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?