A moderately populated Great Hall played host to the final all-staff meeting on Tuesday 25 June, led by Vice-Chancellor Professor Mark E Smith, CBE, before his imminent departure to southerly climes. The majority of those present, apart from the conflagration of senior managers [is this the correct collective noun for senior managers? Readers are welcome to write in with alternative suggestions] that routinely accompanies the VC to such events, appeared to be Professional Services (PS) colleagues. Leaving aside the general reluctance of academic colleagues to turn up to such meetings, this may have been as much to do with it being exam board season as with concerns about the freeze, err, control on new recruitment, which affects only PS staff.
‘Let’s kick off’, said the VC, perhaps showing his enthusiasm for what may come to be regarded as one of the main legacies (or white elephants, perhaps) of his tenure, Lancaster’s very own football university. A little later, UA92 also got its own slide, and according to the VC everything is going swimmingly, with the first intake of students due to start in September and recruitment apparently very close to being on target. He was keen to stress, however, that UA92 had a very ‘different model’ for student recruitment, with multiple entry points for students, and that it definitely was not in any way comparable with the normal university recruitment cycle. It would of course be churlish to assume that this means that UA92 has in fact recruited very few students!
Before going sportsy though, the VC was keen to highlight the good news. Financially, the HE sector is in pretty good health, with Lancaster at the top of the distribution. The phrase ‘Expanding Excellence in England’, rather than applying to the VC’s feelings about his own emoluments, is the name of a Research England fund which will contribute £7.6m, alongside LU’s own £5.6m contribution, for the ‘Beyond Imagination’ project housed in LICA. There will be a new School of Architecture, with students starting their degrees from 2020. And there are a host of building initiatives on campus in progress or about to start, including the Health Innovation Campus, a £1m refurb of Edward Roberts Court, the LUMS Space Programme (he didn’t mention the multi-million pound stuff-up that delayed it in the first place), a £6m expansion of the Sports Centre, the Library Phase 3 (whether there will be any staff left to work there is another question he did not address), a 400 seat lecture theatre, an upgrade of our district heating system, and a refurb of Bailrigg House.
The VC claimed that these developments showed that the University was increasing its physical infrastructure at the same pace as increases in student numbers, and that the new lecture theatre provided physical proof that this was true. Staff who have had to teach after 6pm this year might wonder whether in fact this was true, or whether the new lecture theatre should in fact have been built a few years ago to prevent evening teaching in the first place. And staff who have been denied a regrade, or whose departments or units have had vacancies turned down might wonder if all this spending on making the campus look prettier could have been put to better use (more on this later).
The VC whizzed through a few other international developments – the new Leipzig venture will offer degrees in Business from later this year, and in Computer Science from 2020, and there will be a ‘Future Cities Research Institute’ jointly hosted by Lancaster with its long-standing partner in Malaysia, Sunway. And closer to home, he outlined the changes to the University’s senior leadership, most of which had already been shared via the news portal, with the addition that Professor Sharon Huttly’s Pro-VC role would expand to encompass responsibility for not only Education but also Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). This was a change from the previous plan, which was to have Stephen Decent look after EDI as part of the ‘people’ part of the Academic Development brief (which includes planning and resourcing). While the VC was keen to stress that all of the senior leadership had EDI as part of their brief, this move ‘created more bandwidth at senior level to work on EDI issues’. It will certainly be a welcome move for staff and students who have been campaigning on related issues to have EDI explicitly named in one of the Pro-VC titles, and with the greatest respect for Professor Decent, the optics of having yet another white man in charge of this portfolio were not great.
We have known since May that Professor Mandy Chetwynd would be retiring, and no doubt many subtext readers will wish her well and appreciate her long service to the University. What is not quite clear, which also came up in one of the questions to the VC, is what impact laying down the role of Provost for Student Experience, Colleges and the Library would have on… Colleges and the Library. Colleges in particular appear to have been under attack for a considerable period, with SCRs being closed, bars moving to central control, accommodation blocks spread around campus due to building work, and various college staff roles being reduced or centralised. It may be the case that this move represents the final nail in their coffin – until they are resurrected as nothing more than a convenient label for where students live in their first year.
The last substantive points in the VC’s speech, apart from a few warm words about the forthcoming graduation ceremonies, a reassurance (supposedly) that the Augar review could have been a lot worse, and a hurrah for our league table positions, were to do with the gender pay gap and the professional services freeze – sorry, vacancy control management. On the gender pay gap, the VC reported that there was reporting, reports, and engagement – but there seems to have been little actual action in the 15 months since Lancaster’s terrible pay gap statistics were first published. And this is hardly surprising, given that the expenditure on staff who have EDI work as their lead responsibility at Lancaster is considerably less than at many other HE institutions. And for the few roles we have, the pay also seems to be below par. Various reports are due to be published over the coming months (no doubt choosing to publish these in the summer when fewer staff and students are around is entirely accidental), so we will see what they contain.
On vacancy control, the VC followed his usual MO when faced with difficult questions, and retreated to technical details and graphs of figures showing the University’s adjusted net operating cashflow, where it was projected to be, and where we needed it to be in order not to get in to difficulties in future. But there was ‘no need to panic, absolutely a need to adjust the tiller’, he said, which may lead readers to wonder what icebergs lie ahead. The University faces no clear financial difficulties, apparently, but needs to be financially disciplined. How long this situation will continue, he said, depends on financial discipline. If student recruitment is strong, the period should be shorter. He was at pains to point out that it was not only Professional Services staff who were affected. The capital plan had already been adjusted – and no vacancy control would mean more adjustment. The consequences would be for example, not being able to address the longer teaching day (he did not mention that not having a prettier campus or not having a bigger sports centre are options). And, don’tchaknow, we’re all in this together: even the VC’s own office has had a vacancy turned down.
As the VC finished his remarks and turned to the questions submitted anonymously via the iLancaster app (human two-way interaction in the room is no longer desirable, apparently), it became clear that he had not, in fact reassured the University community on various issues. Numerous questions, a few submitted before he started speaking, but many during the session, related to the vacancy control. Others addressed UA92, paternity leave provision, the rumours of a closure of Religious Studies, advice for the new VC, neoliberalism in education, and why so few academics were present.
The VC gave a few convincing answers, but overall tended to deflect and refer back to his previous comments. Some of his answers may have given colleagues pause for thought. For instance, the idea that the vacancy controls required ‘imaginative thinking’ on behalf of managers in terms of how to address their staffing needs. No doubt many managers will be left imagining how their staff will cover the same (or higher) workloads with fewer people to do the work. The VC appeared to hint that in future there would also be controls (though he did not use this word) on academic recruitment, but that it was important to maintain staff-student ratios. And to a question about why PS staff were being targeted when there were some academics who apparently had not published or taught in years, the VC suggested this needed to be addressed through performance management, and that the new PDR process would allow this… and thus the seeds of division sown by this process seem to be bearing fruit already. One welcome clarification the VC provided was that maternity/parental leave cover should emphatically not be affected by vacancy control. Whether this message gets through to the people who have already knocked back requests for such cover (see letters, in this issue), or the managers who don’t even bother to apply in the first place because of the continuous pressure to find savings, remains to be seen.