subtext 185 – ‘the same subtext, only louder’

Every so often during term time.

Letters, contributions, & comments:

Back issues & subscription details:

In this issue: editorial, rules on protests, UCU ballots again, not the Court report, steele, vintage satire, shart, restaurant review, letters.



There’s been a Senate meeting this week… but the days when Senate papers were pored over with interest are long gone. Openness and scrutiny have given way to agenda items that are ‘RESTRICTED’, ‘RESERVED’, ‘COMMERCIAL IN CONFIDENCE’, ‘STRICTLY IN CONFIDENCE’ or some combination of these. Senate members have (mostly) fallen under the spell of being the select few ‘in the know’ and happily play along with this cloak-and-dagger game, while journalists – the few permitted to attend, that is – are basically barred from reporting on any of the really interesting stuff. Senate reports now read more like ‘wicked whispers’-style gossip columns, where reporters try their best to drop hints about what might have been said or done, without actually naming anyone or anything.

All we know, for example, about November’s Senate debate on the ‘Senior Team Structure at Lancaster University (Strictly Confidential and Restricted)’ is that they concerned the ‘future structure of the senior leadership team afforded by the forthcoming departure of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor.’ Oh really… do tell us more! No. All we can report is that the Senate ‘agreed that it was fully supportive of the proposals’ and that one comment ‘concerning a proposed role-title was noted and would be considered further by the Vice-Chancellor as part of finalising the proposals for Council.’ Curiouser and curiouser… well, probably not, to be honest, but it’s much more exciting when you label it ‘STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL’, isn’t it?

Cognitive dissonance kicks in once you notice that all the old Senate minutes are still available online (to current staff and students) and we’re thus able to offer more scrutiny of Lancaster two decades ago than we are of Lancaster now. Reading the 2001 Senate minutes is like peeking into another world where, for example, the decision on whether to elect or appoint our Pro-Vice-Chancellors was decided on a show of hands, with the discussion and vote fully minuted (it was 24 to 22 in favour of appointment, in case you were wondering). If that meeting had taken place in 2019 then the minutes would have recorded the Senate’s support for some proposal or other, which the Vice-Chancellor would of course consider further.

Maybe the culture of secrecy helps more senators speak frankly, safe in the knowledge that their criticisms will never form part of the public record? Perhaps senators can be more effective ‘critical friends’ if their criticisms are heard behind closed doors? If you’re sympathetic to this argument then subtext would like to say four things to you: ‘U’, ‘A’, ‘9’ and ‘2’.


Having said that there’s nothing interesting to be found in Senate agenda papers, we’ll immediately contradict ourselves by examining the proposed Revised Code of Practice on Protests, discussed by the Senate this week. Drafted by the Director of Strategic Planning and Governance, someone who certainly knows how to mediate at a protest (see our Court report from subtext 172), it’s due to come into force today, 1 February.

What will an official protest now look like? Let’s imagine you’re unhappy because you’ve discovered that someone you really don’t like is coming to campus in a few months time, and you’d like to organise a demonstration…

– Obviously you’ll need approval from a designated University officer.

– You need to appoint one (just one!) of your number as the principal organiser of the demo, who’ll take responsibility if things kick off. Nothing too scary – just be aware that failing to follow the rules could lead to ‘being subject to action under the relevant disciplinary regulations and, in serious cases, potential legal action.’

– It goes without saying that you’re going to need to submit a risk assessment. This will involve ‘responding to the reasonable requests of the Responsible Officer’ as well as providing details about the nature and theme of the event, including how you plan to use banners and megaphones, what route you’ll be taking and whether there’ll be any external speakers.

– We need to ensure your protest doesn’t cause any disruption! Nothing too onerous – we’d just like you to guarantee that students, staff and visitors can still move around freely, making sure events can continue unhindered and uninterrupted, ‘including excessive noise in or intruding into buildings.’

– In return, the university will endeavour to ensure the protest can go ahead, unless it would be unsafe (fair enough), be illegal (also fair enough), ‘present an unacceptable disruption to business’ (not so sure about that) or cost too much (definitely not sure about that!).

– Oh, and we need a week’s notice, in writing. Is that OK?

