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Category Archives: official meetings
Impending strike action was the sole subject of discussion at what were otherwise two very different Lancaster UCU General Meetings, one on 22 January and the other on 18 February. Both were relatively well-attended – the January one looked packed because it was in the cosy Marcus Merriman Lecture Theatre, while the February one looked sparsely attended because it was in the cavernous (and freezing cold!) County South Lecture Theatre, but in truth there were probably around 60 attendees at each.
Members at the January meeting, held when the 14 days of action had been proposed but not agreed to, were worried and apprehensive. Despite an upbeat introduction by local UCU President Julie Hearn, suggesting we ‘look over the ocean’ at France, where a general strike seemed imminent, the majority of speakers advised caution. One thought this seemed the wrong time to take further action; another was worried that members were being asked to ‘go back out’ after no visible progress; another flatly suggested that the union’s tactics had failed. Those backing 14 days felt we currently had the momentum – and if we didn’t act now, there was no guarantee we’d reach the 50% threshold again. It was not logical to say, ‘we’ve not achieved much, so we shouldn’t go back out on strike!’
The meeting had officially been called to gauge opinions, and a motion supporting the planned strike action had been proposed, but it was agreed by everyone present that a vote was not appropriate (subtext’s view is that it would probably have fallen). One member perhaps summed up the majority: ‘no one is saying, don’t take strike action. We want to take strike action – but we don’t want to take 14 days’ strike action.’
The January meeting agreed to invite one of the national negotiators up to speak to a future meeting – a very wise decision, in retrospect, because the February meeting, with national pay and conditions negotiator Robyn Orfitelli (University of Sheffield) as lead speaker, was a much more optimistic affair.
Despite spending nearly four hours to travel from Sheffield to Lancaster by train, Dr Orfitelli was upbeat – about what the negotiators had already achieved on pay and conditions, and why she thought we needed to take further action. After a long period of silence, the employers had written to the unions in the last few days, with strike action imminent, asking for a meeting – a tactic they’d used just before the last strike, when talks started on the second strike day. ‘A lot of progress has been made’ in those talks, she reported, but not enough.
The unions want a negotiating framework for working conditions. UK-wide principles should be agreed as the ‘bottom line’, following which there should be locally-negotiated implementation of these principles. UCEA, the employers’ pay negotiators, offered some ‘principles on precarity’ and a commitment to information gathering, but there was still no progress on a sector-wide response to the workload crisis or – of course – on the headline pay offer. All of the ‘four fights’ were, at their core, equality issues. Universities were making financial choices which devalue their staff and students.
There were plenty of questions.
– ‘What’s the plan if the employer just sits this out?’ ‘I don’t think they will,’ replied Dr Orfitelli, adding that, when UCU members want us to stop taking action, they will tell us.
– What incentive do employers have to settle in one dispute, given we’d still be on strike due to the other dispute? Dr Orfitelli believed that, the instant that one of the two (UCEA for pay, Universities UK for pensions) breaks, the pressure ramps up on the other. These organisations are all ‘literally down the hall from each other.’
– Could reducing the number of fixed-term staff have the unintended consequence of placing more indefinite staff at risk, due to larger redundancy pools? Dr Orfitelli noted that campaigning was often like playing Whack-a-Mole.
– On pensions, Dr Orfitelli reported that employers had recently been reconsulted, and many are unwilling to take on extra contributions. Reports of ‘111 USS employers’ presumably means that each Oxbridge college is being counted as a separate institution. To get a resolution, we either need to get USS to fundamentally change, or get Universities UK to temporarily take on additional contributions. The Joint Expert Panel (JEP) was ‘over’ – it had delivered both of its reports, and its members were not directly involved in negotiations.
– Were there disagreements between the pay negotiators and the General Secretary? Both had sent emails to members, with different takes on the dispute, at almost exactly the same time! Apparently, there was no disagreement, just a ‘slightly different tone.’ The negotiators were concerned that members did not have access to them and their thoughts, and they were unaware that the General Secretary would be writing to members that day.
– If there was movement on job insecurity but zero movement on pay, would the negotiators recommend that members be balloted on the deal? ‘We’re not ruling anything out.’
– And the most unsympathetic VC? Birmingham, apparently!
At one point Dr Orfitelli floated the idea of a REF, TEF and KEF boycott, which was met with a round of applause.
The meeting ended with thanks for Dr Orfitelli. Four hours on Transpennine Express well spent!
The second annual Lancaster Exchange, the replacement for our much-missed University Court, will be on Thursday 12 March 2020 in Lancaster Town Hall, from 5pm until 8pm.
subtext was optimistic after the first Lancaster Exchange, concluding that ‘it was more like a pilot episode than an experiment, but if management really publicises next year’s meeting, makes the topics for discussion a little less boilerplate, and involves the students a lot more, it could be really very good indeed’ (see subtext 187). How are preparations for Lancaster Exchange II going?
According to the draft agenda, the first subject will be Eden Project North, after which ‘we will be exploring the University’s role in contributing to the development of the region as a healthy, prosperous and sustainable place.’ Important topics, true, but arguably more boilerplate than a plumbing convention.
Publicity seems better than last year; 2019’s attendees have been emailed with an invitation and the event even has a website:
The local Chamber of Commerce and Business Improvement District are promoting the event; the Exchange is clearly seen as a good way to ‘engage with the local community.’
Unfortunately, calling the meeting for a Thursday night has put the kibosh on alumni attending in significant numbers, and the event isn’t even currently listed as an event on the University’s alumni page. Many students and staff will still be in lectures and seminars at that time – and even those lucky enough to finish by 5pm are unlikely to be attracted by an immediate three-hour meeting in town. It’s a shame this problem wasn’t noted at the planning stage.
