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As coronavirus fever first gripped the country, and as the government prepared to enact emergency laws to postpone all public elections, one solitary local council by-election took place on Thursday 19 March 2020, for the Upper Stoke ward of Coventry City Council. Other by-elections had been scheduled for that day, but called off unilaterally by their returning officers, and no further by-elections are likely to take place anywhere in the UK for the foreseeable future.
Gurdev Singh Hayre (Labour) won the Upper Stoke ward with 639 votes, out of 1214 who cast ballots, 651 of whom were postal voters. A shockingly low turnout of 9.02%.
Surely this pandemic-affected turnout must be a record low for recent public elections? Apparently not, commentators concluded – there was another council by-election, in 2016, where the turnout had been even lower, 7.12%, and the winning candidate had been returned with just 98 votes. Where could that have been?
You’ve guessed it. The University & Scotforth Rural by-election for Lancaster City Council (see subtext 156), held on 8 December 2016, continues to defeat all comers in the apathy stakes. It’s comforting to know that even the fear of catching COVID-19 has nothing on our students’ tendency to avoid the polls on a cold day.
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One of the most inspiring aspects of the UCU strike was, once again, the series of ‘Teach Out’ sessions in the Gregson Centre. The 15 events at the Gregson, held between Thursday 20 February and Wednesday 11 March, included readings of radical fiction, an alternative guide to the University’s finances and a workshop on the role of journalists during the civil war in El Salvador. Here are just a few reviews.
RED AND GREY
A good-sized audience (especially as it was the second teach-out session of the day) turned out on Wednesday 4 March to hear Veronika Koller’s history of the Quakers in Lancashire and their connections to Lancaster University.
The colours of Lancaster University, red and grey, are Quaker colours. Several buildings at Lancaster University, including the eventually-to-be-finished 400-seater Margaret Fell Lecture Theatre, are named after Quakers. There’s a Quaker collection in the Library and an MA in Quakerism in the Modern World. Why the close connection?
The Quakers were founded locally. George Fox, though originally from Leicestershire, journeyed to Lancashire and had a vision on Pendle Hill in 1652. The foundation of the Quakers is usually dated from the day, soon after his vision, when he preached to crowds on Firbank Fell, near Sedbergh. Fox was later imprisoned in Lancaster Castle. The Quakers have had a strong presence in North Lancashire ever since, and when Lancaster University was founded, its first Vice-Chancellor, Charles Carter, was a Quaker.
Quaker values are summarised by the acronym STEPS: Simplicity, Truth, Equality, Peace and Sustainability. How does today’s Lancaster University measure up to these values?
Simplicity – a life full of forms, reports, action plans and metrics;
Truth – the University’s motto is ‘truth lies open to all’, but this truth is often concealed;
Equality – pay gaps, precarity and large salaries for senior managers;
Peace – the George Fox Six and more recent bullying cases;
Sustainability – the University has made many unethical investments.
The 2004 case of the George Fox Six, when a group of students disrupted an arms conference being held in the George Fox Building (of all places) and were prosecuted for aggravated trespass, summed up the contradictions between the University’s values and actions. When students stop being students and become knowing subjects, Koller reflected, ‘the University comes down on them like a ton of bricks.’ Today, Lancaster departments continue to collaborate with the defence industry – BAE Systems is a significant local employer and always welcome at our student careers fairs – and the University hasn’t yet committed to divest from its investments in fossil fuels. On the positive side, we have our wind turbine, other renewable energy initiatives and good food sustainability.
In summary, noted Koller, ‘peace does not mean being soft and gentle about anything – but it does mean no violence.’
THE RIGHT TO KNOW
Andrew Williams began his talk on ‘the right to know as a tool of resistance’ on Monday 9 March with quotes from E P Thompson’s ‘Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management and the Universities’ (Penguin, 1970), an account of the 1970 student occupation of Warwick’s administration building, and the events that followed from it. The affair uncovered widespread political surveillance of staff and students, complete with leaks, whistleblowers and listening devices, and explored the importance of information, and how it is controlled: important papers would appear unannounced, inaccurate minutes would circulate, and the realisation grew that ‘knowledge is power’.
