Category Archives: news

Campus Update: Quieter, But Not That Quiet

What’s campus like this term, then? With even fewer of us likely to be visiting any time soon, your intrepid correspondent reports.

You might expect the answer to be empty, but, despite what you may have read about everyone staying in their parental homes until March, there are still plenty of people around. Some of them never left at all, of course. Reportedly, around 500 students were on campus at the start of January, and that number has grown considerably since then. The Vice-Chancellor observed, at his all-staff meeting on Friday 29 January, that over 40% of campus rooms were currently occupied.

The lack of campus teaching does make the Spine startlingly quiet, even at lunchtime, but people are still there — just not moving around as much. The food outlets are still open and people are still queueing for Greggs.

Security staff seem to be busy preventing illegal parties, which appear to be more prevalent this term, in the residence blocks. Parties of up to 80 people have been reported both on- and off-campus; the BBC picked up on a recent incident in which a warehouse party with 50–70 attendees was broken up on St George’s Quay:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-55989890

Evidently, our students are increasingly disillusioned with the state in which they find themselves, though some are responding more productively than others (see our articles in this issue on the student rent strike).

Our newest facility, the Margaret Fell Lecture Theatre next to Chemistry, is now open — well, the building is, although no-one is currently using it. It’s a pleasant, tiered theatre, shaped a bit like Faraday, but with brown seats. The entrances are at the bottom, rather than the top, so students seeking to sneak into their 9am lecture late without being noticed will be very disappointed.

Much of the buzz on campus, such as it exists, comes from movement in and out of the asymptomatic coronavirus testing facility in the Great Hall.

Whether or not we resume face-to-face teaching on Monday 8 March — subtext, for one, is a little sceptical about this — it seems likely that the current slightly occupied mood on campus will persist for a long while yet.

Struck Off

Lancaster’s student rent strike, which saw thousands of learners organise remotely to challenge the University’s insistence that they pay for campus rooms that they weren’t using, ended last week. The Director of Finance reported, at the Vice-Chancellor’s all-staff meeting on 29 January, that 2,000 students had accepted management’s initial offer of a £400 goodwill payment; this offer was recently doubled to £800, which led to the decision to call off the campaign.

subtext congratulates the organisers, and those taking action, for once again highlighting the consequences of Lancaster’s student residences contract with UPP. As the Vice-Chancellor noted at the all-staff meeting, the University is liable for the rent, whether there are students in the rooms or not.

In a special report, one of the strike organisers gives their own account of the campaign.

Freedom of Peach

Just as subtext was preparing to go to press, the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP fired a culture war salvo that we felt merited further discussion.

No doubt eager to divert focus from their contributions to our highest-in-Europe COVID death tally, the government has announced plans to install a national free speech champion with the power to fine universities (and students’ unions) who they believe to have infringed on academic freedom and freedom of speech. This is part of a raft of other measures proposed by the Education Secretary in response to unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses. Supporters and detractors were quick to voice their thoughts along largely predictable political lines. More at the BBC here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-55995979

As with many hot-button political topics lately, worries about freedom of speech (particularly on campus) appear to be largely imported from the US context which is, as ever, many years and degrees of intensity ahead of us. Crucially, though, it also has a very different legal environment to the UK, which will stymie any attempt to transplant political debates verbatim, as this proposal ably demonstrates.

Lacking the concreteness of the first amendment, defining just what free speech means in the UK is a more slippery prospect. At the pointiest end of the wedge are proscribed terrorist organisations (National Action, al-Qaida, etc.), for whom it is a criminal offence to profess to belong to, to express support for or to arrange a meeting in support of — presumably this will remain outside the remit of the free speech champion.

At the broader end of the wedge is the UK’s (very un-US, very European) landscape of hate crimes and, more importantly, hate incidents — otherwise non-criminal actions that are alleged to have been motivated by hate, which may be recorded as such and which the police may choose to follow-up on. One supportive voice in the BBC article — an Oxford University academic who previously had an invitation to a conference celebrating women withdrawn over her stance on transgender rights issues — could still be liable to find her comments fall afoul of current hate legislation if perceived to do so by others, no matter how protected the underlying act of speech may be. It’s not clear how the proposed measures would address this.

And, finally, outside of the wedge entirely, are those speakers who will test the government’s proposed commitment to freedom of speech to its absolute limits. Older readers may remember groups such as the Paedophile Information Exchange, whose founder (and Lancaster alumnus) Tom O’Carroll advocated for the age of consent to be lowered to four.

On a very different note, there is the arrest of photographer Andy Aitchison on 28 January for documenting a protest outside a controversial refugee detention centre in Kent, and the well-publicised case of the Stansted 15 (see subtext 184) — the latter group may have just been vindicated on appeal, but how certain are we that this government (or any other) is interested in protecting all points of view in equal measure?

None of this is to say that this could not be a laudable initiative, only that it is a more nuanced one than adopted US-centric political talking points let on. There are indeed threats to freedom of speech, and many of them stand outwith the hoary left-right divide. Confucius Institutes are prevalent across the UK higher education landscape, for example, and not without controversy; as Chinese government-funded tools, would they welcome robust discussion on that same government’s alleged crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and elsewhere? Will the risk of finding themselves financially on the hook for hosting such attitudes turn UK universities away from the promise of lucrative foreign investment? And how about actions that indirectly inhibit freedom of speech by limiting opportunities for open discourse, such as Lancaster University’s abolishment of the University Court (see subtexts passim) or overuse of commercial in confidence’ (see subtexts equally passim)?

subtext expects that nobody wishes to see the emboldening of groups like Lancaster’s (seemingly-now-defunct) Traditionalist Society (see subtext Annual Review 2017–18) to populate the airwaves at the expense of the security and safety of others, though we fear that, mishandled, this may well be the result of these measures. We’ll do our best to keep you updated.