…they’ve called the event during the strike! Any students and academic staff looking for a constructive way to raise their concerns with management, in a comfortable city-centre setting, now have the perfect opportunity to do so – just head to the Eventbrite page and reserve your place, before it’s too late:
Suddenly the event is looking a lot more exciting than at first glance.
Contributed by Megan Marxel
A full room, including many recognisable as dedicated subtext readers, attended the book launch for ‘The University Challenge’ on Monday 3 February, hosted by the Institute for Social Futures. This wide-reaching book on the challenges facing (Anglo) universities was a collaboration between Prof Ed Byrne (VC of King’s College London) and Charles Clarke (former MP, former Home and Education Secretaries, Visiting Professor to Lancaster PPR, graduate of Highgate School [est 1565], Cantab, former President of the Cambridge Students Union and of the National Union of Students). I was impressed by this biography and was curious about what he had to say. But what stands out most in my memory of Mr Clarke is that he looked very bored, especially considering that this was his party.
I didn’t actually make it to the book launch itself (I was teaching), but that was just as well. I was far more interested in the panel discussion that followed. Pro-VC for Engagement Sue Black led a panel discussion on ‘What’s Wrong with Universities and How Do We Fix It?’. As the discussion was only an hour and a half long, we barely even scratched the surface.
Sue started by, somewhat defensively, clarifying that she had not set the discussion topic, which assumes that something is actively wrong with our universities. On the eve of more strikes across 74 universities, her caveat was, at best, disingenuous. She then warned the audience to avoid being ‘too strident’ in expressing our views. Her pre-emptive tone was perhaps understandable though, as Charles Clarke is the man responsible for introducing the university fees that have since gone on to indebt millions of British students.
The panel members each had 5 minutes to reflect on challenges facing universities. Little surprise, these were fairly unmemorable, generic statements about ‘collaborating more’ and ‘better clarifying mission statements’. There were a few exceptions, including when Prof Byrne argued that universities were making active choices to either serve as ‘engines of equality or engines of inequality’. Another exception was Dr Shuruq Naguib, Lecturer in Islamic Studies, who described the findings of over 1,000 interviews with British university students that highlighted the need to meaningfully tackle endemic Islamophobia across our future universities.
Despite these spikes of interest, something felt odd about the panel’s overall response to the prompt: not one person mentioned the plague of managerialism, the tragedy of student debt, relentless growth, the burdens of industrial action, or the risks of instrumentalism. Their polite skirting of the larger issues provoked a knowing sigh, ‘Ah, this is what is wrong with English universities.’
The audience’s questions were rectifying, perhaps because they included impassioned interventions from members of the Lancaster UCU Executive. Particularly memorable was an emotive question about the panel’s recurrent use of the personal pronoun, ‘we’. If ‘we’ are collectively responsible for defining the future of universities, then why do most staff and students feel so disempowered? Prof Byrne responded by highlighting a range of encouragingly democratising initiatives being undertaken at King’s College that left me envious. If true, the trajectories of Kings and Lancaster could not look more different.
Nevertheless, the panel discussion began to open up the types of honest, public debate that Lancaster so badly needs. Even if it comes under the guise of book sales, these conversations must form part of how we begin to fix the many things wrong with our universities.
Near the end of the event, a student was invited to ask a question. Unfortunately, he uttered the word ‘marketisation’. This clearly ruffled Mr Clarke, who retorted that he ‘did not quite understand what is meant by terms like marketisation, commercialisation and neoliberalisation in Higher Education’. I ended my evening by shaking his hand and offering to explain these concepts to him. He declined.
A moderately populated Great Hall played host to the final all-staff meeting on Tuesday 25 June, led by Vice-Chancellor Professor Mark E Smith, CBE, before his imminent departure to southerly climes. The majority of those present, apart from the conflagration of senior managers [is this the correct collective noun for senior managers? Readers are welcome to write in with alternative suggestions] that routinely accompanies the VC to such events, appeared to be Professional Services (PS) colleagues. Leaving aside the general reluctance of academic colleagues to turn up to such meetings, this may have been as much to do with it being exam board season as with concerns about the freeze, err, control on new recruitment, which affects only PS staff.
‘Let’s kick off’, said the VC, perhaps showing his enthusiasm for what may come to be regarded as one of the main legacies (or white elephants, perhaps) of his tenure, Lancaster’s very own football university. A little later, UA92 also got its own slide, and according to the VC everything is going swimmingly, with the first intake of students due to start in September and recruitment apparently very close to being on target. He was keen to stress, however, that UA92 had a very ‘different model’ for student recruitment, with multiple entry points for students, and that it definitely was not in any way comparable with the normal university recruitment cycle. It would of course be churlish to assume that this means that UA92 has in fact recruited very few students!
Before going sportsy though, the VC was keen to highlight the good news. Financially, the HE sector is in pretty good health, with Lancaster at the top of the distribution. The phrase ‘Expanding Excellence in England’, rather than applying to the VC’s feelings about his own emoluments, is the name of a Research England fund which will contribute £7.6m, alongside LU’s own £5.6m contribution, for the ‘Beyond Imagination’ project housed in LICA. There will be a new School of Architecture, with students starting their degrees from 2020. And there are a host of building initiatives on campus in progress or about to start, including the Health Innovation Campus, a £1m refurb of Edward Roberts Court, the LUMS Space Programme (he didn’t mention the multi-million pound stuff-up that delayed it in the first place), a £6m expansion of the Sports Centre, the Library Phase 3 (whether there will be any staff left to work there is another question he did not address), a 400 seat lecture theatre, an upgrade of our district heating system, and a refurb of Bailrigg House.
