Call for universities to get tougher with student unions

July 30, 1999

A Conservative MP has called for tougher measures to make universities ensure student unions are keeping to the law.

Introducing a debate on student unions in the House of Commons, Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East, called on the government to back measures in the 1994 Education Act relating to student union democracy that oblige university governing bodies to ensure that student unions "operate in a fair and democratic manner".

He asked further and higher education minister George Mudie to agree that these measures ruled out removing a student union president elected by a full cross-campus ballot and, if not, to close the loophole.

Mr Lewis later accused university authorities of being "spineless" in failing to support students in disagreements with their union.

His interest in the issue stems from a dispute at Oxford Brookes University in 1995 when Mags Whelan was ousted as the university's first Conservative-voting student union president after a vote of no confidence.

Ms Whelan made 66 complaints against her former executive about the way she had been removed and criticised the university's handling of the case, saying it had "patted the executive on the back" by upholding one complaint fully and two partially.

"What this case shows is the spinelessness of university authorities who offer no help or protection whatsoever to students when they are subjected to unconstitutional behaviour by the student union," said Mr Lewis.

He called on the government to suggest sanctions against a university that failed to ensure the student union had conducted itself legally.

Replying to Mr Lewis, Mr Mudie said the government supported the 1994 act, but did not agree that it ruled out removal, by an open meeting, of officers elected by secret ballot.

"It is for the university code of practice and union procedures to decide," he said. "It gives student unions freedom, which they are clearly using with good sense."

Brian Summers, deputy vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, said the university did not feel it had failed to act in a proper fashion in the case involving Mags Whelan.

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