Taking Bailrigg Campus by Strategy

The latest draft of the University’s strategic plan for 2020–2025, released following an extended period of consultation with staff, students and stakeholders, is now available to view on the Intranet:

https://portal.lancaster.ac.uk/intranet/news/article/first-look-at-the-new-university-strategy

What sort of place does the Vice-Chancellor think Lancaster will be in four years’ time?

Whereas our previous two Vice-Chancellors had firm ambitions for us to be top in the North West, top 10 in the UK, and top 100 in the world (see as far back as <a href="https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/subtext/archive/issue071.htm” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>subtext 71), there are fewer specific targets in this document, and the targets we set are less specific — there’s no longer any mention of us being rated top in the North West or top 10 in the UK and, while the top 100 reference remains, we’ll now just be making further progress towards a top 100 position in key global rankings of universities.

The most laudable, and probably most ambitious, pledge comes near the start: our aim is to be carbon net zero for carbon emissions from electricity and heating by 2030 and net zero from all other emissions by 2035. This has already been agreed by the Council. The document also offers a commitment to the colleges, including exploring the potential for colleges to provide a meeting ground for academic staff from different disciplines and career stages, and considering whether to allow new postgraduate taught students to join any college.

Looking at our research, which is apparently the North Star that will guide our strategy in the coming years, things will be interdisciplinary, with that word appearing nine times in the space of two pages, and have impact, with that word appearing six times in the same two pages. The only specific target for research is a commitment to increase the proportion of our income from enterprise activity from under 5% to 7.5%; the document notes that increasing the proportion of our total income derived from research to more than 25% would bring our income in line with our direct competitors, but doesn’t offer any pledges.

Turning to teaching, our superiors have clearly noticed how thrilled we all are to spend half our working lives on Teams, and want to give us more of it. Lancaster will facilitate delivery at multiple sites and campuses, via online and blended delivery and through the development of a more inclusive curriculum and support our staff and students to participate to their fullest potential in online and hybrid modes of learning and knowledge transfer. It looks like we may be asking alumni to sign up for regular online CPD courses: we are keen that our graduates re-engage with Lancaster throughout their lives to refresh and re-equip and extend their skills as their careers develop. Supporters of our flexible full-time degree structures may be worried at the pledge for a curriculum which is more streamlined, simplified, spans subject boundaries, and exploits synergies with our partners, which suggests fewer courses and no more multi-subject Part I.

Finally it’s time for engagement, or, as the document puts it, to engage actively with our community of communities. This seems to be a mix of high-value, high-impact projects — the Health Innovation Campus, Eden North, Net Zero North and the Lancashire Cyber Foundry — and a wish to get more heavily involved in our local FE colleges, specifically Lancaster & Morecambe, Furness, Carlisle and, most intriguingly, Blackpool & The Fylde, where apparently we’re going to create a Multiversity, whatever that is.

The final version of the strategy will be presented to the Council’s March meeting for approval, so those seeking to comment have around a fortnight to do so — any contributions should be sent to strategy@lancaster.ac.uk.

Testing Testing Testing

Our lateral flow coronavirus testing facility, located in the Great Hall, is now open. Staff and students are being encouraged to make use of it:

https://portal.lancaster.ac.uk/intranet/cms/coronavirus/staff-asymptomatic-testing

It’s all very efficient, with stewards directing you towards the (short) queue and handing out barcoded entry tickets. The process of registering the information from that ticket, via your phone, takes a bit of learning. After scanning the barcode with a QR code reader, you’re asked whether you want to register with or without the NHS app. Your correspondent blundered at this point by selecting the NHS option, only to be told by the helpful steward, it’s easy, just make sure you don’t select the NHS option! Five minutes later, having waited for a registration email that never came, the same steward advised going to one of the helpfully-provided iPads in the lobby, where the non-NHS registration process was completed in under a minute.

Onward, then, to the Great Hall, where you’re directed to one of around 16 booths, in which a helpful assistant takes you through the process of taking a swab, rubbing it on your tonsils (pause for gagging) and then sticking the same swab up one of your nostrils, until you feel resistance, rotating it a few times, and then withdrawing (you’ll want to blow your nose at this point).

That’s it. In and out in fifteen minutes. The result comes within half an hour, via text message. All done, until the next appointment — you’re encouraged to book a repeat session three days later.

Tranquil Repose

subtext usually tries to avoid telling its readers about things they already know, such as new features on campus, but this term — well, it’s a bit different. Many staff haven’t been back since evacuating in March and may be wondering what the place is like these days; allow us to be your guide.

In short, it’s peaceful. During the day you might only pass 20–30 people, though all the terrifying Protect and Survive-style posters give the place a slightly eerie atmosphere.

Facilities staff have done wonders with signage, hand sanitiser stations and other nuts-and-bolts provisions to minimise any risks. The one-way system in most buildings is usually surplus to requirements, as your chances of passing someone on your corridor are fairly minimal.

WHSmith is closed with no indication of when it will re-open, but Greggs and the ice cream parlour are still trading, whilst Costa is open for take-away drinks and food only.

The campus SPAR on Edward Roberts Court, largely unchanged since it moved into that unit at the end of the ’90s, has had a major makeover. The external fascia has been replaced, the corridors are wider, the coffee machine is near the entrance and the checkout area has been remodelled. The selection does seem to be slightly reduced — one of the appeals of the old SPAR was the bargain warehouse that’s packed to the rafters effect — but the overall shopping experience is a great deal more pleasant. It’s (almost) worth a journey.

The new 400-seat lecture theatre between Faraday and County South seems to be close to completion (from the outside, anyway) and it looks attractive. The Management School extension is almost finished too, although style-wise this resembles a giant Portakabin.

All the college bars, except the Herdwick, re-opened at the start of term — and were well-used during Welcome Week — but now that we are officially a Tier 3 campus, only Fylde’s and Cartmel’s are still trading. The system for ordering food and drink takes a bit of time to get used to (go in, sit down, scan QR code on the table, go to online menu, order, wait for person to approach asking for payment, pay by card, wait for order, receive it in a few minutes) but is well-run. Watching groups of suitably-distanced staff and students sat outside Fylde bar, one could almost forget the odd times we’re in.

