Twenty seven people, including students, staff, former staff and city councillors, gathered in the impressive surroundings of the Council Chamber at Lancaster Town Hall on Thursday 12 March for the unofficial 2020 session of the Lancaster University Court. Jack O’Dwyer-Henry, city councillor for the University & Scotforth Rural ward, took the chair and told those present that Lancaster University had contacted the City Council that day to complain about the Court meeting, emphasising that it was not officially sanctioned by the University. The meeting noted this and continued.
Having agreed subtext 172’s report as an accurate record of the final official Court in 2018, the Court proceeded to business.
Marion McClintock, Lancaster’s Honorary Archivist, gave a brief history of the Court. As the first governing body of the University, it set up the Council in 1964. With around 350 members, its main significance was to make Lancaster accountable to the local region. Motions passed by the Court were sent to the Council, who were required to take note of them. The minutes were all extant.
In the absence of the Vice-Chancellor or the Director of Finance, Sunil Banga of Lancaster UCU introduced a discussion on the University’s current priorities. Rather than investing in staff and students, the University was focusing on capital projects, many of these financed by loans. These were arguably putting Lancaster’s finances at risk, with interest payments of £5m per annum. Meanwhile, college funds were depleted, visa support was ‘negligible’ and the University had brought in vacancy controls for Professional Services staff.
The University was focused on increasing its adjusted net cash flow via more bums on seats (or sitting on the floor, or watching materials online). Measures of cash flow did not include the University’s mounting private debt, including debts to two US companies totalling £65m. The arrangements that set up UA92, and the deal with Navitas to establish a Leipzig campus, were largely hidden. These decisions were largely taken by the Finance & General Purposes Committee of the Council, but the minutes of this committee were not, in general, available to the public.
Andrew Williams noted that UPP, Lancaster’s provider of student accommodation, was the largest outsourcing project on campus, operating 4437 rooms. Standard & Poor’s recently downgraded Lancaster’s credit rating from AA- to A+ due to the University’s exposure to UPP’s risk.
We continued to expand our overseas partnerships, with BJTU in China, Sunway in Malaysia, the Ghana campus and, coming soon, our Leipzig campus. Their students would get Lancaster University degrees, but quality assurance was ‘questionable’ and in some cases there was a lack of respect for democratic rights. The trade union representative at our BJTU campus has been told he ‘can’t be called that’ and the local authorities won’t communicate with him.
How had democratic procedures changed? Twenty years ago, the Court elected a significant number of lay members of the Council, the University’s senior governing body. Following reforms, a Nominations Committee had been set up to select lay Council members but, importantly, the Court retained the right to elect a significant number of Nominations Committee members (see subtext 4). Following the abolition of the Court, these Nominations Committee members had been quietly forgotten, meaning that the majority of members of the body charged with selecting suitable members for the Council were members of the Council!
Joe Thornberry, former Principal of Bowland College, observed that when the proposal to abolish the Court was discussed by the Senate, the proposers’ key argument was that the Court was ‘unrepresentative of the community’ – ironic when the Court was far more representative as a body than either the Council or the Senate. The abolition of the Court was the final stage of a 12-year process. Might our incoming Vice-Chancellor, Andy Schofield from Birmingham, change things? The Court thought not – Birmingham has a pretty bad reputation and had abolished its Court at the same time as Lancaster’s.
Cllr O’Dwyer-Henry, reporting on the Students’ Union, felt that the current culture there was one of acquiescence to management. Two full-time officers had resigned so far this year and a petition of no confidence in the President had recently been opened. Four trustees of the union had resigned in the last year. The AGM had passed some good ideas but these had not been acted on.
Emily Heath gave a wide-ranging report on the Climate Emergency – there was an informal working group on campus. A petition to senior managers asked them to declare a climate emergency, appoint a senior manager to deal with the issue and manage the University’s land in the interests of sustainability. Simon Guy had been given responsibility and he came across as someone who wanted to listen. However, a ‘Big Conversation’ with staff had taken place on a strike day (students had not been allowed in) and the student version that week had been ‘more of a Q&A’. Our new Health Innovation Campus was not sustainable and based on fossil fuels.
A motion calling upon the Council to discuss bullying, commercialisation and the erosion of democratic governance at Lancaster, expressing no confidence in the senior leadership team, was proposed by Mr Banga and passed by a large majority, but not without opposition from Mrs McClintock, who felt that the proposal was ‘the sort of motion that management would expect’ – asking for a different approach to governance would, she thought, be more likely to get a response.
Finally, when should the Court meet again? The meeting agreed that, whenever a Lancaster Exchange was scheduled to happen, a Court meeting should happen, as an alternative forum for debate. It was suggested that the city councillors for campus should continue to convene these meetings, to give them legitimacy. The University community should build for the next time.
And so the unofficial Court ended, as members joined the queue for drinks in the Borough.