The VC claimed that these developments showed that the University was increasing its physical infrastructure at the same pace as increases in student numbers, and that the new lecture theatre provided physical proof that this was true. Staff who have had to teach after 6pm this year might wonder whether in fact this was true, or whether the new lecture theatre should in fact have been built a few years ago to prevent evening teaching in the first place. And staff who have been denied a regrade, or whose departments or units have had vacancies turned down might wonder if all this spending on making the campus look prettier could have been put to better use (more on this later).
The VC whizzed through a few other international developments – the new Leipzig venture will offer degrees in Business from later this year, and in Computer Science from 2020, and there will be a ‘Future Cities Research Institute’ jointly hosted by Lancaster with its long-standing partner in Malaysia, Sunway. And closer to home, he outlined the changes to the University’s senior leadership, most of which had already been shared via the news portal, with the addition that Professor Sharon Huttly’s Pro-VC role would expand to encompass responsibility for not only Education but also Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). This was a change from the previous plan, which was to have Stephen Decent look after EDI as part of the ‘people’ part of the Academic Development brief (which includes planning and resourcing). While the VC was keen to stress that all of the senior leadership had EDI as part of their brief, this move ‘created more bandwidth at senior level to work on EDI issues’. It will certainly be a welcome move for staff and students who have been campaigning on related issues to have EDI explicitly named in one of the Pro-VC titles, and with the greatest respect for Professor Decent, the optics of having yet another white man in charge of this portfolio were not great.
We have known since May that Professor Mandy Chetwynd would be retiring, and no doubt many subtext readers will wish her well and appreciate her long service to the University. What is not quite clear, which also came up in one of the questions to the VC, is what impact laying down the role of Provost for Student Experience, Colleges and the Library would have on… Colleges and the Library. Colleges in particular appear to have been under attack for a considerable period, with SCRs being closed, bars moving to central control, accommodation blocks spread around campus due to building work, and various college staff roles being reduced or centralised. It may be the case that this move represents the final nail in their coffin – until they are resurrected as nothing more than a convenient label for where students live in their first year.
The last substantive points in the VC’s speech, apart from a few warm words about the forthcoming graduation ceremonies, a reassurance (supposedly) that the Augar review could have been a lot worse, and a hurrah for our league table positions, were to do with the gender pay gap and the professional services freeze – sorry, vacancy control management. On the gender pay gap, the VC reported that there was reporting, reports, and engagement – but there seems to have been little actual action in the 15 months since Lancaster’s terrible pay gap statistics were first published. And this is hardly surprising, given that the expenditure on staff who have EDI work as their lead responsibility at Lancaster is considerably less than at many other HE institutions. And for the few roles we have, the pay also seems to be below par. Various reports are due to be published over the coming months (no doubt choosing to publish these in the summer when fewer staff and students are around is entirely accidental), so we will see what they contain.
On vacancy control, the VC followed his usual MO when faced with difficult questions, and retreated to technical details and graphs of figures showing the University’s adjusted net operating cashflow, where it was projected to be, and where we needed it to be in order not to get in to difficulties in future. But there was ‘no need to panic, absolutely a need to adjust the tiller’, he said, which may lead readers to wonder what icebergs lie ahead. The University faces no clear financial difficulties, apparently, but needs to be financially disciplined. How long this situation will continue, he said, depends on financial discipline. If student recruitment is strong, the period should be shorter. He was at pains to point out that it was not only Professional Services staff who were affected. The capital plan had already been adjusted – and no vacancy control would mean more adjustment. The consequences would be for example, not being able to address the longer teaching day (he did not mention that not having a prettier campus or not having a bigger sports centre are options). And, don’tchaknow, we’re all in this together: even the VC’s own office has had a vacancy turned down.
As the VC finished his remarks and turned to the questions submitted anonymously via the iLancaster app (human two-way interaction in the room is no longer desirable, apparently), it became clear that he had not, in fact reassured the University community on various issues. Numerous questions, a few submitted before he started speaking, but many during the session, related to the vacancy control. Others addressed UA92, paternity leave provision, the rumours of a closure of Religious Studies, advice for the new VC, neoliberalism in education, and why so few academics were present.
The VC gave a few convincing answers, but overall tended to deflect and refer back to his previous comments. Some of his answers may have given colleagues pause for thought. For instance, the idea that the vacancy controls required ‘imaginative thinking’ on behalf of managers in terms of how to address their staffing needs. No doubt many managers will be left imagining how their staff will cover the same (or higher) workloads with fewer people to do the work. The VC appeared to hint that in future there would also be controls (though he did not use this word) on academic recruitment, but that it was important to maintain staff-student ratios. And to a question about why PS staff were being targeted when there were some academics who apparently had not published or taught in years, the VC suggested this needed to be addressed through performance management, and that the new PDR process would allow this… and thus the seeds of division sown by this process seem to be bearing fruit already. One welcome clarification the VC provided was that maternity/parental leave cover should emphatically not be affected by vacancy control. Whether this message gets through to the people who have already knocked back requests for such cover (see letters, in this issue), or the managers who don’t even bother to apply in the first place because of the continuous pressure to find savings, remains to be seen.
It was a somewhat subdued Vice-Chancellor who opened Senate with his usual verbal report, and it is fair to say that he had much to be subdued about. There was the small matter of Lancaster’s rather large gender pay gap – one of the highest in the HE sector and not a league position he relished. He did not want to speculate on what might have caused this (though management policies and practices might be a good place to start). He was instead in the process of setting up a Task Force to look into this, with membership and terms of reference were being finalised. But we should not expect immediate results and it was likely to take ‘years of activity’ before the situation was resolved (so don’t hold your breath, laydeez).