Will the new system be a success? Campus demo organisers are encouraged to share their experiences with subtext at the usual address.


The University and College Union is yet again balloting its members over industrial action – not over pensions this time, but rather over casualisation, workload, pay inequality, and… well, pay. Union members are said to be scratching their heads as they walk around campus in a daze (that’s just the standard academic habitus, mind you), wondering whether they hadn’t already done one of these about six months ago. And indeed they did – but only a small handful of institutions reached the magic 50% figure imposed by recent trade union legislation, so there really wasn’t much of a solid platform for industrial action. This time, after some ill-tempered shouting (or should that be well-reasoned debate?) at a national union conference, UCU has gone for an aggregated ballot, which means that all branches are lumped together and the 50% threshold must be reached across the board.

Opinion seems divided on whether this will succeed – on the one hand, the last, ill-fated ballot still achieved the highest turnout of any ballot over a national pay & conditions negotiation ever. On the other, there is nothing like the sense of unity and anger that surrounded the pensions dispute. Is this a case of people only voting when their own interests are at stake?


Every year, subtext used to report on University Court – the closest thing Lancaster had to an AGM, with students, staff, graduates and local bigwigs in attendance. Sadly (see subtexts 172 and 176), our Court is no more, but in its place we were promised an annual public meeting, where anyone could come along, listen to senior officers and ask questions – as long as they didn’t refer to anything COMMERCIAL IN CONFIDENCE, of course. It would have no formal status, but that could allow new and innovative formats and timings.

So… when can we expect our first annual public meeting? It’s now been a year since the final Court and a ‘date for your diary’ could have been announced by now, surely? The last mention subtext can find in university minutes comes from UMAG in September, when the annual meeting was definitely ‘on’, but it’s not listed in the current timetable of meetings for 2018/19.

Will it ever happen? Any information will be gratefully received.


By its rapid growth, by the transformation of its activities and by the churn of its staff, there is a tendency for HR to forget (and so to ignore) the rules of the game, with the result that they seem to reset the rules as and when needed.

Let’s try a thought experiment: the report of a grievance investigation is passed to a grievance appeal panel. With a three-person panel, impartial appraisal is likely. Yet, the company retains its trump card. Reports to HR are ‘private and confidential’, meaning that the complainant is prohibited from making the panel’s recommendations public. An act of censorship?

Change is also noteworthy in respect of the annual PDR whose parameters have undergone many changes. Five or so years ago, the advice to PDR trainee reviewers was (i) to work with no more than eight individuals and (ii) that the purpose of a PDR is not to facilitate the task of managing a department. How times change.

As ‘line manager’ (rather than a ‘first among equals’), it is implicit that the head of an academic department may apply such pressure upon their charges that (in the imagination of HR) it is now a ‘rare occasion where a reviewer and reviewee do not agree’. There is no basis to support the idea that disagreement is ‘rare’, as the current PDR format is spanking brand new. Within the current configuration of the PDR, HR advises that ‘if issues cannot be resolved by your Head, you should refer the matter to your Dean, Faculty Manager or Divisional Director (as appropriate).’

Well-motivated independent ‘disagreements’ from colleagues with careers to build invite danger; and the pressure to comply with company lines is further heightened by the recent justification from HR of the use of outside consultants to resolve any PDR disagreements. Where trust and confidence are vital elements of collegial relations, the decision to appoint an outside consultancy on that ‘rare occasion where a reviewer and reviewee do not agree’ is indeed extraordinary.

Language is indeed alive. Once familiar in their use but now largely devoid of meaning are ‘collegiality’, ‘primus inter pares’, ‘scholarship’ and ‘patet omnibus veritas’.

Contributed by Gerry Steele.


A subtext reader has sent us this version of a very old internet meme…

The Plan

In the beginning there was a Plan.
And then came the Assumptions.
And the Assumptions were without form.
And the Plan was without substance.
And darkness was on the face of the workers.
And they spake amongst themselves saying
‘It is a crock of shit, and it stinks!’
And the workers went unto their Managers and said
‘It is a plan of dung, and none may abide the odour thereof.’
And the Managers went unto their Assistant Directors saying
‘It is a container of excrement, and it is very strong, such that none can abide by it.’
And the Assistant Directors went unto their Directors saying
‘It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide its strength.’
And the Directors spake unto the Vice Chancellor, saying unto him
‘It promotes growth, and is very powerful.’
And the Vice Chancellor went unto the Senate, saying unto them
‘This new Plan will actively promote growth and vigour in this University, with powerful effects.’
And the Senate looked upon the Plan and saw that it was good.
And the Plan became Policy.
This is how shit happens.

