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.