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On Saturday January 31, LUSU President Michael Payne received a standing ovation from the amassed delegates of University Court following a stirring speech that pulled no punches in its criticism of the university’s recent actions.
The university, Payne felt, had failed students on several important issues, and the damage was such that it warranted a careful re-evaluation of the relationship between the university and students. The university must be prepared not only to notice the students’ concerns but also to listen to them, to react to them.
The students’ union, Payne argued, had already responded to students’ needs and concerns. “It is imperative that we [LUSU] too re-evaluate how we operate,” said Payne in his speech. “We have recently concluded a two year-long review of our constitution and senior officer roles, the first such wholesale review in 18 years.
“We are now in transition to a new set of democratic structures and full-time officer roles that are better suited to the demands of today’s students and to meeting today’s challenges.”
The policy, Payne argued, was a symbol of democracy in action: 600 students, in the same room as university court, gathered to debate the review and ultimately to pass it with an overwhelming majority.
“In spite of the nay-sayers, the pessimists and the cynics who say that young people are apathetic, that young people don’t care about politics, that young people are ignorant of the world around them: students, when they feel passionately about something, will say so, and will say so in numbers.”
Now was the time, Payne argued, for the university to step up to the plate and fulfil their side of the bargain, to listen to students in the same way that the union had done.
“It is collaboration, consultation and compromise from both parties,” Payne stressed, “that makes changes work out for the better, and makes the fruits of these projects all the sweeter for it.”
Payne noted three particular areas where the university was lacking. The first, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the issue of college bars. Cartmel bar, the flagship of the university’s redevelopment, was to Payne an “embarassment not just to [Cartmel] but to the whole university” and consisted of “the worst products of hare-brained unilateralism.”
“The problem with Cartmel,” Payne argued, “is that the students were given no say in its conception. They were allowed no say when their bar was designed with the needs of a corporate function suite in mind… no say when it was taken out of direct college control… no say when student staff were choked of working hours.”
The university’s attitude towards the college bars was, Payne argued, emblematic of their “contempt” for the college system that was the “bedrock” of students. To attack the college system, Payne claimed, was to attack, and to injure, the whole institution, and this was precisely what the university authorities had done over the course of the last year.
Following the speech, the Court’s chairman, Deputy Pro-Chancellor Stanley Henig, made the controversial decision to take only three questions—despite there being many more hands raised.
“I did not see any more hands being raised,” Henig said, “but if I missed them then I apologise for that. There’s a constant difficult in these sorts of meetings… once it gets to 12:30, people are itching to get out. I did the best I could.”
Although Payne’s speech received a rapturous reception from most of University Court, the Vice Chancellor, Paul Wellings, was one member who felt that Payne’s points lacked merit.
There were, Wellings claimed, already “a huge number of opportunities for communication” between the university and students. “Students are represented on council, senate, every committee of the university; they have the opportunity to be involved through the governance sectors of the university.”
Whether the university acted upon students’ concerns, Wellings claimed, was down to the “quality of the input” that came from students. “The university listens to all stakeholder groups, whether they be students, staff, or other groups that have an interest in the university.”
Wellings also criticised the students’ bars campaign; he felt that it had descended into “personal insults” and that the university takeover of the bars “should not have come as a surprise to students.”
Although Wellings made it clear that he supported the existence of nine bars on campus, he conceded that this might not be possible, or even probable. “In a world where pubs are closing ever day,” he claimed, “maintaining nine college bars would be a real trick.”
Nevertheless, Wellings felt that the centralised take-overs of college bars was not incompatible with the collegiate system. “[The protesters] are confusing college bars as places with the organisation and management of the bars,” Wellings said. What was needed was not the college ownership of bars, but merely the bars being “fully-populated.”
“Colleges at Lancaster are not autonomous,” Wellings tellingly revealed. “They do not own property. We run a single, indivisible estate and the concern is to get maximum value out of the facilities.” The only shame is that the student body and the university seem to differ on whether that “value” should be more than just a financial one.