Of course such activities would never be tolerated here…
Williams went through the four main pieces of legislation that enable us to request information from public bodies: the Freedom of Information Act 2000, in force since 2005; the Data Protection Act 2018 (and its predecessors from 1984 and 1998); the Environmental Information Regulations 2004; and the various Public Records Acts.
Tony Blair now regrets passing the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but it has dramatically changed the rights of individuals to request information from public bodies. Universities, despite their hybrid ‘public-private’ status, are explicitly designated ‘public bodies’ for the purposes of the FoI Act. It was used to, for example, obtain a copy of our former VC’s email, dated 23 August 2019, on support for off-campus students, at a time when incoming first years were being advised to sign agreements with off-campus residences that weren’t ready for occupation (see subtext 190).
In FoI requests, ‘exemptions are the rule’, usually under Section 40 of the FoI Act, as modified by the DPA Act, which creates numerous exemptions for ‘personal data’. There is a long appeals process for FoI requests: firstly there should be an internal review, then the matter can be taken to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and from there there is a route to a First Tier Tribunal, an Upper Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and lastly, in theory, the Supreme Court.
The lesser-known Environmental Information Regulations are very helpful – indeed, in many situations, they can be more useful than the FoI Act, because when dealing with requests under these regulations, there is a presumption in favour of disclosure. A large number of bodies fall within the scope of the regulations (e.g. United Utilities and MI5) and they can be used to make requests on the state of the elements or the impact of legislation on the environment.
At Lancaster, management holds a ‘knowledge monopoly’ and this leads to a fundamental imbalance of power. Using FoI, DPA or EIR requests is one way for journalists and researchers to challenge this monopoly. For example, Williams had successfully obtained copies of emails showing that the proposed sale of the Sugarhouse had been discussed (January 2019) some months before the proposal was disclosed to students (September 2019). It was possible to find out information about the University’s investment portfolios, showing that Lancaster has interests in British American Tobacco, Glaxo SmithKline and BAE Systems amongst others. Information obtained following the highly-publicised phishing attack on the University in July 2019 showed that, while one person had been arrested, they had later been released with no charges known.
Aspiring investigators should ask for something very specific, and/or ask to search within parameters. The Centre for Investigative Journalism outlines two techniques: ‘grazing’ (targeting specific information lying outside the exemptions) and ‘mining’ (stopping at nothing to get the information). Requests should be acknowledged within 18 hours; a response should normally be received within 20 working days.
The meeting concluded by considering possible requests for information that could be made, including the amount of strike pay deducted after each round of UCU industrial action, disaggregated by faculty, and the turnover of staff at Lancaster’s Beijing Jiaotong University (BJTU) campus. If subtext readers have any other creative suggestions, please send us (or firstname.lastname@example.org) your thoughts.
Contributed by Martin Widden
Prompted by the refugee crisis across the Mediterranean, the programme for the recital given on 5th March by the twelve-strong a capella choir Stile Antico was focused on John Dowland’s set of pavans for voice and lute, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares. (According to Dowland’s contemporary Thomas Morley, a pavan was ‘a kind of staid music, ordained for grave dancing’.) Although dating from the early 17th century, these pavans seem completely appropriate to the tragedies being played out in the 21st, before our eyes as it were: indeed, the first pavan, which opens with the words ‘Flow my tears, fall from your springs! Exiled for ever let me mourn’, could have been composed for the recent Syrian crisis.
