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.