Source: an old yellowed printout found behind shelving in the CC machine room


FROM: Mike M. Shart, VC, Lune Valley Enterprise University (LuVE-U)
CC: Hewlett Venklinne, Senior Staff Happiness Ambassador
SUBJECT: Well done all!

Dear colleagues,

Thank you to each and every one of you who didn’t immediately delete the 2018 Staff Survey, whilst cursing ‘pointless BS consultation exercises.’ We are pleased to share a careful selection of the results with you. The redacted report, which you can read in full below, was prepared at great expense by some faceless consulting company, so you can be sure that it exactly reflects the will of the people, which we promise to uphold throughout the coming year.

Some headline results:

– 90% of you clicked vaguely positive ratings buttons, whilst reserving your wrath for the free text boxes which we ignore.

– 94% of you are desperately clinging on to your youthful academic aspirations, despite endless admin, funding bids and REF cycles having reduced your beloved profession to a mentally and emotionally exhausting drudgery.

– 96% of you would recommend the university to a friend as a place to work, as your eye begins to twitch and you desperately fumble for the corkscrew to open a second bottle of wine.

– The majority of you are content with diversity issues, overlooking gender inequality, a mental health crisis and an upswing in racism, both on campus and affecting society in general.

Overall, these are results of which we can be extremely proud, particularly given that people are still licking their wounds following our harsh and intractable response to strike action over pensions devaluation, and our continuing commitment to lowering pay and pushing workers onto temporary contracts.

Thanks to the majority of academic staff deciding that this survey was not worth their time, we are extremely surprised to see that 75% of you say you feel you have a good work-life balance. In today’s working climate, where many of us work 6-day weeks, neglecting our personal health and well-being, we are pleased that so many of you have given up on the idea that there is a life beyond work. We feel that the balance is right between your 60-hour working life and your limited time away from the University (during which there are emails to fill the void). After all, family, love, hobbies, relaxation, time to think, imagine, or merely sleep – these things are for those losers who don’t work at a top 10 university. This is something we will continue to work at to make sure all staff feel this way.

Once again, many thanks to all of you who took part, and for sharing your meaningless tickbox feedback with us. You have played an important part in providing guidance to improving our University, and after this thorough democratic exercise, we feel confident to proceed without listening to you for another year.

Your beloved Vice Chancellor,


who thoroughly deserves his enormous remuneration package


The Deli has had a refurb, and it’s very much a ‘take everything away and start again’ refurb.

The problem with The Deli’s predecessor, The Venue, was not really the food, but the way you felt a little bit like you were sat at the breakfast bar of a show-home kitchen. Old Deli had a similar (lack of) ambience. So, credit is definitely due to whoever designed New Deli, because they’ve finally created a space where someone might want to sit and spend time in. The lighting is lower and the tables seem slightly closer together. The serving area’s been moved to the far wall (the one closest to Alex Square) which does create a bit of a squash, to be honest, but at least you’re not queueing out of the door, as you used to.

The main hot product at lunch is the cryptically-named ‘stew’. Your subtext reviewer drone chose vegetable and took a seat. When it came it was very nice, with carrots, barley and onions. There’s also an accompanying jar, containing two blanched slices of carrot, some cauliflower and a pickled gherkin, in a bit of vinegar. Are you supposed to add it to the stew, or something? Lose the gherkin if you want this to happen.

For those just wanting something to take away, there are plenty of sandwiches and salads, including the Turkey Focaccia Club and a California Veggie Sandwich.

There’s a lot of space on the new menu devoted to coffee. Sadly, the ‘drip blends’ (filter coffee to you and me) from Atkinson’s hadn’t yet arrived in stock, so subtext lingered over a latte while admiring the coffee ‘tasting notes’ from the menu. Who’s going to be able to resist the Guatemala Pensativo, a ‘coffee from the immediate vicinity affected by the Fuego volcanic eruption’? As we enjoy the ‘custard cream biscuit mouthfeel’ we’re encouraged to ‘spare a moment to think of those stoic communities around Pensativo.’ What a world we live in today.