He mentioned the recent pensions strikes (the most effective and best-supported that UCU had ever mounted, though of course he didn’t say this). He wanted to express his thanks for how the action was conducted to all involved, to Lancaster UCU, to heads of departments, and to the students. We all behaved magnificently, it would appear. As to the pensions issue itself, employers and union were now united in trying to ‘shift the goal posts’ (he wasn’t saying this the last time Senate met). On the plus side, he was happy to report a major improvement in the student retention rate, something he had previously identified as a major concern for the university. There was also to report a successful bid for an additional 60 medical student places, and a move from 9th to 8th place in The Times Complete University Guide.
There followed a discussion and approval of an Intellectual Property Strategy, content embargoed so we can’t report it. Then came a further look at proposed amendments to Charter and Statutes. As reported in subtext 174, Senate at its last meeting had relinquished its right of veto over Statute changes but had asked Council to look again at its proposals to ensure that Senate was at least consulted before changes were made relating to academic matters and student welfare. With the assistance of Professor Alisdair Gillespie of the Law School, a form of words was found that required Council to ‘give consideration’ to the views of Senate before making future changes. This, suggested Professor Gillespie, was the next best thing in the absence of a veto. The amendments were generally welcomed, though one senator pointed out that Council could still override the wishes of Senate if it was minded to do so. He believed that the result of all these changes gave too much power to Council and, with the abolition of Court, there was now no constitutional restraint on its actions. His, though, was very much a minority view and Senate voted overwhelmingly for the Statute changes.
Then came reports on University KPIs, and on revised arrangements for the conferral of PhDs (see below). Finally, approval was given to the new title of the Department of Entrepreneurship, Strategy and Innovation, and a recommendation for the appointment of two Professors Emeritus (names embargoed, but they know who they are).
Next Wednesday’s Senate meeting will be, if the Chief Administrative Officer has her way, its final one as one of our two senior governing bodies, alongside the Council. Major proposals to amend our Charter, Statutes and Ordinances, originally proposed in February but deferred to May, following a refreshing lack of willingness by our senators to roll over when asked, are to be re-presented next week.
The changes clarify the relative powers of the Council and the Senate – and henceforth the Senate will very much be the junior partner. Here’s a summary:
– The Chancellor will no longer be the ‘Head of the University’, just a person who is able to confer degrees.
– The Court is abolished (see subtext 172). The proposed ‘Annual Public Meeting’ does not get any mention in our Statutes.
– The Council can establish and disestablish colleges, faculties and departments, without having to act on a recommendation of the Senate. It must take the Senate’s views into account, but it may overrule them.
– The Council no longer requires the concurrence of the Senate to amend the Statutes and Ordinances.
– The Senate no longer has a role in appointing the Vice-Chancellor. Previously the VC was appointed by the Council on the recommendation of a joint subcommittee of the Senate and the Council; now the decision will be made by the Council alone.
– The Council will no longer include representatives of the non-academic staff or Lancaster City Council.
Well at least we now know where we stand. Or sit. subtext readers concerned at this total power grab are advised to lobby their Head of Department accordingly.
As noted, the latest set of statute changes will remove the representatives of non-academic staff and Lancaster City Council from the University Council. This seems to have been accepted rather meekly by the parties concerned; in the case of Lancaster City Council, their last representative, Cllr Andrew Warriner, had a decidedly poor attendance record, so perhaps the city council felt it didn’t have much of a leg to stand on. But, formally, the positions remain until the Privy Council amends our statutes.
Anyone examining the current list of Council members on the Secretariat’s webpage wouldn’t know this, however, since it contains no mention of the soon-to-be-abolished positions at all! Jumping the gun? Or accepting the inevitable?
JUST A LIDDLE LONGER
Actually, looking at the list of Council members, subtext noticed something interesting. The five-year term of office of our Pro-Chancellor (aka the Chair of Council), Lord Liddle, had been due to expire on 31 July 2018. Would he face any difficulties in securing a second five-year term of office (see subtext 165)? Well, now his term of office is listed as ending on 31 July 2020! What’s happened here? 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? To be honest, we’ve no idea. Any Council members interested in serving as a mole for subtext should contact us at the usual address.
PLUNDERING THE PENSION
The VC opened his report with some good news. Applications are up, including a 9% increase from EU countries, while the sector average is down. Research grant income continues to be strong. Work has at last started on the new £41M Health Innovation Campus. Now for the not-so-good news. The level of university fees was now being questioned by the government (yes, that same government that increased them to over £9K in the first place). This was not good for universities, and while students might raise the odd cheer, the VC was scathing, especially about Lord Adonis’ suggestion that fees be pegged at £6K.
The big issue was the pensions dispute. The VC gave a succinct account of the recent history of USS pensions, showing how the various changes over the last few years had steadily reduced their value. There was a dispute about the size of the scheme’s current ‘deficit’ but he had thought that an agreement was close until the intervention of the Pensions Regulator. This, he believed, was political. The Regulator had been publicly lacerated over its laxity in the BHS and Capita pensions scandals and needed to show that it was on the case with USS. (Of course, an alternative interpretation might be that, as with Carillion, the Regulator was only too willing to support the employers’ interest). So this was how we got to where we are now.
