University and City Council at loggerheads over student councillor’s election

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Photo by Elliot Westacott

The University and Lancaster City Council have been in disagreement throughout the summer over the election of a city councillor, who is also a student at Lancaster, to the University’s governing body.

The City Council elected Cllr Paul Aitchison to be its representative on University Council at the Full City Council meeting on Wednesday 15 June. Cllr Aitchison, a Labour councillor for the University ward, defeated the Council’s current representative, Geoff Marsland. Marsland represents the Torrisholme ward in Morecambe.

University Council is Lancaster’s primary governing body and is in charge of the administrative side of the University. The City Council holds one seat on the body.

The controversy has arisen because Cllr Aitchison is still a student at Lancaster. According to the governing rules of University Council, only two students may sit on it at any given time. These two student spaces are already allocated to the President of the Students’ Union and the Chair of LUSU Council, who is elected in the Students’ Union’s Michaelmas elections.

Fiona Aiken, the University Secretary, whose job includes ensuring the University complies with its own governance and political structures, said: “The Lancaster City Council has the opportunity to appoint a councillor to membership of Lancaster University Council, on condition that they recognise the University’s requirements for membership of Council. The city councillor is one of the lay members of Council (i.e. is neither a member of staff nor a student of the University).

“On this occasion, the City Council has tried to appoint a councillor who is a student of the University, and the appointment is therefore invalid. We have invited the City Council to appoint a councillor who meets the University’s requirements.”

The City Council has challenged the University’s ruling. Their legal officer has written to the University asking for the clarification of the rules in a bid to understand why Cllr Aitchison’s election has been deemed invalid. City councillors, however, are hopeful that the appointment of a new Vice Chancellor might signal a fresh start in this debate, one they hope will fall in their favour.

Eileen Blamire, the leader of the City Council, said: “While the City Council is disappointed with the University’s reply so far, we hope that with a new Vice Chancellor soon to be in place it can be rectified and a stronger relationship built.”

Professor Mark Smith was appointed as the University’s new Vice Chancellor over the summer. He does not take up the post until January, after the current Vice Chancellor, Professor Paul Wellings, has left.

The rules for the membership of University Council were altered in 2005. Until then, three students, including the LUSU President, sat on University Council. There was a total of 31 members. The University reduced the overall size of Council in a bid, they say, to make it more effective, and to bring it into line with national guidelines. Currently there are two student representatives out of 22 members.

The rule is enshrined in Statute 9(b) of the University’s governing Charter, Statutes and Ordinances, which outlines that the members of University Council shall include “one person appointed by the City Council of Lancaster, who shall be a member of that Council.”

The rule continues to include “eleven lay persons (two of whom would be Deputy Pro-Chancellors) appointed by the Council on the recommendation of the Nominations Committee.

“The Council may not appoint any person who has a contract of service with the University, or holds a paid office in the University, or any person who is a student pursuing any course of study in the University, for which a fee is payable to the University and which leads to a Degree, Diploma, Certificate, or other academic distinction of the University,” the Charter says.

Aiken admits that when these new rules were drawn up, the possibility that a student could be elected as a city councillor, and then elected as the City Council’s representative on the University Council, was not considered.

“No, back in 2005, I don’t think any students had ever been elected as Councillors, so it was not a specific eventuality which was considered,” she said. “On the other hand, that was not relevant, because there was an understanding that this seat on Council was for an independent member (i.e. not a member of staff or a student) and several members of staff had been elected to the City Council since the University was founded.”

Aiken added: “The University is still of the view that the appointment is invalid, but that the City Council is welcome to appoint someone who meets the conditions.”

The councillor at the heart of this conflict, Paul Aitchison said: “I still wish to be a member of the University Council but the University still remain opposed, and I hope that we will be able to resolve this situation through cooperation and communication in the near future.”

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