In the evenings you often see clusters of students sitting outside (no more than six at a time, of course) on the steps of Edward Roberts Court or Alexandra Square, socialising as best they can. Student societies are mostly meeting online, but there are still plenty of event posters adorning the campus noticeboards.

Because parcels are no longer delivered to colleges, there is now a central parcel collection point on Edward Roberts Court, which has taken over the unit previously occupied by the St John’s Hospice charity shop, who have sadly left campus with no plans to return. This has led to very long, socially-distanced queues of students forming at most times of the day, often snaking all the way down past Furness. Some students have rightly complained that the collection point, and in particular the marquee-style tent erected outside it, is currently blocking the wheelchair access route up to Alexandra Square, thus requiring students in wheelchairs to take the long way round via the lift outside Pizzetta.

The underpass has an efficient one-way system in operation, with one staircase down only and the other staircase up only; so efficient, in fact, that one wonders why they didn’t think of this before. Buses are running as normal (see our bus update later in this issue) but cycle use has increased.

The overall effect is rather like the one year later… coda you often see at the end of a disaster movie, where, even in the face of catastrophe, the signs are that things might just, one day, return to normal. Let’s hope so.

Demanding an Unsafe Teaching Environment

Amongst the many strange bits of guidance issued to staff in recent weeks, Managing a Safe Teaching Environment, a set of rules on masks and social distancing issued on 2 October 2020, is well worth a closer look. Many teaching staff will have been wondering whether, faced with a potentially difficult situation in a teaching space, they should put health and safety considerations first. There is now a definitive answer from the University – no.

The document is officially unauthored, but the file properties credit Prof Alisdair Gillespie (Law School) as the creator.

Staff are reassured that masks aren’t really needed in the first place: if a person is in a class without a mask then, so long as social distancing is maintained, the risk of transmission is not increased significantly. The word significantly is doing some heavy lifting there.

Social distancing regulations are treated very seriously and can be enforced by Security. If a student refuses to maintain social distance, you can ask them to leave and take a note of their name. If they refuse to leave, you may need to contact Security or end the class.

But as for masks – well, there are valid reasons why some students are exempt from wearing them. They may choose to wear a sunflower lanyard to indicate their exempt status, or use an e-exemption card on iLancaster, but this is not a requirement. In a classroom situation, students and teachers will understandably be concerned if someone turns up not wearing a mask or displaying a sunflower lanyard. What should the teacher do?

The University’s official advice is: you must do nothing, even if you believe the student may be putting others at risk, or if other students have indicated their concern. There is no requirement for students to inform the tutor that they have an exemption in advance of the session. Politely asking to see a student’s e-exemption card, or discreetly inviting a student outside to have a socially distant chat about safety, may be embarrassing or exclusionary. If other students voice their worries, your duty is to remind them that some students are exempt, and do everything you can to ensure that students not wearing a mask don’t feel uncomfortable. The most you can do is note the offending student’s name and take it up with them afterwards. Could be a bit late by then!

Ah well, at least we’re not allowing students who are coughing and sneezing to stay in our seminar rooms. What’s that… we are? Yes, we are. Remember, students with colds are entitled to attend classes and asking a student to leave the class when displaying symptoms of a cold is likely to prove highly embarrassing and distressing to a student, potentially leading to complaints. Well, at least we know they’ll be wearing masks… oh…

As an aside, it’s interesting that the risk of Lancaster receiving a (possibly vexatious) complaint seems to alarm senior management more than the risk of staff and student infection.

Prof Gillespie’s guidance received endorsement from a surprising source on 15 October, in an email from Lancaster UCU to its members. Having sought clarification from HR and the Safety Office about face coverings in classrooms, and what to do if students don’t wear them, the union’s stance is that, it’s tricky – but the short answer, reasonably, seems to be that we can and should do NOTHING.

subtext readers are reminded that, according to section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 on workplace health and safety, they have the right not be subject to any detriment by their employer if, in circumstances of danger which the employee reasonably believed to be serious and imminent and which he could not reasonably have been expected to avert, he left (or proposed to leave) or (while the danger persisted) refused to return to his place of work or any dangerous part of his place of work. If you think someone is potentially putting you and your students in danger then you are within your rights to leave, bringing your students with you.

Roll of (Dis)Honour

So, vale Dr David Starkey. Barely a week after subtext 194 hit virtual newsstands, the not-so-good doctor was expounding his take on the history of slavery – a topic on which, as a monarchical historian with an emphasis on the Tudor period, he was no doubt the most pre-eminent expert that the YouTube show Reasoned could find. Cue an angry response, and hurried efforts to disown the man once called the rudest man in Britain by no less a renowned bastion of civility than the Daily Mail.

A little under a month later, on 24 July, our own institution announced in a press release that it had revoked Dr Starkey’s 2004 honorary degree. Many will be happy, but we here in the subtext warehouse remain sticklers for proper process. Surely the final decision on revoking a degree should have been taken by the full Senate, not a hurriedly-convened huddle of senior managers?

The press release states that Dr Starkey could no longer be regarded as an appropriate role model for current and future students of Lancaster. This is curious, given that the university roll of honour continues to list one Sir Cyril Smith MBE DL, awarded an LLD (Honoris Causa) in 1993, following seven years’ service as our Deputy Pro-Chancellor between 1978 and 1985. Could this be the same Cyril Smith who, after his death, was found to have been a prolific abuser of children?

The complete list is available here:

https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/about-us/ourpeople/honorary-degrees/

You Are Ordered to Return Whether You Want to or Not

Spare a thought for our returning second-, third- and fourth-year students; particularly those with rooms on campus this year. It seems that, whilst first-years were offered rooms on relatively flexible terms this year, including the option of studying remotely over Michaelmas Term and only beginning to pay rent after Christmas, returners are being held strictly to the conditions they signed back in December. The university’s stance is: You signed for the room, so you’ll pay for it from October, whether you’re occupying it or not. Students who decided to study away from campus, and hence declined to start paying rent, are reportedly now receiving formal letters demanding payment from college accommodation staff.