At this point Senators might be forgiven if they thought that the VC was about to announce that he would be joining the picket lines himself the next day. Alas, this was not to be the case. When asked if he would be supporting LUSU’s and other Vice-Chancellors’ calls for an immediate return to national negotiations, he said emphatically that he would not. He denied the report in that day’s Times that he had joined ten other VCs in calling for a resumption of negotiations. The two sides were too far apart – he used the word ‘chasm’ – and as such there would be nothing to negotiate about. Besides, Lancaster could not afford the UCU demand for a 2% increase in the employer contribution to the pension fund. It would cut into our annual surplus, and everyone knows that our surplus is for Spine embellishments, football universities, and golf courses, not for frittering away on staff. Was there any chance of students’ getting any compensation for lost contact time, as is their right as consumers? Hardly! What about the strikers’ pay deductions? Would the money the university saved be donated to the student hardship funds, as had happened with previous strikes? Yes, of course, but only after certain university expenses had been covered. And what were these? Why, the cost of providing pensions advice to staff who would have to grapple with the complexities of a new defined contributions scheme. You can’t say that our VC doesn’t think ahead.
ALL POWER TO THE COUNCIL!
The big agenda item for the day was a raft of constitutional changes for Senate to approve. The Chief Administrative Officer opened by stating that the proposed changes followed from the recent Council Effectiveness Review and the abolition of Court, and it was largely a tidying up operation. She would not go through these in detail as she presumed that everyone had read the papers. It soon became clear that most Senators had not read the papers. Some had, though, and the claim enshrined in the proposals that Council was ‘the supreme governing body and final decision-maker’ was challenged. According to the CAO, this was required by the Code of Practice that all university governing bodies had to observe. Not so, said some Senators, with one reading aloud what the Code actually stated. To which the CAO responded with an irrefutable alternative fact – that this is what the new Office for Students might in the future require us to do. Senate seemed happy to accept this line of reasoning. One Senator seemed particularly troubled by the proposal to give Council the sole authority to make and amend Statutes and Ordinances, ‘Henry the Eighth powers’, as he called them. Against this the VC deployed his ultimate debating weapon – the Warwick Clincher. His old employer had done this, therefore so should Lancaster. Senate duly voted in favour. However, there was by now enough disquiet about the future position of Senate in terms of academic governance that the rest of the proposed changes were withdrawn for further working. But the VC had achieved what he wanted – Council now had the sole right to make, change and remove Statutes. Lancaster can now look forward to having a much smaller Senate – just like they have at Warwick, where they don’t have colleges.
BEST OF THE REST
The Dean of LUMS presented the formal proposal to close the Department of Leadership and Management, and split its activities between the departments of Organisation, Work and Technology, and Entrepreneurship, Strategy and Innovation. It would seem that the process to bring this about was a model of best practice, with a ‘consultative approach’ throughout ‘the project’, ‘clear communication given to staff’, and ‘consistent’ involvement with the unions. For what really happened, see subtext 169.
A proposal from the PVC (Education) for the establishment of an ‘Institute for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching’ (InELT) was warmly received, its safe passage ensured by the promise that it wasn’t going to cost any money. However, it was felt that the acronym was insufficiently cumbersome for a Lancaster University institute so it was agreed that ‘curriculum’ should be inserted somewhere in its title. Perhaps it could be called something like ‘CELT’. Now that name rings a bell…
Finally, a paper from PPR and the Deputy VC for the establishment of an ‘Interdisciplinary Research Centre focused on China’. Now this one would cost money, so the paper was a testing of the waters rather than a definite proposal. Senate rather liked the idea, and agreed that the sponsors should go ahead with putting together a more detailed proposal.
subtext has extensively covered the recent abolition of University Court (subtexts passim), but has yet to give much thought to the ‘annual public meeting’ that top table seeks to replace it with. Thankfully, student newspaper SCAN has unearthed some interesting information on management’s plans for the future.
According to a University statement, the new public meeting ‘will provide an opportunity to widen the diversity of groups we have not traditionally reached through court membership.’ As we reported in subtext 169, the membership of the Court was the most diverse of any top-level governance body in the University. The Court could have easily represented new groups by voting to expand its own membership, but heigh ho. The new public meeting will allow ‘attendees to engage more immediately in the development of the University.’ So there you have it – apparently the public meeting will take place more often than the annual meeting of the Court, and stripping it of its decision-making and appointing powers will somehow provide greater opportunities to help ‘develop’ the university.
So, what will the membership be? As helpfully explained to SCAN: ‘The first event will target […] around 200, and […] invite a broader range of stakeholders, including student groups, the general public, regional businesses, voluntary and community organisations, as well as current external members of the Court.’ Erm… Okay. So the first meeting of the Annual Public Meeting will have a smaller membership than the Court, and the first order of business will be to invite stakeholder groups previously already represented by the Court to the following year’s meeting. Okay? Okay.
While student wanna-be societies might be yearning for the return of an autocratic fascist state, the University’s governance bodies seem to be doing a pretty good job of dismantling their own democratic structures. Next Wednesday’s Senate papers suggest substantial changes to the University’s statutes are on the agenda. These cover not only the abolition of Court (which was expected) but also significant weakening of the constitutional position of Senate in relation to Council. Instead of Council acting on a ‘recommendation by Senate’, they will instead act ‘following consideration of the recommendation by Senate’. In other words, Council can overrule Senate on a number of issues just so long as they ‘consider’ the recommendation first. This formulation is proposed for several statutes, all relating to matters where currently Senate has the power.
There is also a proposal to change the procedure for making ordinances by removing the requirement for Senate ‘concurrence’ with any changes or new ordinance. As for Council itself, there is a proposal for extending the maximum term of office from six to nine years – for lay members, not for University representatives. There are other changes that look innocuous but probably will have the effect of increasing Council’s powers. And the amount of time allocated on the Senate agenda for discussing this power grab? TEN WHOLE MINUTES! It remains to be seen whether our senators show any more spine than usual when faced with what essentially amounts to rendering the body they sit on powerless if Council wants to push something through, even in areas that are absolutely central to Senate’s remit.
