take the elected student officer as having three hats:

  • Portfolio Manager/Minister

I am the media sabb and manage the various media groups in the union

  • Mandatable, Elected Representative

I am part of the exec and so am accountable to the members through a council

  • Charity Trustee

As discussed

It is clear that in a large union it may not be possible just to assume that anyone- let alone annually elected students- can combine all three “hats” in one committee.

So for example- at Nottingham Trent the union has formed a “Trustee” committee that comprises the six sabbaticals and 2 externals (one from the University) that meets quarterly specifically to discharge the “Trustee” responsibilities- scrutiny, finance, health and safety etc. Officers report that separating out this “Trustee” hat allows for more effective consideration of “Trustee” issues whilst ensuring the union executive is still focussed on the union’s activities. In this way it is similar to Universities’ academic boards and governing bodies; the first considers the educational functions of the University; the second the infrastructure through which education can be delivered. Can students’ unions split things like this to ensure that good governance can mix with being student led and run?

Looking at Functions

One way of “conceptualising” the board is to divide its key functions into three:

  1. Regulatory- this is the “compliance” function
  2. Strategic- the development of the organisation
  3. Political- the response and role inside society’s wider system

It is easy to see how nos 2 and 3 fit into a traditional “exe committee” structure; just as easy to see how 1 and 2 fit into a “Trustee Board” culture. But it is hard to see how all 3 could sit inside a single “board” in a students’ union.

Hence one model may be to create two committees on an equal footing in s students’ union of this kind of size; one as a traditional “exec” looking at the day to day political activity of the union in its widest sense, as conceptualised as a membership organisation; with its associated events, representation and activities; the other acting as a “board”, able to draw in stakeholders and focus on the strategic and regulatory aspects.

Crucially, one would not be a mere “sub committee” of the other; each could act formally as sub committees of the council with defined but slightly overlapping memberships and functions.

For example; in one model, the “President” of the Union, would act as Chair of the executive; but would only be a member of the “Board” which would have its own chair. This would at first be confusing but in fact assist the organisation (particularly if the role of board chair was art time) assist in moving the organisation towards other organisations, and their role with relation to CEO-Chair relations. Other officers could, but need not, be members of said board.

For example:

  Union Executive Committee Trustee Board
Purpose and Function Political/ Strategic Regulatory/Strategic
Membership Elected Student Officers Stakeholder Model
Meets Fortnightly 6 Times a Year
Reports To Council To Council
Operates to standards Politically defined Organisationally/Legally defined
Comprised of: Sabbatical Officers

Part Time Officers

Union President (who may not be chair)

University Rep

Union Staff Rep

2 x Sabbaticals

2 x Part Time Officers

2 x Council Members

 

In some ways, the “board” would develop the organisation within which and through which “the exec” could carry out the business of a students’ union.

Twice a year the two bodies would meet “in congress” to discuss the strategic elements.

This way of working would:

  • Vitiate the problem of “accidental trustees”
  • Relieve “student representatives” from the day to day issue
  • Demonstrate legitimacy
  • Solve some of the “oddities” referred to earlier
  • Have a real cultural effect- improving the processes of Governance by building in external “viewers” to the compliance and organisational development aspects, whilst retaining direct membership control of the political.
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