The University makes it clear in Our Promise to new students:

https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/our-promise/

that for those unable to join us on campus in September, a warm welcome will await you later in the year. Specifically, for all new students, accommodation contracts will only begin when students collect their keys, which means that if you need to move in later than expected, accommodation fees for the period before you arrive will be waived. What about returning students, though?

The official terms and conditions, at:

https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/accommodation/terms-and-conditions/

make a strict distinction between contracts accepted on or after 23 July, where deposits will be returned if the agreement is made remotely and not completed by the collection of the keys in the presence of the Lancaster University member of staff, and contracts accepted before 23 July, where no such exception applies. Hence our promise to returners seems to be pay up or else, despite the goods not exactly being supplied as originally promised.

The city councillors for the campus have pressed senior university officers on this point, most recently on 22 October:

https://www.facebook.com/LancsUniLabourCllrs/posts/1571437339725303

The councillors feel that no one should have to pay for accommodation they are not living in. As reasonable as that sounds, it appears that Lancaster University begs to differ.

Bailrigg Garden Village Update

Lancashire County Council has just opened an official consultation on remodelling Junction 33 of the M6 and creating a link road to enable drivers to by-pass Galgate on their way to and from campus and the proposed Bailrigg Garden Village. Simultaneously, they’re consulting on a Movement and Public Realm Strategy for Lancaster City Centre, asking what should be done about the one-way system. City residents have received a letter and a glossy Transforming Lancaster Travel newsletter (that promises to be but the first of many issues). The deadline for responses is 6 December 2020 and you can find the documents at:

https://www.lancashire.gov.uk/Transforming-Lancaster-Travel/

For the Galgate by-pass, there’s a short engineering options document and a very long environmental options document.

The engineers note that: The development of the South Lancaster Strategic Growth Area [i.e. building the Bailrigg Garden Village on Burrow Heights with 3,500 homes] will depend upon providing new infrastructure including the re-configuration of Junction 33 (J33) of the M6. According to the environmental options document, the scheme’s objectives are to improve Junction 33, create a link to the Bailrigg Garden Village and improve air quality in Galgate. The University is mentioned only in passing, in the environmental options document, which notes that: As the expansion of Lancaster University and Bailrigg Garden Village begin to take effect, the options for travel along the A6 highway corridor will become restricted as more demand is placed on the existing road network.

Residents are presented with six route options.

There are two Eastern Routes, linking J33 with Hazelrigg Lane to the south of campus, via routes to the east of the M6. There are a few challenges: Eastern 1 involves severing Stoney Lane in Galgate and Eastern 2 involves removing Hampson Farm near Galgate. There are two Central Routes, also linking J33 with Hazelrigg Lane, but this time heading parallel to the M6 and just to the west of it. Central 2 offers an additional link to Ashton Road but is otherwise the same as Central 1. Finally there are two Western Routes, both heading north west from J33 (Western 1) or a point slightly north of J33 (Western 2), crossing the Lancaster Canal on a new bridge and ending up in Burrow Heights.

All six routes involve continuing Hazelrigg Lane to the west at its junction with the A6, heading under the West Coast Main Line and joining Burrow Road, to give access between the A6 and the Bailrigg Garden Village. The cutting for the underbridge would be 2.4m below the level of the nearby Ou Beck and, consequently, the drainage of this area would need to be by pump. There is very little detail on the environmental impact of effectively turning the A6-Hazelrigg Lane junction into a giant crossroads. Residents of Leach House Lane, located just to the west of the existing junction, are unlikely to be happy.

The engineers strongly prefer Central 1 as it’s the cheapest route, it doesn’t involve crossing the Lancaster Canal and the drainage is superior.

The environmental report prefers Western 1 and Western 2 from a noise reduction point of view, but opts for Central 1 from a traffic flow reduction point of view: Central 1 is the only route option achieving a reduction of flow in the A6 through Galgate in both directions, in all peak periods and years modelled. The Central 2 option might actually increase traffic flow due to cars cutting across between the A6 and Ashton Road.

The simultaneous consultation on the Lancaster one-way system has a prettily designed options document offering eight future visions that are, roughly: do nothing; return the loop to two-way traffic; keep the loop but make one lane for buses and cycles only; two-way to the west, buses and cycles only to the east; two-way to the east, buses and cycles to the west; no through city centre traffic; no through city centre traffic during the day; and a £12 congestion charge. There is a distinct lack of costings for any of the options, but the congestion charge is appraised as the greenest choice.

Following the consultation, Lancashire County Council’s Cabinet will make its final decision on the options in February 2021. This doesn’t seem like a lot of time to analyse the responses, but of course, they may want to get their decision over with before the whole council is up for re-election in May.

Bus News

subtext‘s intrepid Stagecoach correspondent reports…

Worries about virus transmission on public transport to and from campus have been, justifiably, one of the main concerns expressed by staff and students alike. So, how safe are things on the ground?

Signs as you embark ask passengers to sit in a window seat, with an empty row in front and behind you, but are these rules being enforced? Not really, but only because the buses are so sparsely populated that the risk now seems quite small, with many who would normally travel by bus opting to walk, cycle or drive instead. Your correspondent has only seen one example of a bus full sign being displayed, on a number 100 as it whizzed past the Infirmary; every other time, there have been at most 10 people on each deck.

The don’t sit next to anyone advice is adhered to rigorously, whilst the make sure there’s an empty row in front and behind you advice is being interpreted more flexibly: complied with if the numbers (or convenience) allow it, but not if they don’t. Almost everyone is dutifully wearing a mask, although this is reportedly not the case on some of the city centre shuttle services. Usually there will be at least one window open, so pack a parka.

subtext‘s paradoxical conclusion: for as long as many are avoiding Stagecoach because they’re worried about the risk of travelling by bus, the numbers on the buses will remain so low that the risk is likely minimal. Alas, in true tragedy of the commons style, as soon as enough of us realise this, the numbers are likely to rise until the risk becomes something to really worry about.