Unloved by the people organising it, but defended by the people attending it, the final meeting of Lancaster University’s Court on Saturday 27 January 2018 in George Fox Lecture Theatre 1 ended up being very long, occasionally lively, and rather enjoyable.
By subtext’s count, 116 members turned up, with 53 sending apologies. The student numbers had increased from 2017, while the numbers travelling from outside the region seemed to be slightly down – why make the effort when you don’t feel wanted?
As is fitting for any good meeting of Court, there was a rambunctious, intense, and highly explosive political demonstration outside the building – well, four UCU activists politely handing out leaflets about their pensions, and chatting with Court members about the current dispute. There had earlier been disagreement with the organisers over where UCU should stand – just inside the foyer of George Fox, or outside in the rain? The dispute was resolved, not entirely amicably, when the Director of Governance and Strategic Planning called on six members of security staff to stand around near the front of the foyer. When questioned, they reassured the activists that they had definitely not been called to escort them outside! So that’s all right then. A great way to defuse tensions in advance of a major industrial dispute.
Into the meeting at 10am, and an opening address from the Chancellor, on his 60th birthday. ‘Welcome to the university of the year!’ began Mr Milburn, in what seemed like a mostly improvised speech. He was particularly proud of his recent trip to Accra, where he had conferred degrees on the first cohort of LU Ghana graduates.
Onwards to the Court Effectiveness Review, and leading the case for abolition were the independent reviewer, David Allen, and lay member of Council, Robin Johnson. Mr Allen, a friendly soul, was upbeat about his proposal to dissolve Court, noting that 65 Court members had commented on his consultation paper and he’d carried out over 20 interviews last summer. ‘Universities are private corporations,’ he noted, ‘but they are accountable to the public.’ Court should be disestablished in favour of an annual public meeting. Mr Johnson addressed Court as if it were a much-loved employee who, with much regret, Mr Johnson was now going to make redundant. Court was analogue. The world was now digital. It was nothing personal. And the recent appointment of a PVC for Engagement, Dame Sue Black, showed that Lancaster cared about its stakeholders.
A spirited discussion followed, albeit one where no-one was allowed to vote. Opposing the changes, and the procedures that led to them, were Cat Smith MP, Lord Judd, former Chair of Court Stanley Henig, alumnus Richard Morrice, city councillors Lucy Atkinson (Labour) and Charles Edwards (Conservative), and Management Accountants representative Richard Kenworthy. The only person in the audience cheerleading for the proposals was alumnus Don Porter, while LUSU President Josh Woolf and city council leader Eileen Blamire stayed diplomatically uncommitted. The strongest speech against came from former Chair of Court Gordon Johnson. ‘History and tradition play an important role in the life of this institution,’ he noted, adding that he’d not responded to Mr Allen’s consultation because ‘the direction of travel had been set some time before.’ And that, it seems, is that.
The Pro-Chancellor, Lord Liddle, was next. Today’s discussion would be reported to Council, although Council had already approved the first reading of the proposals to abolish Court, when it met yesterday. The Pro-Chancellor seemed receptive to suggestions for how to make the annual public meeting work, however, and in particular he ‘wouldn’t like a meeting to which the local MP couldn’t attend,’ suggesting that next year’s replacement will remain a Saturday event. Tributes were paid to former Council members John Hadfield and James Carr, who died during 2017, and departing Director of Facilities Mark Swindlehurst, who was sat at the back.
‘I want myself and my fellow officers to be remembered as real changemakers,’ announced Josh Woolf. The LUSU President’s report was certainly entertaining and will be remembered for its montage of outdated brands, including Marathon and Opal Fruits wrappers, over which he suggested that however well-loved Court was, maybe we needed to move on. No retro sweets for Sarah Randall-Paley, however. The days when the Director of Finance would battle with the LUSU President for the most extravagant presentation at Court are long gone, perhaps reflecting the increasingly secure nature of Lancaster’s finances. The biggest bombshell in this year’s financial report was the announcement of a preferred new measure of financial health, the Adjusted Net Operating Cashflow (ANOC).
The Vice-Chancellor rolled up to the rostrum shortly after 12: ‘Good afternoon, everyone!’ There was clearly concern about the timing of Court’s successor, and it needs a name ‘that reflects the nature of what we’re trying to achieve.’ He paid tribute to Mr Hadfield and Mr Carr, and thanked Mr Swindlehurst, while wondering why he was still here: ‘the job’s gone, mate!’
The VC focused on the new regulatory landscape, following the approval of the Higher Education and Research Act. It was very complicated, he didn’t yet know what it would mean, and neither did the new Secretary of State or the new Minister for Higher Education. Our big challenge would be ‘retention’, where we perform poorly against our competitors, but on the plus side we have a Gold rating in the TEF.
subtext readers will want to know that, yes, the VC mentioned UA92, ‘in case I was asked a question on it.’ Top table are still in the final stages of seeing whether it hangs together. Is the VC aware that all of UA92’s publicity says that Lancaster has fully committed to it?
Pensions were the ‘big elephant in the room’ – significant and ongoing industrial action was likely. Would the proposed changes affect the recruitment of academic staff? ‘Only time will tell,’ he said. It might affect international recruitment, but probably not from the UK. What can the VC do to resolve the dispute? Not much. ‘Our level of deficit pales into insignificance compared to the big beasts. Those people don’t want that on their balance sheets.’ Last autumn, the VC had been relatively hopeful, but then the pensions regulator sent a letter to trustees which almost closed all options. ‘It will be a very disruptive term,’ he concluded, and ‘students will be in the middle.’