Only one of the seven pavans, the first, had a text; the remaining six were purely instrumental pieces, although all were melancholy in flavour. However, Stile Antico commissioned the poet Peter Oswald to provide texts for the remaining six pavans, highlighting contemporary issues of displacement and exile through the prism of Dowland’s music. These pieces were performed in the Great Hall recital on 5th March, alongside the superb Lamentations by Robert White, a contemporary of Dowland. The verses of these Lamentations describe the grief and desolation of the Israelites exiled in Babylon, but they will have had extra significance for White: being almost certainly a Catholic in Elizabethan England, he may well have felt like an exile himself.
Also on the programme was a series of pieces for oud (a form of lute from the Middle East), played by Rihab Azar, a Syrian oud player.
The final piece in the recital was a new work Bodrum Beach, commissioned by Stile Antico from the composer Giles Swayne, which was first performed at the 2019 Brighton Festival. This takes as its starting point the poem Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold, but the piece was animated by the press photographs of the dead body of a three-year-old boy face down on a Turkish beach opposite the island of Kos – another refugee tragedy.
This piece closed what had been a very well rounded programme, illuminated by excellent programme notes, and brilliantly performed by the singers of Stile Antico.
It also closed the season of Great Hall concerts, since the final concert unfortunately had to be cancelled owing to the COVID-19 emergency.
Contributed by Paul Arthur
Perhaps it is my age. Or my impoverished 70’s upbringing. Or, just maybe, it is that pies taste good and salad… well, let’s face it, it’s no competition.
For a number of years I have enjoyed lunchtime forays into the pastry-encased joy* of the Bowland Pie. In fairness I had not made the pilgrimage for some time when I discovered, to my utter horror, that Bowland is now a Salad Bar.
‘What?!!!’ My outrage was evident to colleagues (it is hard not to be evident in the closely-packed virus-fermenter that is the workspace favoured by University House). The discovery had been triggered by a suggestion that we should embark on a pie lunch as we had not done so in some time. Over the next few minutes the office buzzed with comments ranging from muted dismay to shouted demands for industrial action.
To understand my sense of loss you must first appreciate the extent to which pies are at the very core of my existence. Whilst travelling in New Zealand some years ago I wrote a blog in which I sampled pies as I travelled (New Zealanders make very good pies). My well-thumbed pie bible ‘Life of Pies’ by the venerable Martin Tarbuck is oft reached-for if I am to travel in the UK. I have shares in Greggs, although that is actually making the best of a bad lot where campus pie-provision is concerned.
Why? Why would you replace pie with salad? Salad has its place, of course. Somewhere in the footer of a menu that features a long list of excellent pies, perhaps.
So, my plea to our revered University Catering colleagues is this. Bring back the Bowland Pie, lest I fade away living a life of quiet despair as I rock in a corner of University House.
* Disclaimer: I am aware that the Bowland Pie was not, in fact, encased in pastry. As a pie topped in pastry it did not, in my somewhat puritanical approach to the world of pie, achieve full compliance with the definition. ‘Joy’ is also stretching things a bit, but I am using a little artistic licence here in order to make my point.
As the most recent Head of Department of the late School of Independent Studies, I am assuming I can consider inviting myself to authorise my own access to the University’s IT and email?
Reading the letters in subtext 192, I was struck by a sense of deja vu. Continuing members continuing to be insulted by the management on the strange basis that providing them with such things as an email address is costly to the university. I wrote before, a long time ago, pointing out that no real calculation of costs of providing IT and library access to continuing members had been made.
It is not legitimate to calculate that cost by dividing the entire cost of these services by the total number of users, to get a prime cost per head, and then to multiply that by the number of continuing members. Prime cost per head and marginal cost are not the same thing. Provision of services to continuing members only costs anything if it means extra staff have to be hired, extra servers bought or leased, more books purchased, et cetera. Until marginal cost has been correctly calculated, there is no case for alienating this group of former colleagues. If the real marginal cost has been calculated, then I think we ought to be told what that is and how it was arrived at, in order to be able to make a judgement about management’s stance, right or wrong, on this question.
Dr Richard Austen-Baker
Senior Lecturer in Law
Lancaster University Law School
My attention was drawn by a recent news story on the University Portal page, ‘Fixed-term contracts and casual working policy: update’.