Maybe we shouldn’t be printing this story.

SPECIAL FEATURE: Black Lives Matter

VIRTUE SIGNALLING MATTERS

Much like a number of ‘brands’, including fashion labels, supermarkets and tech companies, Lancaster University’s social media accounts took part in ‘Black Out Tuesday’ on 2 June. The following day, the University’s Instagram account featured a series of images featuring slogans beginning with ‘What now?’, followed by slogans like ‘Support’ and ‘Educate’ and a few details of what the University is supposedly doing to support its black community (https://www.instagram.com/p/CA-nUaWgvkO/).

Warm words are always nice, but do little to address the real and sometimes shocking inequalities that currently exist at the University. While we are reminded every March of the University’s continuing failure to effectively tackle its gender pay gap (subtexts passim), things have been very quiet around the statistics relating to ethnicity at Lancaster. According to the most recent HESA data available from 18/19 (see https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/table-2), just over 10% of staff at Lancaster were BAME. Black colleagues made up just over 1% of the total. At senior levels, the figures look even worse: There were no black professors at Lancaster University in 18/19 according to the HESA data, and around 4% of professors overall were BAME. In the absence of Lancaster and other institutions publishing information about their ethnicity pay gaps alongside gender pay gaps, we are unfortunately left with a somewhat uncertain picture, but a 2019 report by the UCU (https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10360/Black-academic-staff-face-double-whammy-in-promotion-and-pay-stakes) found that black academic staff are paid on average 14% less than white academic staff.

Returning to the University’s Instagram feed, one of the posts raised a few eyebrows in the subtext warehouse, not to mention among members of Lancaster University’s Race Equality Network (REN): ‘Unite. Staff and students can unite through the LU Race Equality Network to share, campaign and support one another.’ As the open letter sent to the VC by the REN (see below) states, the previous VC promised in 2016 as part of the EDI Strategic Vision 2020 that Lancaster would sign up to the Race Equality Charter (REC) by 2017 with an eye to accreditation by 2020. It appears that nothing at all has been done about this since then.

It may be tempting to consider this a problem not experienced in our leafy, progressive climes, but Lancaster is by no means immune to racial harassment and discrimination. Take 2018, which brought us the Snow Sports Society white t-shirt scandal and controversial suspension of the black BME Officer who went to the press with details (see subtext 183), instances of swastikas daubed on office doors (see subtext 166) and the charming emergence of a fascist student society that disrupted lectures both public (see subtext 173) and academic (see subtext 176).

The HE environment can be at best negligent, and at worst actively hostile, for black academics and students. Recently the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory has been used on Twitter and other platforms by black academics and students from around the world to highlight the many, many different forms of discrimination and abuse they have encountered at universities. And this is where we return to the University’s virtue signalling versus a lack of concrete action and commitment to real change: there is no point putting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on social media, if the University’s actions suggest that they don’t, when it counts.

***

OPEN LETTER TO THE VC

Dear Andy Schofield,

We hope you are well and settling into the new role at Lancaster. A turbulent time to start.

We are writing regarding your inclusivity statement of 12 June. From the Lancaster University Race Equality Network’s (https://www.luren.org.uk) perspective, it was certainly good to hear of the University’s abhorrence of racism from the top. It was equally important to hear an acknowledgement of the dearth of activity thus far in attempting to address race equality at Lancaster. In the current moment this lack of action appears ever more stark.

Your statement referred to admissions criteria and representation in the Lancaster community, both key, yet the shocking race pay and attainment gaps also require attention. What was notably absent from your statement was any reference to decolonising Lancaster curricula. Unfortunately you are not alone in your reluctance (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/11/only-fifth-of-uk-universities-have-said-they-will-decolonise-curriculum). Yet decolonising work, including both specifically addressing curricula and more systematically interrogating and modifying practices in relation to student/staff recruitment, engagement, retention and attainment, has long been considered central to addressing race equality at all levels of education. Such work is currently being carried out by staff and students at Lancaster without Senior Management support, financial or otherwise.

If as you say you are committed to listening and learning, we hope you will take some time to listen to students from Lancaster University’s Why Is My Curriculum White? campaign, speaking at Decolonise UoK – Stories of Unbelonging (https://youtu.be/irkeT2aalIE), an event run by the University of Kent in March this year. These are our students’ lived experiences. They need to be heard.

We note also your commitment to seeing the University sign up to the Race Equality Charter, ‘and all that this entails’ by which, we presume, you refer to applying for Bronze Accreditation within 3 years of becoming a member. Having been promised this before in the EDI Strategic Vision 2020 (https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/edi/strategic-vision-2020/) you will forgive us if we do not wait with bated breath. LUREN understands that a feasibility study is currently ongoing to identify whether the University can fulfil its commitment to race equality without becoming a member. LUREN is clear that REC membership and accreditation by 2025 is vital if Lancaster is to fulfil its commitments to race equality, and concrete move in the right direction would be the establishment of a Self-Assessment Team and the appointment of a dedicated member of staff with relevant experience.

Race, as a protected characteristic, has long been ignored at Lancaster University, and our attempts to engage Senior Management in the experiences of staff and students from diverse ethnic backgrounds has fallen on deaf ears. But the public consciousness is shifting: Black Lives Matter. Prioritising the education, experience and wellbeing of staff and students is long overdue, but right now institutions, particularly HE institutions, are coming under the microscope. Empty words of commitment are considered simply insufficient (https://twitter.com/divanificent/status/1267746578615480323?s=20). What is required right now is action. We have attached the report by Sofia Akel (https://tinyurl.com/yc6zbocd) from 2018 outlining the situation at Lancaster specifically alongside recommendations. The REC, too, comes with an inbuilt set of requirements and recommendations. As David Lammy so eloquently put it on Radio 4 yesterday (https://tinyurl.com/ya3xtchp), instead of another review commission (or in Lancaster’s case a feasibility study) – implement them.