The final words at the final Court went to the Chancellor, just after 1pm. He thanked members for ‘sharing my birthday with me’ and praised the quality of debate, suggesting that other chambers could learn from us.
And so the Court ended for good, as members joined the queue for soup served in coffee mugs. Did someone forget to order any bowls?
Regular readers of subtext will know that issues outside the regular fortnightly cycle are released very rarely, and only on issues that the collective deems to be urgent.
As predicted by subtext, the University Court is to be abolished (subtexts 166, 169, 170, 171).
Its final meeting, where members will discuss, but not vote on, the terms of abolition, will take place on Saturday 27 January.
The Court’s external reviewer, David Allen, had asked for the Court to be consulted before any final decision were taken. In his report to the Council, Mr Allen felt that it would be ‘important, if change is contemplated, to devise a careful communication strategy so that Court in January is not simply confronted with a fait accompli,’ and emphasised that ‘it is for Council, not Court, to decide what should happen but it would be courteous to listen to Court’s views, expressed at its next meeting in January 2018, prior to making any changes to University legislation.’
It would seem that the Council carefully noted Mr Allen’s points, decided to be discourteous, approved the Court’s abolition at its November meeting, and agreed to present a fait accompli to the Court’s January meeting, ‘to ensure that members are aware of the rationale for the decision’. Gee, thanks. This decision was taken in secret – minutes are still not available and Mr Allen’s report, which has now been tabled for discussion by the Court, is still marked as ‘Confidential to the University’. The Court is to be replaced with an Annual Public Meeting, although it seems unlikely that this will have any formal status in Lancaster’s governance structures.
Another possible change could end up being even more significant. Mr Allen proposes that the Nominations Committee, which oversees the appointment of Council members and is regarded by many as the only safeguard we have against cronyism within that body, should be entirely gutted.
At the moment the Nominations Committee contains 4 ex-officio members, 2 members appointed by the Council, 2 members appointed by the Court, and 2 members appointed by the Senate. Mr Allen recommends that this be replaced with 100% of the members appointed by the Council. A self-perpetuating oligarchy with members accountable to no-one, perhaps? At present, due to the secrecy of the Council’s deliberations, subtext doesn’t know if the Council endorsed Mr Allen’s recommendation. But we aren’t optimistic.
In its current form, the Nominations Committee was established in 2006, when the Court lost its right to directly appoint members of the Council. Court members were explicitly assured that their influence would continue to be felt via the Nominations Committee. Clearly, if you’re going to abolish the Court, then you’ll need to change the Nominations Committee. We didn’t expect a coup d’état though!
Can members and friends of the University do anything about this? Well, if we don’t at least try, then the answer will surely be ‘no’!
The 2018 meeting of the University Court will take place on Saturday 27 January in George Fox Lecture Theatre 1. Many observers will be pleasantly surprised that the Court is meeting at all, given the ‘effectiveness review’ which took place in late 2017 (see subtext 166). The report and recommendations of that review will form the centrepiece of next weekend’s meeting and, we are pleased to report, members are promised more than just the derisory ‘light refreshments’ that were offered to members in 2017. There will be soup and sandwiches.
What do we know of the review’s findings? Absolutely nothing, although we know the VC’s preference was to remove all governance responsibilities from the Court and replace it with an annual ‘stakeholder event’ (see subtext 169), so the direction of travel has been fairly clear. Nominations have not been sought for the scheduled annual elections to the Court because, apparently, this would be ‘inappropriate’ in advance of the discussion on the review. Court papers should be distributed this Friday.
subtext encourages all Court members who value the idea of a university with at least some community accountability to show up on the 27th. Sadly, as in 2017, the meeting will start at 10am, rather than its more traditional 10:30am, making attendance something of a challenge for members coming from afar. Hopefully the extra time will be used constructively to discuss how to rejuvenate the Court, rather than bury it – but readers are advised not to get their hopes up.
The November session started with a written question to the VC asking if there were any plans to build lecture theatres capable of accommodating larger groups of students. The lack of such space was causing major problems for the larger teaching departments. Replying on behalf of the VC, Deputy VC Andrew Atherton said that indeed there was a plan for just such a facility, for up to 500 students. However, this was only a partial solution to the problem. As student numbers increased in line with the University’s strategic plan, other approaches would need to be adopted to deal with larger cohorts. These could include more flexible timetabling and extending the teaching day to enable more double-teaching. All this, of course, would have to happen without any detriment to the ‘student experience’. Nothing, though, was said about the detriment to the staff experience, a point made by a number of Senators during the ensuing discussion.
On next to the Vice-Chancellor’s report on current issues. There were plenty of positives – the record student intake this year (in contrast to much of the HE sector), becoming University of the Year and moving up to 6th place in the Times league table, the first LU Ghana graduation and the positive impact we’d made in that country. There was also a mention of the launch of UA92 (which he clearly believed was a positive development) and the current consultation on the plans in Manchester. The VC stated that he had been pleasantly surprised by the generally positive reception from local people and that any opposition was more to do with ‘Manchester politics’ than the merits of the plans. (Oh really? See letter from a local resident below – eds).
On the gloomier side, the VC had just received a consultation copy of the draft new regulatory framework for HE. The proposals, he reported, are overly heavy-handed and appear to put into regulation what the government had been unable to achieve in Parliament just before the last general election. Then there was the matter of what he termed ‘the pensions squabble’. The USS Board was seeking to change the pension from a defined-benefit scheme to what was essentially a savings scheme. This was being resisted by UCU and as a result the university was likely to be facing industrial action beginning next February. ‘But we are not the enemy’, protested the VC, who happens to be the current chair of UCEA, the employers’ group which has not opposed these changes. Lancaster staff facing major reductions in their pension benefits, while having to make increased contributions, may beg to differ.