One line particularly jumped out at me, which I’m sure colleagues in the Linguistics Department could devote entire research articles to: Paul Boustead, Director of Human Resources & Organisational Development said, ‘Our aim is to continue the effective partnership exhibited throughout the construction of this policy whilst we further mature the roll out plan.’
On the basis of this alone, I think Director Boustead deserves a promotion, as this is a truly visionary refashioning of the English language and sure to become a classic case study on postgraduate Management Discourse modules across the country. Meanwhile, as I celebrate a decade of casual contracts at Lancaster University, I will continue in the hope of rolled out plans being effectively exhibited before I mature any further.
[Truly in keeping with our Quaker value of Simplicity – ed.]
In response to the letter from the frustrated Dr Noel Cass, I think we need to address some of the confusion over the new indefinite contracts. Indefinite contracts can now be given to those whose work is externally funded with a finite end as is the case with many research projects, as Noel points out. The word indefinite suggests that the contract will provide security when the funding runs out, but this is not the case. At the end point of the project, the position for the staff member on the indefinite contract is exactly as it would have been on a fixed term contract, redeployment list access/redundancy. In these circumstances indefinite is not indefinite.
As much as I was disappointed by this situation, a friend did point out that the other benefits of having an indefinite contract are important too. It sometimes makes a difference when applying for mortgages, if your contract is indefinite, and there might be a positive impact with some maternity/paternity/adoption leave scenarios. Sadly, fixed term funding can delay people buying houses and starting a family, due to the financial uncertainty.
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!
Casual readers may be forgiven for thinking that subtext’s drones are embittered cynics whose philosophy can be summed up as ‘D Floor bad, HR enablers of bad’. In an effort to challenge this notion, here’s a vote of thanks for the new ‘Fixed-term Contracts and Casual Working Policy and Procedure’, drafted by a working group involving the campus unions and approved by the Joint Negotiating and Consultative Committee (JNCC) on 4 November 2019. It isn’t easy to find online, and hasn’t yet been put on HR’s page of policies and procedures, but can be accessed on the intranet here:
The Director of HR comments that the new policy ‘underlines our commitment to making sure staff feel secure and supported at this university.’ It’s been lauded in the House of Commons by Cat Smith MP, who invited the Minister of State for Universities and Science to ‘join me in welcoming the changes at Lancaster University’ (Commons Hansard, 20 January 2020). In short:
1) Fixed-term contracts will only be used in these circumstances: cover for temporary staff absence; cover for one-off peaks in demand; recognised and time-limited training programmes; and if a staff member requests it (the latter includes situations where an external funder stipulates that their funding is conditional on the position being fixed-term).
2) ‘All staff currently employed on fixed-term contracts will be automatically moved onto indefinite contracts,’ unless their role falls into one of these four cases.
3) Casual (in other words hourly-paid) contracts will only be used in these circumstances: very short term roles up to 12 weeks in duration; and ad hoc roles with no regular pattern of work and no obligation between the parties to offer or accept work (i.e. zero-hour contracts).
The unions offered particular praise to HR Service Delivery Manager Matt Ireland for overseeing the drafting and approval process. All in all, a good news story…
…except that doubts are now setting in amongst union activists regarding HR’s commitment to implementing it. Mr Ireland has now left Lancaster to work for an NHS Trust in East Lancashire.
Let’s look at the current list of vacancies. Among them is an advert for a Business Analyst in Admissions and Outreach (ref N2348), who ‘will focus on the implementation of a new postgraduate admissions system.’ This is ‘a fixed term role, initially until 31st October 2020.’ There’s also a role as Business Relationship Officer for the Lancashire Cyber Foundry (ref N2347), part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, which seeks to develop ‘a unique business support programme for small to medium enterprise businesses across a range of industrial sectors.’ This is ‘a fixed term post until 30 September 2022’ – note that, according to the new policy, ‘time-limited funding, in itself, will not be justification to place an individual on a fixed-term contract.’ Maybe you’d like to be a Disability Advisor (ref N2338), leading on ‘support for disabled students on the new Frontline postgraduate Social Work programme.’ This is ‘a two year fixed term appointment.’
