Cambridge’s Graduate Union

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007. 9:34pm

I was asked by the Student Representative on Cambridge University’s University’s Council and General Board to comment on the status of Cambridge’s Graduate Union. My reply is below:


Thank you for taking the contents of my previous email into consideration. I’ve given you my thoughts on the points you’ve raised:

I have been trying to find out the legal status of the GU.

That’s a difficult question to answer. The president of Imperial College Union has recently said on that question: “Ask two lawyers and you’ll get three answers” (its not an original quote but its exactly what happened when at Imperial the union and the college consulted QCs)

The NUS has recently got a QC’s opinion on the general question: This says they’re generally separate entities.

(Imperial’s Union recently paid a QC to say the opposite – but that was on the basis of a specific line in Imperial’s Statutes which said rather explicitly: “ICU [Imperial College Union] is for all purposes an integral part of the College [The University]“)

Regardless of the “legal entity” question, the GU’s finances are tightly controlled by the University, the GU uses the University’s accounting system, the President of the GU is accountable financially to the University Council. The NUS’s QC specifically addresses this point and states: “If a University is in control of a Unions’ finances that is a factor pointing to the Union being part of the University but not in my view sufficient to establish this.” I think this is a useful point with respect to the GU.

The legal status of Student Unions’ nationwide is currently a major topic of concern as there have been changes in charity law placing more reporting requirements on charities and more responsibilities on their trustees. The default position of a Student Union is that it is considered a Charity unless it or its institution makes clear otherwise. Many of the country’s leading Universities student’s unions (Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham’s Guild of Students) have trustee boards which the union reports to independently of the institution. Without such a structure there is a question as to who are the trustees of the unions. The charities commission says “all the officers”, some QC’s have said its the University’s governing body, neither fits the accepted best practice.

Over the next year or so the question of who the GU’s trustees are is one which ought to be answered; this might be an opportunity to seek greater independence for the GU – or at least clarification of its position. (If the GU had a trustee board would the University Council let the GU be financially accountable to that?)

Many students unions are very hot on inducting their new officers into the requirements/guidance for charities; Cambridge isn’t with the exception of : it’s certainly not a point I’ve felt has really got down to those involved in union activities in Cambridge.

As best I can tell, it was created by the University and operates under the University Codes and Statues, as well as a University approved Constitution. Thus, if the Junior Proctor issues a ruling, such as requiring Leo to be named President or requiring new elections, and that ruling is then affirmed by SACSM, and the GU refuses to comply with this ruling and allows Clare to assume the Presidency next week, do you think that the University might evict the GU from its space and cut off funding? I have enquired about the 60,000 pound surplus that the GU has, and have been told that this might also be claimed as University property, not the property of a GU that is not in compliance with University regulations.

According to Regulation M (p. 192) of the code of practice accompanying Regulation 11 in

“Compliance with these remedies is a condition of University grant to the unions. If a remedy is not implemented ,the matter will be referred to the Student Matters Committee so that abatement or termination of University grant, or other measures, can be considered.”.

To me “other measures” is vague enough to mean they can do what they want. Your role on that committee will be to do your best to ensure they act reasonably!

As for what I think they would do – I don’t think they would close the GU.

Imperials’s Graduate Sabbatical was created after prompts from the QAA

“The position of DPGS was created following the QAA audit of Imperial College held in 2005 which commended the undergraduate representation structure but brought up concerns about the representation of post graduates.” (The facts are even more sensational than the story – Imperial found out they were going to be criticised on this point in the QAA report while the QAA were on-site, and decided there and then to fund the position and told the QAA team – so their report actually states something along the lines of “and we were told while we were here this is going to be fixed” – the advantages of a chief executive straight from running a major pharmaceutical corporation!)

Cambridge won’t want to kill its Graduate Union because of pressure from outside such as that from the QAA. It might be useful for you to point this out to SACSM if the registry doesn’t mention it.

Back to Cambridge though – SACSM could if the GU ignored the ruling:

  • Hand over running of the GU to CUSU, including giving them responsibility for the space / other assets / electing a new sabbatical in a new election.
  • Not employ / recognise Clare. [The President Elect at this point in time ]

Really what I think would be useful is a review of all GU election procedures, focusing on internal avenues of appeal so we don’t have to get the University involved in the future.
Update This is what we got.

A point I feel you should make at SACSM is the importance of a time limit. Note that the GU constitution has a 48 hour time limit for election complaints.


I hope some of that is of help / interest,

Richard Taylor.

I received a reply:

Thank you so much for all of this background. It will be very usefull for both the SACSM meeting on Tuesday, as well as the GU Council meeting on Tuesday night. You must have a legal background to be able to recall all of this case law and history so quickly. I cancelled a trip back to the States this weekend so that I could make both meetings, as I think that they will be important. My poor wife went off alone!

While the GU election mess is really important to me, I believe the disenfranchisement of more than half of the grad students at Cambridge in the General Board election is even more important.

2 comments/updates on “Cambridge’s Graduate Union

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    Imperial’s new charter and statues from 2007 maintains that the union is part of Imperial College. Part 10 of the first schedule of the statues says:

    There shall be a Union of Students of the University entitled “the Imperial College Union” which shall for all purposes be treated solely as an integral part of the University.

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