Senate then went on to discuss the Court Effectiveness Review. This was to be an opportunity for Senate to make any final comments to the Review Group before it made its final recommendations. One of the LUSU Senate reps made a strong plea for Court to retain its role in university governance, and for its single annual meeting to be given more support and prominence by the university. He took issue with the Chief Administrative Officer’s briefing document which stated that there was a lack of diversity in the Court membership but did not offer any evidence to support this claim. He pointed out that Court was far more diverse and representative than the membership of University Council or the senior management team. He also questioned whether Court required ‘a considerable amount of resource’ to support its function, as was claimed in the document. The Chief Administrative Officer responded by restating what she had already said in her briefing paper. There were some further contributions in favour of the current Court arrangements but the discussion was effectively ended when the VC declared that his preference was to remove all governance responsibilities from Court and to retain its annual meeting as only ‘a stakeholder event’. So that, we must presume, is that.
There then followed a report on the institutional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for 2016/17. The VC indicated that overall, we were doing well against targets, though he was concerned that Lancaster is not doing as well as it should in retaining its students. Mental ill-health was identified as a major factor but for too many students there is no information on why they drop out. They simply leave without telling anyone why. Finally, there was that bit of the agenda covering written reports not presumed to warrant discussion. Thankfully, one eagle-eyed senator spotted a hugely important issue that was about to be nodded through without discussion- a reference to the Review of Part 1 which appeared to suggest that proposed changes would now be implemented after consultation with departments. Senate, of course, has yet to discuss and approve these changes. It was agreed that the report would be amended to make this clear. Just goes to show that careful reading of Senate papers is always worthwhile.
The first (in this academic year) General Meeting of Lancaster UCU took place yesterday. The meeting took place in the ironically named Welcome Centre Lecture Theatre 1 – cold, airless, almost windowless, accessible only via a building site and acoustically unfriendly to boot. The gathering was an modestly well–attended affair – many readers may feel glad to see UCU with a blossoming, increased membership and an active and vibrant executive. Only two main items were on the agenda, both seemingly sponsored by the letter A. USS Pensions: aghast and aggrieved plus ua92: against and aspersions (as in casting). The branch also voted for a couple of motions to be tabled at UCU National Congress in Manchester later this year, one on the pension crisis and the other on campaigning alongside other disputes and campaigns.
David Allen, the Court Effectiveness Review Group’s ‘external reviewer’, is visiting campus this week to meet with those who asked to be interviewed by him, as part of his review. Mr Allen is a former Registrar at the University of Exeter and we hope he’ll enjoy his visit. He’ll be putting together a report for the Review Group, who’ll be making final recommendations to the University Council in November. The Court won’t get to discuss the group’s recommendations before they’re presented for approval.
Readers might be wondering:
- Why is the review happening? The official position is that it simply makes sense, following a Senate review in 2012-13 and a Council review in 2016-17, to review the way the Court works. We know that the Vice-Chancellor thinks the composition of Court is not especially diverse.
- Hasn’t there already been a Court Effectiveness Review? Yes there was, in 2007-8. That review group was established by the Court and included several members elected by the Court. The current review group was set up by the Council and we’re not sure how its members have been chosen.
- Why does it need an external reviewer? According to the Director of Governance’s ‘Green Paper’, to provide an external perspective (well, yes) and to undertake the review process.
We’re sure Mr Allen will do his job diligently, but several omens suggest that the future doesn’t look bright for the Court. In January we saw management put on a Court meeting that was deliberately as mediocre and unwelcoming as possible – moving the start time forward, cutting the advertised duration to just one hour, and getting rid of lunch (see subtext 157). In June the Court was unceremoniously stripped of its key role in appointing the Pro-Chancellor (see subtext 165). There was no open call for expressions of interest in serving on the Review Group.
And there was something about the choice of a former Registrar for the University of Exeter to do the review that got us thinking… why Exeter? Well, it’s notable amongst the chartered universities in that, back in 2008, it abolished its Court! The minutes of Exeter’s University Council meeting in April 2008 record that Council resolved to ‘thank Court for its work over the years and to stand it down from the end of the current academic year’. ‘Stand it down’ – now there’s a euphemism. Who was the Registrar in attendance at that meeting? Lo and behold, one David J Allen.
Court members thinking of booking train tickets in advance for January 2018’s Court meeting should be careful – they will probably find that there’s nothing left for them to attend.
The deadline for Court members to respond to the Consultation on the Future of Court is Friday 13 October – so if you’re a member and have not yet responded, there’s still time.
Even though the University Court is the single largest meeting of the University, readers may still be confused as to why subtext would make such a big deal over the closure of what is often seen as just a ceremonial gathering. In the simplest terms, the Court is not just an assembly of members of the Senate, Council, and officers of the Students’ Union. It also has places for alumni, MPs, the clergy, the dignitaries, the scientific bodies, etc. A lot of its attendees are lay-members, and since we’re a university that (when it suits a particular scheme) values an ‘outside perspective’, it would seem obvious that the Court would be an ideal forum to, er, ‘court’ the opinions of those who aren’t involved in our day to day operations. It has also traditionally served as an opportunity for disinterested bodies, unfettered by concerns over promotion and how much favour they are currying, to give both barrels to the more fanciful / destructive notions of senior management, as well as an opportunity to engage with alumni who like to make a day of coming ‘home’ to Lancaster. To do away with such a body, which is already lacking in teeth, seems an inordinately petty and isolationist move.