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Students' Unions – managing risk in the current climate

02 April 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic is a "black swan" event and lockdown, social distancing and self isolation are the immediate consequences for individuals.

There are, however, clear implications for all types of organisations – as has been seen in the news over the past weeks.  University teaching has all but ended and decisions are having to be taken about summer term and examinations for students. 

Students' unions are of course charities and their trustees are responsible for actively managing risk.  Although SUs won't have prepared specifically for the current circumstances they should have had in place a disaster management plan. The Charity Commission has extensive and helpful guidance to be found about handling risk at CC 26 - Charities and Risk Management.

What immediate actions should SUs be taking?

On the basis there is a disaster management plan in place then SU trustees should be both implementing this and, in parallel, be reviewing it to ensure it is sufficiently extensive and is covering issues as they arise.

One immediate implication in terms of decision-making, given the necessity for remote working, is that there should be clear delegated authority to staff or individual trustees to make key decisions quickly. Lines of authority and decision-making should account for possible unavailability through illness.

SUs generally have objects to advance education in three ways:

  • Promoting the interests and welfare of students and representing, supporting and advising students;
  • Representing students to the university and other external bodies;
  • Providing social, cultural, sporting and recreational activities and forums.

It will be necessary to consider the particular risks to operations in respect of each of these objects to the extent they apply to your SU.  It will however be difficult to carry out a good deal of this remotely.  How will welfare services be provided to students who can't just drop by the SU building?  This might be achieved remotely online but there will be issues of maintaining adequate confidentiality that will need to be addressed. It will also be necessary to consider to what extent assessment can reliably be made as to how vulnerable individual students might be in the absence of face-to-face meetings.  Consideration will need to be given as to the amount of resource given to individual support or to the provision of more generic advice and support. Mental health issues will undoubtedly be high on the agenda in view of uncertainty over examinations and arrangements for the next academic year.

It is, presumably, a given that all social, cultural and sporting activities and forums will have been postponed or cancelled – and the implications of all such changes will need to be considered.  There may be financial implications in some circumstances (say where events have been organised by student societies or by the SU itself, which they have paid for in advance).  You will need to review contracts in such circumstances, to see what your options are.  There will certainly be social implications, with few students remaining on campus, and to what extent any of these activities can be replicated online might need to be thought about.

In view of the multitude of issues that universities will be trying to grapple with in the current environment it may be difficult for SUs to get their voice effectively heard at university level. This is important however in view of the uncertainty for students as we move into the examination and assessments season.

The closure of SU commercial services including bars, cafes and shops will have had an immediate impact on income. It will be necessary not only to consider the resulting short term cash flow issues but also to review and revise cash projections and budgets for the current and following academic year as these are impacted by the ongoing shutdown. 

Other more general considerations that will need to be addressed by SU trustees include:

  • Health and safety issues  - for staff and volunteers (in addition to students)
  • Operational risk
  • security of property from damage and theft;
  • functionality of IT systems (storage and communications);
  • ability to deliver contracted services
  • Financial risk – asset protection (including cash and investments); immediate and longer term funding issues; specialist insolvency advice may be necessary.

As far as staff are concerned it will be necessary to review contracts to see what arrangements can be made and what, if any, impact the various Government schemes introduced over the past few weeks might have, if any.

What if an SU doesn't have a disaster management plan?

Whilst this will be difficult in circumstances where trustees and any management will be operating remotely, they should now be establishing a risk strategy and a disaster management plan. Annex 2 of the Charity Commission guidance referred to above should be used as a starting point.  The current situation will necessitate working through this as many of the issues in it will be tested in the current environment. Preparing the plan should be delegated to a small team and then reported back to the trustees for review and approval. 

Will insurance provide cover for any losses arising?

It is quite possible that insurance policies will not cover issues arising from Covid-19.  That said, it is important that trustees review policies (a) to see what cover the SU does have and (b) see what remedial actions they may need to take to avoid the policy being invalidated (e.g.  in relation to empty buildings).  Event cancellation cover may have been in place and this will need to be looked at as this is where costs may have already been incurred (e.g. in relation to end of year social events) might be recovered.

We have written a series of articles about how to handle various legal issues during the Covid-19 pandemic, including employment and HR matters, contractual situations and holding remote meetings.  You can see these other articles here.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Laura Moss or any of the Charities and Social Economy team on 0113 243 6100.

You can also keep up to date by following Wrigleys Charities team on Twitter

The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors. 




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