Students deal first blow to Vice-Chancellor in tuition fees battle

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LUSU’s campaign to maintain the cap on tuition fees continued to inspire passion from students as they made themselves heard to the Vice-Chancellor, Paul Wellings during a University Council meeting.

Welllings, who is also the Chair of the 1994 Group, – a group of UK research intensive universities – is one of the only university Vice-Chancellors in the country to have spoken out in favour of an increase in tuition fees, and it is this that caused students to come out in protest on Friday Week Seven.

Heavy rain didn’t prevent over 300 Lancaster University students turning up to the protest to have their voices heard. The protest began in Alexandra Square at 11am, where LUSU President Michael Payne gave a speech telling the students it is “our turn to make our position clear”. This campaign is to protect student interests so that “we are not sold down the river by this Government and our Vice-Chancellor”. The crowd then made its way to Lancaster House Hotel where the meeting was due to start at 1pm.

The crowd gathered behind a police line outside the room of the hotel where the meeting was taking place. Chants such as “Hey! Ho! Top up fees have got to go!” and “Listen to your students” could be heard inside the meeting room. Banners were being swayed to enforce the feelings of students, including “7K No Way!” and the ironic “I love debt” banner. Superhero costumes were worn by Lonsdale’s Azmi Sbaiti and Marc Handley, who said they were fighting against “criminally high fees.”

The students had created a walkway between the crowds, for the hour preceding the beginning of Council, so that before the council members entered they could listen to the students’ perspective. University Secretary Fiona Aiken was the first to walk through making it known that she was willing to listen to the views of the students. She was followed by Professor Peter Diggle, a Council member and Keith Davidson, the Lonsdale Principal, who showed his support of the student protest by encouraging the crowd.

The rest of the councillors chose to use the alternative entrance to the hotel, completely avoiding the student petition. The most controversial of these was the Vice-Chancellor, who did not even look at the students as he went in through the back door.

Furness JCR President Dave Prescott said that it is Wellings’ job “to represent the students and their best interests, so he shouldn’t be going through the back door”. He continued on to say that the Vice-Chancellor “must be having a serious crisis of confidence if he can’t listen to his own students”. This was supported by Lonsdale JCR President, Matt Windsor who commented that “only three people have walked through, so they are intimidated by the crowd, showing we are making an impact”.

When asked to comment on Wellings’ avoidance of the crowd, Michael Payne said it was “shameful… If he wants to have the debate let’s have the debate. If he wants to have a debate he’s going to have to come and talk to us”. He went on to say how “exceptional” the crowd had been pointing out that 1,500 letters had been signed by students in contention with the Vice-Chancellor, adding that “this is an issue that matters to students”.

The crowd turn out and enthusiasm was also commented on by University Council Representative and Cartmel JCR President, Robbie Pickles who said it was “excellent to see so many students have turned out to support this absolutely vital campaign”.

During the meeting, various members of the council came out in favour of the issue being discussed. After the meeting, Pickles said that Wellings “should make sure  that when it goes to review, he is bringing both views [of the 1994 Group and the University] to the table and ensuring student voice is heard.” He added, “I don’t think he can avoid doing that now.”

Alex Hockin was one of the many who turned out to show his support for the campaign. When asked how he felt about the Vice-Chancellor’s avoidance of the crowd he said “he should be willing to see the students and say his opinion to our faces, since so many people have something to tell him”.

Before entering the hotel to attend the Council meeting Payne gave a few more words of encouragement to the crowd asking them to show their support and let their voices be heard so that student views cannot be ignored. This proved to be quite successful, as it was reported that at some points the meeting was drowned out by the chanting.

With a strained voice, Payne’s final words of inspiration to the crowd were “the fight does not stop today.” When the protest eventually moved on from the hotel, chants of “Don’t think this is over” made the opinion of the protestors very clear to those inside the meeting room.

In an unprecedented move, Council chose to issue a statement on Higher Education funding, and the discussions it will be prepared to take about the subject. Council said, in this statement, that it will return to the issue in February, after Lord Browne’s review. The statement also said that Council can “recognise and sympathise with the students’ concern over the future handling of HE funding and student finances,” and that “There is a strong view that HE should be free for all students at the point of delivery, and that HE should be available to qualified students, irrespective of background.”

It was decided that Council would issue this statement when the issue of the tuition fees review came up during the meeting. The protestors outside made the importance of this review in the eyes of students very clear to those inside the meeting, and many councillors are reported to have spoken out in favour of discussing the issue, despite some wishing to leave the discussion until after the publication of Lord Browne’s review.

One University Councillor commented that “If you took a straw poll around the room, everyone [in the Council] is fundamentally with them [the students].” Brian Gray, Chair of University Council and Pro-Chancellor of the University claimed that until Lord Browne’s review is published in February, that there was “nothing to respond to” and that Council should not discuss the review in great detail until more information had been released.

However, other council members were keen to stress that they feel  the body of University should be proactive, not just reactive, and that there needed to be some acknowledgement of the students protesting outside the meeting.

Some Council members went as far as to publicly declare their political stance on tuition fees; one of these Councillors going as far as to claim that they felt Higher Education should be free.

Payne, speaking after University Council, described the support of the students’ protest by these members of Council as “humbling and appreciated.” “One by one Council members made it clear that Council had a key role to play in laying out their stance on fees and funding at universities and we await this vital debate,” he said, adding “the sentiments and feelings of the majority prevailed and the students very real concerns about funding were given their due respect in a statement issued the same afternoon.”

At the beginning of this year, a Standing Redundancy Committee was set up by University Council in order to reduce the University’s academic staff. In a controversial move, the committee was set up before the need for redundancies was confirmed by a lack of external funding for academic staff was confirmed.

At the time of this being revealed to students – at the beginning of last year’s Summer term – senior members of Council had claimed that they did not want to make any redundancies, and that they were merely preparing for a scenario where  this would be necessary.

The local UCU (University & Colleges Union) branch have opposed this action by the Council, claiming the setting up of the Redundancy Committee at this early stage would cause problems with staff morale, and is in fact illegal. They also claim that these actions did not fall into line with Statute 20, the section of the Council’s charter, which outlines employment and redundancy procedures. The UCU are directly opposing the proposed changes to Statute 20.

In light of the tuition fees review being conducted by the current government, this argument  has been put into a new light. The UCU and LUSU are offering each other “mutual support” in their respective campaigns; UCU wish to prevent the unclear changes to Statute 20, and LUSU wish the Council to make a clear statement of support towards students in the upcoming tuition fees review. The two campaigns have chosen to support each other because of the way in which they directly correspond: the issues with redundancies have a long-term impact on students, while staff need students to have fees supporting them so that they may attend university.

By Jenni Day & Collette McColgan

 

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