Dear subtext,

I like very much the look of your newsletter, and enjoy the terrible puns which hit the spot magnificently.

But from time to time, you rather belie your excellent ‘subtext’ title, and write some piffle.

It is really not enough to label people ‘fascists’ or activities ‘hate speech’, and assume that everyone will immediately condemn them. You do have to advance an argument, otherwise it looks as though you think us all no more than Snowball’s lackeys. Which I am sure you cannot intend.


Richard Martin


Dear subtext,

Any chance you could switch fonts from Courier 10 to Calibri 11 or similar?  It may be that Courier brings back warm memories of an Imperial typewriter from when the university was founded but, for those of us reading it on laptops, it can be barely legible. (I usually copy the lot into a Word document, change the font and read it there.)  I’ll not delve into the Equalities Act s20(6) but I’m sure it applies somehow.

Apart from that, I enjoy subtext!

Kind regards,

Roger Kemp

subtext 184 – ‘life’s an illusion love is a dream’

Every so often during term time.

Letters, contributions, & comments:

Back issues & subscription details:

In this issue: editorial, unconditional offers, stansted 15, lusu referendum, shop news, lost and found, restaurant review, widden, letters.



At the beginning of term, subtext reported on the apparent fait accompli around evening teaching:

Definitely here to stay, we thought, and management won’t budge. Looks like we weren’t quite right. While some evening classes took place throughout the term, and this looks set to continue until at least 2020, there has been quite a bit of furious backpedalling by senior management and Timetabling. This means that the number of evening classes has already been reduced by some shuffling (of deck-chairs, more cynical readers may think), and management are even apparently exploring other options, including lecture live-streaming where departments are keen. From being a sure thing that only need to be evaluated for impact, evening teaching at Lancaster has now apparently shifted to being an emergency measure to cope with a temporary space problem. Trebles all round?

There are, however, still some unanswered questions around how the University will cope with the projected year-on-year increase in student numbers, when newly built lecture theatres may only solve the current teaching space problem. Perhaps some more radical solutions need to be considered, including – shock horror – only accepting as many students as we have room to teach?


The practice, widespread across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, of making unconditional offers to applicants for undergraduate degrees is attracting the displeasure of ministers, VCs and, potentially, the new Office for Students (OfS). Sam Gyimah MP, Minister of State for Universities until he became a Brexit casualty on 30 November, described them on 26 July as ‘completely irresponsible’ and called on the OfS to take action. The VCs at Brunel, Buckingham, Chichester, Hertfordshire, King’s College London and the West of England led the signatories to a letter in the Times on 20 November, regretting that the practice was ‘detrimental to the longer-term interests of students, skews university choices and reduces the motivation and quality of sixth-form life in schools.’ Signatories particularly disliked so-called ‘unconditional if firm’ offers, also called ‘conditional unconditional’ offers, where universities put students under pressure by dangling an unconditional offer in front of them… but only if they pick that university as their firm choice, not their insurance choice.

Lancaster is unlikely to sign up to such sentiments – because business is booming in ‘unconditional if firm’ offers here! For some of our departments, the overwhelming majority of offers are now ‘unconditional if firm’, and as our admissions team will doubtless point out, they seem to work, especially when it comes to persuading applicants to choose us in preference to a close rival.

This competitive advantage only works if we’re doing it and our competitors are not, of course, and UCAS’s 2018 end-of-cycle report, published on 29 November, suggests that we’re fast approaching a no-score draw:

It seems that 14% of offers made for 2018 entry were unconditional, this being made up of 7.1% genuinely unconditional offers and 6.9% ‘unconditional if firm’ offers. Overall, 34.4% of applicants received at least one unconditional offer last year. In a conclusion due to be filed alongside that technical report on ‘things bears do in the woods’, UCAS has found that ‘applicants who hold an unconditional offer as their firm choice are more likely to miss their predicted A level grades by 2 or more points, compared to those who are holding a conditional offer as their firm choice.’

