The government should consider handing regulatory responsibility for student unions to the new Office for Students, instead of the Charity Commission, according to parliamentarians.
Joint Committee on Human Rights was investigating freedom of speech and universities and pulblished its report earlier this spring calling on the government to consider making the Office for Students, the independent regulator of higher education in England, responsible for the regulation of stutdent unions.
It said: “Moreover, although we understand that this is a complex area, the government should consider whether there is any case for the OfS to take over the regulation of student unions rather than the Charity Commission.”
In its response to this, the Commission said that it was “not for the Commission to take a view on whether or not students’ unions should or should not continue to be charities or regulated by the Commission, or by another regulator,” and that this would have to be a decision for parliament.
But it said that, “irrespective of regulator” students’ unions and universities are charities and therefore subject to charity law.
It added: “Our understanding is that the NUS and individual students’ unions are supportive of the status of students’ unions as charities, and of being regulated by the Charity Commission.”
In conclusion, the Charity Commission said that it was “committed to ensuring that charitable students’ unions, universities and other higher education providers are able to continue to challenge traditional boundaries, to encourage the free exchange of views and to host speakers with a range of opinions, whilst complying with their legal duties and responsibilities as charities”.
Charity Commission's guidance is 'problematic'
The Commission also responded to concerns raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the regulator’s approach to regulating free speech in student unions is “problematic”.
The Charity Commission was this week responding to the fourth report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on its inquiry on freedom of speech in universities.
In the report, the committee said: “The Commission’s guidance is not easy to use, is in places unduly restrictive, could deter speech which is not unlawful and does not take adequate account of the importance of debate in a university setting.”
It added that the Commission’s current approach “does not adequately reflect the important role student unions play in educating students through activism and debate.” And that its “generic guidance” does not place “due weight on the fact that inhibiting lawful free speech can do as much damage to a student union’s reputation as hosting a controversial speaker”.
In its response published yesterday, the regulator said that it believes that charity law rules “are very clear”, but said it recognises that “trustees may find the judgements they may have to make in applying them, in a small number of occasions, challenging”.
It added that the guidance is written to “enable and support all charities”, not just students’ unions or other higher education institutions, to “recognise and manage the risks that arise from some activities that may present higher risks and to make those, sometimes challenging, judgements”.
It added that its guidance “should not be used, and is not intended ever to be used, to prohibit speakers with lawful, albeit unpopular, views”.