We wrote to Maria [Piacentini] regarding the suitability of a donation by the University to the Black Cultural Archives (https://blackculturalarchives.org), but have not heard anything further. This would be a good first step in demonstrating the University’s ‘commitment’ to race equality to your staff and students.

We are hopeful that your leadership represents a fresh start to race equality work at Lancaster University. We are tired, and angry, and disappointed. But we are also hopeful. We have every confidence that you will fulfil your responsibility to initiate action, given the broader mainstream narratives of racism in the UK right now. Lancaster has a dubious history of slave trading (https://tinyurl.com/y83n7wqt) but our past does not have to reflect our future. The University has the potential to become a leading light in HEI race equality. We hope that you will see fit to make it happen.

We look forward to hearing from you.

The LU Race Equality Network

If any subtext readers would like to be added to the LUREN mailing list, please contact m.barty-taylor@lancs.ac.uk

Asynchronicity

Understand blended learning yet? Where are you on the big ‘Teams vs Panopto’ debate? And how many times have you used the phrase ‘asynchronous learning event’ in the last two months? subtext‘s correspondent has tried to navigate the maze of buzzwords, so you don’t have to.

While the May 2020 paper Academic Delivery in 2020/21 and Beyond, produced by the ‘Bronze Assessment & Teaching Team’, offers the vision of a University switching, maybe several times in one term, between ‘multiple operating modes’, the June 2020 document Minimum Expectations for Teaching Events 20/21, signed off by Prof Maria Piacentini, makes it clear that, as far as our planners are concerned, we should focus on an all-online academic year.

According to the May paper, there will be three modes: ‘normal operating conditions’ (unlikely, in the first term at least); ‘social distancing imposed’ (which would mean the end of face-to-face lectures, but hopefully keep seminars and tutorials going); and ‘face-to-face teaching suspended’. Assuming that some face-to-face teaching is possible, the highest priority will be given to science labs, with lectures getting lowest priority. Despite the stated need to keep ‘a distinctive Lancaster offering’, staff are being asked to consider how they could ‘streamline their current and future offerings’, noting that ‘opportunities for reducing the number of programmes or modules and sharing of modules across programmes should be actively sought out’.

Given that departments will have been advertising the courses they expect to teach for over a year now and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) takes a tough line when the ‘goods are not as presented in the brochure’, it seems unlikely that many courses could be ‘streamlined’ away, even if this was desired. A short summary of the CMA’s 2015 guidance to universities is available at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-providers-short-guide-to-consumer-protection-law

The CMA stresses that, ‘before, or at the latest when, offering a place to a student, you must tell them of any changes since they applied and give pre-contract information which includes course information and costs, information on complaints handling, and any cancellation rights.’ Most of our applicants were offered a place well before COVID-19 hit and the CMA is unlikely to accept ‘but hey, virus!’ as a reason why a key course can no longer be taught.

The June document moves from generalities to a highly specific — teaching staff might say too specific — set of rules. We must develop ‘asynchronous lecture events’, made available ‘no later than the start of the planned lecture’, and even earlier where possible. Live-streaming of lectures is specifically discouraged; the ‘gold standard’ is apparently to split up a lecture into 4 x 15-minute recorded segments. If possible these should be recorded from home; recording from lecture theatres should be avoided where possible. Don’t think we can ignore the timetable, though, as we must also build in ‘synchronous discussion sessions’ at timetabled hours.

As several commentators have already noted, this plan would prohibit lectures being taught, live and online, with recordings made available immediately afterwards; a method which would be the preferred choice of some. Instead, we’re asked to adopt a method which doubles staff lecturing time (once to prepare an ‘asynchronous lecture event’ and once to hold the corresponding ‘synchronous discussion event’). A further issue is that ‘synchronous discussion events’ are supposed to be recorded for students who don’t turn up. Experience suggests it is hard enough to motivate students to speak in seminars even in precedented times; will they be willing to speak if recorded, and what do we do about discussions around sensitive topics?

Speaking of students turning up, apparently ‘any synchronous aspects will likely result in clashes therefore must be recorded.’ Why lecture clashes are likely is not explained. If we can schedule a full programme to (mostly) avoid clashes when we’re all attending in person, why would things get any worse when we’re all connecting via Teams?

Could it be that Lancaster is having problems putting a timetable together with so many staff on furlough? subtext readers have noted that on 5 June, a request went out to those who have offered to volunteer to support needy people on campus asking for help ‘supporting the timetabling process at the University.’ Apparently, ‘the Timetabling team have requested some support in liaising with faculties and departments to identify and understand their needs and feed these back into the Timetabling team for them to process.’ Sounds far more rewarding than delivering food parcels!

If face-to-face teaching is permitted for smaller groups, then ‘seminars’ must be prioritised for face-to-face provision, but no such priority is given to ‘workshops’ in the sciences or the arts. The distinction between a seminar and a workshop isn’t specified, and at this point a trunked mammal walks into the discussion – given we had difficulty scheduling all our seminars into limited numbers of flat rooms when it was okay to squash 25 into a room designed to fit 15, how on earth could we achieve this if restricted by social distancing to 6 or fewer per room? And, given that halving the numbers in each seminar would mean doubling the number of seminar teaching hours, who is going to be teaching these sessions?

For the arts, the prescribed solution is to get students doing their practicals at home: ‘departments may seek to enable the use of domestic internal and external spaces by individual students in which case appropriate consideration must be given to H&S and EDI issues.’ The idea of clusters of Theatre Studies students all practising out on County Square does have a certain beauty to it, although probably less so when faced with Lancaster’s usual winter weather.