It pains subtext that Lancaster is one of the pioneers of this coercive approach to recruitment; but it seems likely that we won’t be allowed to do it for much longer anyway. Last year, Swansea University published the following statement on its website, aimed at its 2018 applicants, and we really couldn’t have put it better ourselves:

‘Universities typically indicate that they are making an unconditional offer because they have been favourably impressed with the candidate’s application. As flattering as it can be to receive such an offer, we would suggest that you consider why a University is behaving in this way. In this situation you are being invited to enroll on a degree programme without having to demonstrate prior achievement or a relevant base of subject knowledge. This says quite a lot about the University and their lack of confidence in being able to attract strong students.’

Miaow! This statement is no longer on Swansea’s website – we wonder why?! – but is still available via the magic of the Google cache.


The ‘Stansted 15’, a group of peaceful protesters who include former LUSU President Laura Clayson, have been found guilty by a jury at Chelmsford Crown Court under the little-used Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990 of disrupting the services of an aerodrome, ‘in such a way as to endanger or be likely to endanger the safe operation of the aerodrome or the safety of persons at the aerodrome.’ Sentencing has been set for the week commencing 4 February and the maximum sentence is imprisonment for life.

As reported in subtext 181, and expanded on by Chris Witter (see letters, below), their ‘crime’ was to disrupt the deportation of undocumented immigrants, many of whom may face persecution or worse in their countries of origin, via charter flights. Thanks to their intervention, 11 people who would have been deported are still in the UK, challenging their withdrawal. The legislation used to prosecute the Stansted 15 was drafted to protect civil aviation in the UK from terrorists, but – unless the group wins their appeal – could now be used more widely to suppress non-violent protest.

This week’s Lancaster Guardian carries an interview with Laura Clayson, who claims that the 15 ‘are guilty of nothing more than intervening to prevent harm’:

A demonstration, to ‘Stand with the #Stansted15 for International Migrants Day’, is planned for Tuesday 18 December in Lancaster. Details at:


In case you missed it… the result of the Students’ Union’s referendum to change its full-time officer team (see subtext 182) has been announced, and it shows a decisive victory for the ‘don’t care!’ campaign. On a 6% turnout of 892 votes, the votes were: Yes 438 (49%), No 396 (44%) and Abstain 58 (7%). As the union notes, ‘students’ union rules on referendums state that a voter turnout of at least 10% is required in order for decisions to be upheld, and therefore the proposal did not pass’:

The referendum voting website was kept separate from the sites to vote for JCR executives, with different closing dates. Did the union executive miss a trick by not bundling the votes together? The County College had a turnout of almost 30% for its JCR elections, with Furness and Grizedale Colleges not too far behind, so it seems so – although given the large ‘No’ vote amongst the few who did turn out, it’s distinctly possible that the proposals would have been rejected anyway.

subtext was unenthusiastic about the proposals, particularly the idea of establishing a full-time Postgraduate Officer who would be elected by a majority undergraduate electorate, but this doesn’t seem to be the main issue that galvanised the lively ‘No’ campaign: ‘Do you want more support for Sugarhouse? Vote NO’ claimed its Facebook page. The proposed loss of the Vice-President Union Development – which is what the strapline was referring to – certainly did not go down well with JCR officers, who queued up to oppose the changes.

Will the proposals return next term? Even if they did, presumably any change would come too late to change the full-time officers for 2019-20, so it seems likely they’ll be rapidly booted into the very long grass.


The former UniTravel on Alexandra Square is now occupied by ‘Work in Progress’. Who they? At first glance, subtext was reminded of ‘brand consultants’ Perfect Curve from the BBC’s W1A. We’ve got friendly big words – ‘Ideas’, ‘People’ – not many desks, and plenty of Post-Its. Was this an art installation?

No. It turns out that University House has had a good idea, and allowed the Research and Enterprise Services team to use the vacant unit for the next few years, as its one-stop shop for students and staff seeking to develop ideas for partnerships and other collaborations with industry. Anyone is welcome to pop in over lunchtime, or book the space:

It’s part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, so who knows how long it’ll be here, but while it is, it seems to be worth supporting.


