College governors are advised to leave student unions to run their own affairs as far as possible when interpreting reforms introduced in September under the 1994 Education Act.
The act makes governors responsible for ensuring student unions stay within the law but, following association lobbying, individual colleges are now expected to operate their own policies within the framework of locally agreed codes of practice drawn up with reference to the act's principles.
The AfC has issued the guide on student union reform to help governors draw up these codes, recommending that the positive aspects of a student union's contribution to college life be stressed.
"A code of practice which deals soley with the issues in the 1994 Act carries the danger of being seen as a largely negative and somewhat authoritarian expression of the relationship between college management and student' unions."
measures designed to help end student union political affiliations to external organisations make no reference to balloting members on the issue, the AfC points out.
Its guide says: "In the AfC's view there is no case for (balloting). In most cases the display of a list at each of the main sites of the college and the union itself, with a clearly defined procedure for making objections, would suffice."
Governors must ensure student unions run their financial affairs properly, with funds fairly allocated to groups and clubs.
But governors should take a back seat and avoid being involved in these procedures and should not seek to influence how union monies are disbursed.
"Subject to...overall satisfaction with the competence of the union's financial management, the governors should recognise the autonomous nature of the students' unions and not require monitoring information more than twice in each financial year."
Advice on setting up an apparatus for students who want to complain about a union suggests governors first give it the chance to resolve the matter internally and only then bring in an indepedent investigator.
"Investigation by an independent person would...take place if the complainant were not satisfied with the initial response from the students' union itself. "
A duty to ensure students who wish to opt out of union membership are not "unfairly disadvantaged" should be responded to by "providing access for non-union members...to those services which a student might reasonably expect to find in the college, and to ensure the students' union does not suffer financial loss as a result of the governors' requirement to give non-members access to union services."
Governors' approval of a union's constitution, required under the Act, may merely require them to recognise existing "well-founded organisation", the guidance says. In these cases "it would be inappropriate to propose a constitution.
If help is needed the AfC suggests using the revised model constitution from the National Union of Students."
Student Union Reform, A Guide for FE College Corporations on implementing the Education Act 1994. The Association for Colleges, 344-354 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8BP.