Have recruiting managers just not got the memo, or has the memo not been sent in the first place?
What about those currently on fixed-term contracts – can they expect to receive letters confirming their indefinite status any day now? It seems unlikely: HR’s page on ‘ending fixed-term contracts’ has not been updated since March 2019 and still claims that, ‘if you wish to extend a fixed-term contract, you need to submit a Manager Request using Core MyHR. Alternatively, a request to Transfer to Indefinite Contract can be made. If managers are awaiting authorisation so that further employment can be offered it is strongly advised that a case for redundancy is made in parallel as a precautionary measure. Any such proposal can be withdrawn once authorisation has been received.’
It may, then, be some time before Lancaster is, to quote the policy, ‘using indefinite contractual arrangements wherever possible and reducing the use of fixed-term and casual arrangements.’ But the policy is there – subtext would be interested to hear any evidence of it actually being used.
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.
Back in December 2018, subtext 184 reported on the Students’ Union’s unsuccessful referendum to change the make-up of its Full-Time Officer (FTO) team – a narrow majority voted ‘yes’ to the changes (yes 438, no 396, abstain 58), but the turnout failed to clear the 10% threshold needed for the decision to be binding. We speculated that the changes would be ‘rapidly booted into the long grass.’ We were wrong.
One of the leaders of the ‘no’ campaign back in 2018 was George Nuttall, now the Students’ Union President. The current FTOs have clearly learned from their experiences in 2018: if you want to make contentious changes, don’t ask the students to endorse them, just ram them through!
Thus it was that in January 2020, a new proposal to change the make-up of the FTO team was passed, by a vote of the Students’ Union Executive Committee (yes 7, no 5, abstain 1), without calling a referendum at all:
Well there we are.
subtext’s recent reports on the removal of IT and email access from hundreds of former staff members (see subtexts 190 and 191) continue to provoke the ire of readers (see letters, below). One subtext correspondent, a life member of the university, recalls their correspondence with the Director of ISS last summer. The Director clarified that formal membership rights, as determined by the Charter and Statutes, do not include any right to access IT services, even though the University has offered this to continuing members in the past. When the Council discussed this issue in 2015 (see subtext 128), it noted that IT provision for continuing members would be reviewed over time; UMAG duly reviewed this provision in August 2019 and resolved that, henceforth, IT access would be offered to continuing members on the same basis as it is offered to other staff leavers, i.e. it would only be provided when the relevant Head of Department confirmed that the member was continuing to work and contribute to the University. Most continuing members no longer have a formal contract with the University – hence no IT services will be offered.
Some good news: after much effort, our correspondent was finally granted an appeal to the Pro-Chancellor, and it has now been agreed to extend their IT access for at least another year, subject to the condition that they continue to publish. This is still far short of the lifetime access which all continuing members thought they were being given, but it shows that persistence pays off.
‘Our emails display our brand just like a letterhead or a business card,’ noted a news item on 14 February, launching Lancaster’s new email signature template files:
Four templates are provided at:
There’s plenty of advice and guidance: email signatures need to be useful, lawful and, of course, accessible to screen readers. Moreover, ‘Lancaster University is an inclusive place to work and learn and therefore, we would encourage people to include their gender pronouns on their email signature.’
Righty-ho. Let’s look at this template text, then:
Jo Bloggs | Postgraduate Programmes Officer
Linguistics and English Language | Lancaster University
Working hours: Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays 9am to 4pm
Personal Assistant: Ms Jane Bloggs: email@example.com
Excellent, so we have Mr Jo Bloggs the officer and his loyal personal assistant, Ms Jane Bloggs. That Athena SWAN renewal’s going to be a doddle, eh?