Neither of the documents discuss the likely number of students who will actually be living on campus, because of course no one knows, but we’re reassured that we’ll still be offering ‘a college-based campus learning environment’. We can only hope that most of our students turn up in person, given that if they don’t, our much-publicised cash flow problems may go from being serious to critical. Fingers crossed.

Cancel the Rent

A contributed report from your socially distanced subtext correspondent

Student members of ACORN, the tenants and community union, put up a banner saying cancel the rent above the University underpass, and cancel the rent and housing is health posters onto white boards across campus on Monday 25 May, as part of the current student rent strike on campus. In order to comply with lockdown regulations, the exercise involved a very small number of activists who live in campus accommodation and it lasted only c. 40 minutes. Physical distancing was adhered to at all times.

Students involved in the exercise said that there are currently c. 200 students still on rent strike over unfair rent claims made by the University. Many students are stuck on campus due to the lockdown; this affects international students in particular. The University had not yet shown its willingness to negotiate with the students, who made their demands several weeks ago. The students stuck on campus still have to pay the full rent despite many services not being provided, and those who, due to the lockdown rules, had to leave belongings in their abandoned rooms still have to pay 25%.

The students involved in the banner action said that they now struggle with the supply of basic essentials on campus, especially a scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables. They have had to rely on the heavily overpriced campus Spar and campus central markets, which they say have only a very limited supply of everyday essentials. Fruit and vegetables currently sold in the shops on campus are limited and often near their expiry date. They are also overpriced, compared to the prices for the same items in grocery shops in town. The students also lamented that due to the COVID-19 lockdown, cleaning doesn’t take place in their halls, yet they are still asked to pay for it.

The students reported that it feels strange and somewhat eerie to live on an almost deserted campus.

The Liddle of Nowhere

Vale, Lord Liddle. LU Text reported on 12 June that, after seven years in post, our Pro-Chancellor will not be seeking reappointment when his term of office ends later this year (he’s due to step down on 31 July) and the University is now searching for ‘an exceptional individual’ to succeed him. Any subtext readers interested in applying can visit the pages of Odgers Berndtson, ‘one of the world’s pre-eminent executive search consultancies’, and read the glossy 16-page candidate brief, dated 20 April 2020:

https://www.odgersberndtson.com/en-gb/opportunities#AssignDetail.aspx?guid=76756

Back in April 2018, when Lord Liddle was reaching the end of his first five-year term of office, subtext 176 noted that his term of office had surprisingly been renewed for just two years, rather than the customary five. ‘Has Lord Liddle struck a Granita-style deal with former security supremo Baroness Neville-Jones, our ambitious Deputy Pro-Chancellor, whose term of office is up on 31 July 2020?’ we wondered. Well, it would seem not, as Baroness Neville-Jones will chair the Pro-Chancellor Search Committee.

Alongside a long list of all the campus capital projects that now aren’t going to happen, the candidate brief gives an insight into what ‘success’ means, as far as our Council members are concerned. The pitch from Baroness Neville-Jones announces that ‘success has included being the first UK university with a campus in West Africa, in Ghana; being at the forefront of rising to the challenges of EU exit through establishing a new campus in Leipzig, Germany, and developing the ground-breaking UA92 partnership in our own region.’ Who wouldn’t want to be the Chair of the Board that approved those decisions?

The brief trumpets our ‘financial strength’, and in particular that on 31 July 2019, we were ‘rated as AA- by Standard and Poor’s’, but fails to mention that this rating was downgraded from AA- to A+ on 20 September 2019. S&P noted on 16 January 2020 that, following this downgrade, ‘the UK has the majority of “A” category rated public universities [i.e. not as strong as the “AA” category] outside the US’:

https://www.spglobal.com/ratings/en/research/articles/200116-global-not-for-profit-higher-education-2020-outlook-despite-some-silver-linings-the-sector-continues-to-str-11292013

And what’s this we read about the term of office for the successful candidate? ‘The Pro-Chancellor may hold the office for up to two terms of three years with the approval of the Council. It also requires approval by the Office for Students.’ This would explain why Lord Liddle isn’t standing again. But, hang on, according to the version of the Charter, Statutes and Ordinances currently up on the University website, last updated on 30 March 2020, Ordinance 10.2 states that the Pro-Chancellor’s term of office ‘shall be for up to five years, renewable for one further period of up to five years.’ Is this version of Ordinance 10.2 out of date? Or are we advertising a term of office that conflicts with our own ordinances? Answers on the back of a postcard, please.

Communication Breakdown

News reaches subtext that when we finally return to campus, we are likely to find our desk phones removed. A news item has very quietly appeared on the LU Answers website:

https://answers.lancaster.ac.uk/display/ISS/Make+and+receive+calls

‘Over summer’, we’re told, ‘the University is modernising the way colleagues make and receive calls. This is due to significant changes in our working practices that have come about as a result of COVID-19 with staff working from home for the foreseeable future, alongside a decrease in the use of desk phones by many colleagues prior to this situation. These changes also help support the university’s finances by reducing the cost of phone systems.’ This process will start before the end of June.

Reportedly the university’s current contract with Cisco, the providers of our desk phones, is coming to an end, and ISS has decided not to renew it. Heads of Department have been informed — rather than consulted — about this. In future, internal calls will be made using Microsoft Teams, while for external calls we will need to use ‘Jabber’, whatever that is. Your desk phone will be removed and your external phone extension number will disappear, unless you can come up with a reason to keep either of these; ‘I want to phone someone’ is unlikely to succeed as a gambit.

But what if, heaven forbid, an external organisation might actually want to pick up the phone and call me? Fear not, because ’emergency and departmental phones will be unaffected.’ Why not just replace the entire network with a single BT payphone in each porters’ lodge, and have done with it?

Nuttall Officers

Contributed article by Ronnie Rowlands

Back in those heady, wistful days of February 2020, subtext reported that the students’ union (LUSU) had passed a drastic restructure of its executive officer team without adequate consultation.

