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Inside Court the emphasis coming from both the University and the Students’ Union was that a grown up dialogue between the two was the way forward.
Pickles, giving the annual report from the Students’ Union President, told the room that Higher Education had entered into a new world, and that this new world needed a new mindset for universities and unions to provide the best opportunities for students.
“I am here today to talk about choices,” he began. “I want to talk to you about how the position of the student has changed, how the importance of their voice has changed, and how, as a direct result of this, the University and the Union need to make the right choices to ensure the talented continue to be drawn to Lancaster.”
The inertia the Union had had to fight against for years could continue no longer, according to Pickles. “It seems there are three approaches to poor consultion: Inertia on issues in the long term, inertia on issues in the short term, and exclusion from the discussion of issues altogether. Where is the choice, in this? When students begin to pay £9,000 tuition fees and the sector ‘marketises’ these approaches to the learner voice will not only be unacceptable, they will be suicidal for institutions, especially those with continuing aspirations for the top ten.”
Pickles commented that the “status quo relationship” between the student, University and Union could no longer hold up in a marketised education system, and that this “where we need to work with the University to structure our new relationship, so we can defend the teacher/learner principle while respecting the financial commitment students have made.”
Merely perpetuating the “status quo of antagonism” would be easy, according to the Pickles, and the Student’s Union has chosen to do better. “ We fundamentally believe that it is about setting aside our past ways of behaving and tackling the challenges ahead with the University and Union working in coalition, yes, to ensure the success of the institution.”
He finished: “We stand now at a fork in the road; either we choose to accept the situation imposed upon us and start adapting and behaving accordingly, and immediately, or we choose, together, to follow our old habits and practices whilst they become increasingly less relevant and less representative.”
Afterwards, Professor Bob McKindley, Deputy Vice Chancellor said Pickles’ speech was “impressive and courageous”.
Pete Macmillan, LUSU Vice President (Equality, Welfare and Diversity) said Pickles speech had “some very good aspects, and I think he answered his questions very well”.
One academic put it to Pickles that in a commercialised Higher Education system additional stress will be put on tutors to deliver. Pickles responded by acknowledging that the Students’ Union appreciated that higher fees does not mean a higher level of education. He emphasised that students won’t be looking for more from academic staff, but at what else will they be getting from the £9,000 a year package, such as hidden course costs, sports centre membership and rent.
But it was the question by last year’s Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate, Stuart Langhorn, that produced the strongest response from Pickles, and the room.
Langhorn, a Religious Studies teacher in a Morecambe secondary school, challenged the Students’ Union on its position on fees and the education maintenance allowance, and his belief that the Union had not been clear over this. His students, he claimed, were not applying to go to university because the “Students’ Union had told them they will not be able to afford it”.
Pickles first pointed out the difference between the National Union of Students and LUSU, before launching into a scathing rebuff of the questioner’s party: “I think when you say that the Students’ Union doesn’t have a clear policy, I find that very slightly hypocritical: I think most students struggle to work out what the Liberal Democract’s polices are.”
It was a response that drew laughter from most of the room. Taking a more serious point, Pickles said he “genuinely don’t believe that any students will be better off under any of this government’s proposals”.
A motion by former Pro Vice Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), Alan Whittaker, followed the President’s speech. Whittaker proposed to set up a working group of Court to examine the fees increase. Though the motion was seconded by the two former LUSU Presidents, Pickles spoke against it and the motion failed to pass.
Speaking on the success of Court afterwards Pickles said: “This year’s Court was absolutely fantastic. I think the University and the Students’ Union have signalled a clear-step change in their relationship, working together for the future for the best interest of students at Lancaster University. I think it’s been a really positive Court with a lot of very good discussion and I think it’s been a good Court for students.”
Sir Christian Bonnington commented on Court and said: “I think it was a really good court meeting.” He went on to say: “It’s important that the University and the Students’ Union are working together because after all, the Students’ Union does need to robustly express its needs”.
He added: “There are disagreements which should be dealt with in a rational way and it’s doing that now and I think the student body is happy with it.” Finally he commented on Pickles’ speech, saying it was “first rate”.