And yes, we know that equality is about a lot more than email templates. We’re sure that the imminent equal pay audit will show how much the Gender Pay Gap at Lancaster is closing, given the institution’s work to actively improve it.
Congratulations to the Department of Engineering, which on 12 February announced details of major investment by the University, including another new building, next to the previous new building, featuring a ‘3D lecture theatre’ (the third dimension makes all the difference, we hear) and several new labs:
Some might wonder whether a truly far-sighted organisation would have predicted the need for a large dedicated lecture theatre back in 2013, when the soon-to-be-old new Engineering Building was being constructed, but hindsight is 20:20.
One thing the new building will need is a name – it was confusing enough when there was the old Engineering Building (now known as the FST Building, despite our attempts to give it a more exciting name in subtext 130) and the new Engineering Building, but now there will be two new Engineering Buildings, one of them is going to need a suitably well-engineered title – we’ll pass on any suggestions we receive.
Readers feeling starved of information due to subtext’s relative infrequency these days (the more contributions and contributors we get, the more issues we’ll put out – don’t be shy!) can sate their hunger by visiting Spineless (https://spineless.uk/), an online publication in the tradition of Lancaster’s radical past, full of news, gossip and opinion, written by an anonymous (ish) collective of Lancaster students.
In the last three weeks they’ve published items on campus bullying (including a revealing interview with the acting VC), the strike, developments at Caton Court (see subtext 190) and the increasingly rancorous debate on LUSU democracy. subtext doesn’t necessarily endorse all they say, nor how they choose to say it, but what they do say is usually at least interesting and it’s always nice to have some fellow muckrakers about.
By the way: whatever has happened to SCAN? The copies currently available are still talking about ‘general election fever’.
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.
Contributed by Martin Widden
This concert on 30 January 2020 was given by a quartet of violin, viola, cello and piano – a fairly unusual combination, because the modern concert grand can easily drown out the three strings. But Mozart, that brilliant pioneer in all things musical, wrote three works for this combination, and of course he set a very high standard for everyone who followed in his footsteps. Even though the modern grand piano is far more powerful than the pianos of Mozart’s day, he wrote in such a way that (in the hands of skilled performers) the strings always seem to be equals of the keyboard instrument.
Not only were the three Mozart piano quartets object lessons in how to write for this group of instruments – they are also marvellous pieces of music. So it was entirely appropriate that this concert opened with a Mozart piano quartet, K 493 in E flat. It formed a highly satisfying beginning.
The second item in the programme was a piano quartet by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. Vasks was born in Aizpute in 1946 into a Baptist family. At that time Latvia lay behind the Iron Curtain, and his Baptist faith prevented him from studying composition as he wished. He therefore moved to neighbouring Lithuania, where he was able to study at the conservatorium in Vilnius. Since the Iron Curtain was lifted in 1991, he has been able to travel and work elsewhere, and has followed a mildly international career, working in Sweden, Austria, Estonia and (surprisingly) Wales, where he was composer-in-residence at the Presteigne Festival in 2006.
His music is sometimes considered minimalist, and is compared with the works of Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Arvo Pärt and George Crumb. The quartet is skilfully written and was remarkably well played, since the performers had had rather limited time for rehearsal. However, its duration of some 40 minutes didn’t seem totally justified by the rather repetitive material.
The concert finished with the Opus 25 quartet by Brahms, written when Brahms was reaching the height of his powers. All four movements of this quartet are wonderful music, but possibly the final movement, a gipsy rondo, is the most outstanding. It finishes with a fast section marked presto, which is very exciting music, to which it is easy to imagine dancing taking place in an increasing frenzy.
The three string players, who have taken the name Moricosta Trio, are all members of the BBC Philharmonic, so they are used to playing together; and Martin Roscoe is a well-loved pianist who lives locally. They played together remarkably well, and this was a very satisfying evening.