Ask the panel

September 14, 2007

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

'I work in the human resources department of a university and am unclear whether the university's equality schemes should encompass students union activities, or whether the unions themselves should be expected to provide equality schemes of their own. Would you please advise me?'

The Equality Challenge Unit says: "The positive equality duties, with their requirements to produce equality schemes, apply to public bodies, including universities, but students unions are not public bodies in their own right.

"However, the positive duties may apply to students unions indirectly, in one or more of the following ways:

"1. Many students unions will be involved in contractual relationships with universities, for example through use of premises, provision of services on behalf of the university, and so on. Statutory guidance from the equality commissions reminds universities that all procurement and contractual relationships are covered by the positive duties, which therefore need to be upheld by their contractors, including students unions.

"2. Another reason a university may require broad compliance with the positive equality duties when the students union is providing services on its behalf, is that it may be liable for any breaches of the equality legislation by the union. Likewise, in implementation of universities' statutory obligations to ensure the 'fair' operation of the students union and freedom of speech within the union, they may again require compliance with the positive duties.

"3. Students unions are charitable organisations. Guidance from the Charity Commission (Hallmarks of an Effective Charity, 2004) suggests that to be fit for purpose, an effective charity must recognise and promote diversity in beneficiaries, staff and volunteers.

"A students union may decide that the most effective way of ensuring fitness for purpose in this respect is by implementing the equivalent of an equality scheme."

"The Association of Managers in Students' Unions, in its diversity report of 2006, recommends that, in the light of the factors set out above, 'unions would be wise to act as if they were covered by this legal [public sector duty] requirement. On a practical level, it makes sense for universities and their unions to maintain the same institutional standard in relation to the promotion of equality and diversity'."

A University and College Union spokesperson says:

"The university's equality scheme should not directly cover students union activities.

"The National Union of Students is subject to anti-discrimination legislation as an employer and a service provider. Whether it is subject to the equality duties is a moot point, as it is not entirely clear whether it could be considered to be a public authority.

"On the surface it would appear that the answer is no, but it is in receipt of public funding, so it is possible that for gender and disability, where there is no list of public authorities, it could be regarded as one. It does not appear as one of the listed public authorities in relation to the race equality duty.

"Either way, it is obviously beneficial for the university to work in partnership with the NUS, as well as staff unions.

"Good practice in developing a single equality scheme would be to set up a steering group to develop it, headed by a senior manager and including representatives of the NUS and of the staff unions.

"The university has responsibility for ensuring that nothing it delivers for students discriminates on any of the protected grounds, but the NUS has the responsibility for ensuring that all freshers' events and social activities are free from discrimination.

"Of course, if the university is providing facilities such as meeting rooms to the NUS, it has a responsibility to ensure that the law is being fully complied with.

"The NUS nationally has a very strong commitment to equality, and a good campaigning record. In most cases, locally they will be very positive partners in promoting equality within the university."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, the Equality Challenge Unit and the Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded Dispute Resolution Project. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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