Former Lancaster Pro-Vice-Chancellor Prof Richard B Davies seems to be making waves as Swansea’s VC:


One of the most agonising aspects of being at Lancaster used to be the dispiriting decision about which truly awful food outlet to take external visitors to, and how long exactly to spend apologising to said visitors for the lack of a suitable eating venue on campus. (Lancaster House Hotel was to a certain extent an the exception to this conundrum, but was a little far for lunch for those based in North Campus, and a little heavy on the old departmental budgets).

This all changed when The Lounge ‘came on stream’, as management types like to say these days. While connoisseurs of Lancaster’s night-time economy may have at first wondered whether the venerable but long-defunct nightclub of the same name in the city centre was opening a branch on campus, it turned to be something of a surprise: a halfway decent restaurant, with a menu that changed once in a while, table service, and above all, an ambience that did not involve dart-boards or formica tables.

After some initial wobbles around service from staff more used to doling out mashed potatoes in a cafeteria, The Lounge quickly came into its own, offering a choice of hot, substantial lunches alongside quicker options such as soup or sandwiches, and a variety of salads for the health-conscious. There was always at least one, and usually two or three vegetarian dishes for each course. More recently they have started offering vegan and gluten-free dishes as well. Despite occasional mislabellings on the menu (salmon is rarely considered vegetarian these days), the dishes generally not only sound good on the page but also look good on the plate, for example the rather seasonal ‘Parsnip gnocchi with roasted beetroot, sautéed winter greens, and sun-dried tomato sauce’ or a ‘Deli open sandwich with mushroom and stem broccoli and kale pesto’.

Food is only served 12-2, and this slot can get rather busy, particularly around Christmas and exam board time. Nevertheless, with a quick heads up to the staff, it is usually possible to get in and out within an hour, and to leave full and contented, and most importantly, not embarrassed in front of visitors.


Review: Leeds Piano Competition Winner gives first-class recital

The Great Hall concert on Thursday 1 November was a solo piano recital by Anna Tsybuleva, winner of the 2015 Leeds Piano Competition. The Leeds competition has become, in its short life of just over 50 years, one of the world’s foremost piano competitions, so an excellent performance was expected – and so it proved.

Leeds is not especially renowned as a centre of classical music. OK, Opera North is based there, and their operatic performances are excellent; but opera is another country entirely from piano recitals. How has Leeds managed to develop its solo piano competition to the point where it is known throughout the musical world and beyond, and can attract the most talented young performers to compete?

The competition was the initiative in 1963 of Fanny Waterman, a well-known Leeds piano teacher. In developing the competition, she was helped by her husband and also by Marion Thorpe, then Countess of Harewood. The support of many other people was clearly valuable; but what is obvious is that Fanny Waterman had the vision, and also, crucially, the drive to realise it – as is attested by the fact that, fifty-five years on, she is still active, now as a Life President of the competition.

The competition has a number of partners: the University of Leeds is the Principal Partner, together with Leeds City Council, Steinway and Sons, the BBC, the Hallé, the Oslo Philharmonic….the fact that this list is long and includes many eminent names from the world of classical music is a clear indication of how much effort has gone into building the competition up from scratch.

Anna Tsybuleva’s programme for the first half of the concert concentrated on the piano writing of Beethoven, in which she demonstrated the originality, even eccentricity, of Beethoven’s composing. His Fantasy op 77 is a quite extraordinary piece. It was unfortunate that there were almost no notes on the music in the programme – as it was, the printed programme provided a short biography of the pianist and a very short history of the Leeds competition, but almost nothing on the music being played.

In the second half, Tsybuleva played some of the major piano works of Chopin, in which her playing combined superb lightness of touch and clarity of articulation with a wonderful musicality. This was a first-rate recital in every way.

A final point of interest: Fiona Sinclair, Associate Director of Lancaster Arts and organiser of the Great Hall concerts since 2010, has recently been appointed Chief Executive of the Leeds Piano Competition from 2018 – in fact, she has already taken up her new post. In the past eight years, Fiona has contrived on a limited budget to put together interesting programmes played in the University’s Great Hall by fine performers. She will be missed from Lancaster: it will be interesting to see what she can do with ‘the Leeds’.

Contributed by Martin Widden