LUSU’s reorganisation continues apace, with the sacking of President George Nuttall and the resignation of Vice-President (Welfare & Community) Grishma Bijukumar in April. This follows the departure of Vice-President (Union Development) Hannah Prydderch and Vice-President (Activities) Ben Evans, who both resigned earlier in the academic year, citing a ‘toxic workplace culture’ as the primary reason.

LUSU sabbatical officers skedaddling before their time is a rare, but not unheard of, thing. Throughout its history, LUSU has seen a handful of officer-elects failing their exams and therefore being ineligible to take office. Then there was the guy who won, then immediately resigned in horror upon learning who the other winners were. One officer elect was arrested for assault and barred from taking up office, his insistence that he could adequately execute his duties from a jail cell not quite cutting it with the powers that be.

But LUSU has never found itself down four officers. Just what the bloody hell went wrong?

Throughout his election campaign in 2019, George Nuttall was exalted by the snarky student social media as the saviour of the student voice, which had been sorely lacking since LUSU jettisoned most of its accountability structures in 2015 (subtexts passim). He had a history of activism (well, of giving off the impression that he did…) and, having served on the JCR Executive of the County College, was an obvious choice.

Having barely got its legs under the table, the Nuttall Ministry was immediately beset by the decision of LUSU’s Trustee Board to close the Sugarhouse, swayed to a majority by the vote of one sabbatical officer. A series of tactical (but not particularly subtle) leaks led to the very public outing and larruping of Vice-President (Activities) Ben Evans, who resigned shortly thereafter citing a toxic bullying culture within the officer team.

But still, the Sugarhouse was saved, and the Nuttall Ministry rode the wave of good PR as a substitute for doing much else. In February 2020, Nuttall was re-elected in an unopposed contest. Moments after his re-election, Vice-President (Union Development) Hannah Prydderch resigned.

Her resignation did not follow a surreptitious smear campaign. She left suddenly, citing bullying among the executive officer team as the reason, its concurrence with Nuttall’s re-election open to one very stark interpretation.

LUSU, which was spinning its tyres in the mud and failing to implement any of the policies that were passed at its general meeting in November, limped along.

*

On May 1, LUSU released the following statement:

‘George Nuttall was dismissed from office today following an independent investigation into complaints received by the Union […] Following a hearing, it was decided that […] Mr Nuttall should be dismissed from his post with immediate effect.’

At no point in LUSU’s history has a President been dismissed, either by the Trustee Board, or following a vote of no confidence. An army of sycophants, many of whom are friends with Nuttall on Facebook, immediately took to social media to decry LUSU’s senior management for turfing out ‘the most popular President in institutional memory’.

‘This is what happens when you try to stand up to Uni management – you’re destroyed’ thundered one unhappy student. The verdict of the Facebook Friends of Democracy was that a Good Man had been ousted for ruffling too many feathers.

This just doesn’t ring true.

Your author is proud to have served as a Vice-President of LUSU in 2014-15, and to have been a notoriously obstructive arsepain during his entire time at Lancaster.

Yes, it is true that the journeymen at LUSU’s top table would prefer a supine officer team and a quiet life. Nevertheless, my team and I: picketed open days; plastered campus with photoshopped posters of the Vice-Chancellor; occupied University House; and routinely showed up university management in front of its stakeholders. Yet we were never sacked.

Hell! My President, Laura Clayson, was the most notorious megaphone militant leftie of her era. She went on to be tried for terror-related charges in the Stansted 15 case, and you’re seriously telling me that this guy was subjected to a calculated whitewash for putting his name to a few terse open letters to D-Floor?

Give me a break.

* 

Irrespective of the choreographed outcry, LUSU is an employer, bound by employment law. If a thorough investigation into a complaint is undertaken and that complaint is substantiated, then any organisation worth its salt will follow its HR policy. It seldom ends well for organisations which choose to cover up complaints and protect their figureheads.

There were demands for the nature of the complaints to be made public, but anybody with the brains of a centipede knows that such a move would compromise the anonymity of complainants. Given the way in which the choreographed sycophants have already publicly shamed LUSU officers and Trustee Board members this year, it is easy to see why LUSU might want to protect the complainants.

Some of the choreographed sycophants suggested that Nuttall should have been subjected to a motion of no confidence, to afford the students an opportunity to democratically remove their President.

I harbour some support for this idea. What a pity, then, that a motion of no confidence in George Nuttall, lodged by a student via the LUSU website in March, was summarily withdrawn due to unspecified ‘legal reasons’! Oddly, the Facebook Friends of Democracy had little to say about this.

Then there’s the suggestion that Nuttall is ‘the most popular President in institutional memory’. I would be interested to know what metric was used to make that claim. Whilst it is true that Nuttall was re-elected to the Presidency with ‘70% of the vote’, this isn’t particularly difficult when you’re the only candidate running. Even then, 70% is low for an uncontested election! For most people on campus, the ‘institutional memory’ only stretches back for about three years.

Nuttall does not fare nearly as well in your author’s ‘institutional memory’, which stretches back a decade. In the context of ten years, and using the same metric, Nuttall’s popularity is historically low. There have been three other uncontested sabbatical elections in the last decade – one victor was returned with 83% of the vote, one with 79%, and one with 82%. Furthermore, Nuttall’s re-election campaign attracted 552 votes to Re-Open Nominations, the highest vote share for RON in any sabbatical contest for at least ten years.

Had I the time or inclination, I’d go back further, but this isn’t about sticking the boot into someone while they’re down. It’s about believing people who have been victimised.

I was utterly horrified to see the scorn, deflection, and denial from an organised army of sycophants on social media, their blind rabidity dwarfing the sparse voices of concern for the victims of bullying. The University of Lancaster has been beset by a culture of bullying this year, and it is disheartening to see that culture running so rampantly through LUSU; ostensibly the ‘Good Guys’; its victims dismissed by a court of public opinion that should know better.

Last year, I didn’t envy Nuttall the mess he had to clear up. This year, I do not envy our President-elect the task of lifting LUSU out of the ditch that Nuttall has left it in.