‘You’re here to witness an experiment!’ announced Pro-Chancellor Lord Liddle, as Lancaster’s first annual public meeting, The Lancaster Exchange, got underway in LICA at 10:30am on Saturday 30 March 2019. Would the new event justify the controversial decision to abolish its predecessor, the University Court (see subtext 172)? subtext went in with an open mind.
The main topic of conversation over coffee seemed to be the relative lack of publicity. An email had gone out to most, but not all, former members of the Court. LU Text had mentioned it on 8 March. A quarter-page advert had appeared in the Lancaster Guardian (just two days previously, though). There was a webpage with plenty of information, if you knew that it was there! Some of those present commented that they’d first heard about the event via subtext.
Turnout ended up at somewhere between 110 and 120, pretty much the same as the number who attended the final Court meeting. The composition was different, however. Very few members of management, or the University Council, had attended the last Court, but there had obviously been a three-line whip to get them to the Exchange – deans, associate deans, Pro-Vice-Chancellors and Council members were all milling around. This meant that there were rather fewer ‘ordinary’ people present, although it was reassuring to note the presence of several longstanding Court members, including Claire Hensman, Lord Judd, Ian Saunders and Jacqueline Whiteside. Only a handful of students were present, but holding the event after the end of term probably didn’t help.
In we went, and the layout was cabaret-style, with 13 round tables for us to choose from. This made proceedings more informal but also made it trickier to observe contributions from the floor. The first few items – a short welcome from the Chancellor, a ‘warm-up speech’ from Lord Liddle, the Vice-Chancellor’s report on the last year, and then a Q&A to the VC – would have been familiar to previous Court members. After that, though, we were promised a ‘panel discussion’ followed by four ’roundtable debates’, before the VC would wrap things up at the end.
Lord Liddle was optimistic. He’d always imagined that a University Court should include ‘a procession to music from Die Meistersinger,’ but ‘we’ve tried to move on from that.’ Prof Dame Sue Black, our Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement, was going to ‘lead an exchange of ideas,’ but first it was time for ‘our wonderful Vice-Chancellor’ to give his report.
The VC’s presentation was well-paced and entertaining, with plenty of infographics. Those who have seen his report to departments this year will be familiar with many of the slides, which focused on the Augar Review of Higher Education, Brexit, UA92, Leipzig and the new developments on campus. Major investments in 2017/18 included the Physics refurbishment, Isolab, phase 2 of the Library redevelopment, the mock courtroom and the Big Screen. Isolab was mentioned in particular as a world-leading building that was made possible largely through philanthropic donations, and the VC noted the new ‘Donor Wall’ in the Library. Visitors were encouraged to look at the ‘tremendous’ new Spine. Coming up would be the Health Innovation Campus, the LUMS Space Programme, phase 3 of the Library redevelopment, the Accessible Campus initiative, the LICA refurbishment, the Sports Hall extension and our new 400-seat lecture theatre. The VC praised the university’s engagement with the local area, mentioning Sue Black twice and the Eden North project once.
The headline finances, displayed on a single slide, looked reassuring but the VC sounded his first note of caution, observing that we were needing to take out loans to finance our projects.
Questions followed on students’ mental health, student housing, international student recruitment and the importance of preserving open spaces on campus, but the one which animated Prof Smith the most was on the attitude of the press to higher education: ‘where do you start?’ Because of David Willetts’ decisions as a minister, universities were still relatively well-funded in England, and some elements were ‘somewhat resentful of that.’ Universities had been strongly remain-voting, and ‘we get labelled as bastions of the left wing… it’s just not true!’ If only!… thought some people in the audience.
The best one-liner came from a local resident who worked for Ludus Dance, who asked, ‘is Lancaster a university town? Or is Lancaster University just near a town?’
On, next, to the panel discussion, led by… Sue Black, who was going to explore ‘what is the role of a university in the 21st century?’ With her were Chancellor Alan Milburn, Yak Patel from the local CVS, Students’ Union President Rhiannon Llystyn Jones, and Alistair Eagles from Seatruck Ferries, ‘a ferry company that actually has ferries.’
The debate seemed hamstrung by a humdrum choice of subject, as the speakers spoke earnestly about communities, poverty, skills, jobs, opportunities and so forth. Ms Jones discussed students’ mental health – this was perhaps the last mention of students’ problems, as opposed to the problems students are perceived to cause, all day. Sue Black made the intriguing assertion that, ‘I think I have become the equivalent of Tinder for the University!’
Mr Eagles, the last and best speaker, boldly noted that he didn’t like ‘engagement’, preferring the word ‘integration’, and noted that he could have said all this in Coventry – ‘what can we do that’s so different?’ We had a world leading management school, but relatively few business startups – why? How many of our students did local work placements? Just as things were getting rather animated, however, we broke for a short coffee break.
We then split up into four groups for ’roundtable discussions’ on Healthy Communities, Digital & Innovation, Economic Development, and Heritage & Culture. In each group, there were rather more people present than would fit around the tables, so people expanded outwards to form a big circle, giving them something of an ‘encounter group’ feel. Feedback from the sessions seems to have been very good – the University seemed to have persuaded some significant local decision-makers to come along and listen. University Council members, in particular, seemed very interested in what people had to say.
The VC summed up by saying he was ‘going to slightly disagree with Alistair Eagles,’ who had asked: what makes us different? ‘I already think we are different,’ said the VC, citing the colleges, UA92 and Leipzig. Perhaps Sue Black’s title should now be changed to PVC for Engagement and Integration, he wondered, in the light of Mr Eagles’ comments?
Prof Smith felt that ‘the whole dynamic is very different from our old meeting and, I think, better.’ The Chancellor agreed that ‘it had been a really fascinating meeting.’ subtext’s verdict – 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.
And so the Lancaster Exchange closed in good humour at 1pm, as everyone joined the queue for a buffet lunch.