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The trouble one has in trying to explain to students what Lancaster University’s collegiate system has lost (had taken from it) in the last ten years is that the vast majority of people who run them were not around to see their various stages of dilution. As a result, the systematic dismantling of the power of our colleges is bemoaned only by university alumni, long standing academic staff and the odd student who reads into college history.
It’s not just the recent, central takeover of the college bars that has reduced their prestige. Other changes have been minor and gradual. The redesign of campus during Paul Wellings’ Vice-Chancellorship has crippled the physical layout of the colleges, with much of our accommodation and spaces thrown alongside faculty buildings, far apart from each other and rendered indistinguishable from other buildings. Less obvious alterations include the removal of college officership from the promotion criteria of academic staff. Without so much as a raised voice from college officers, the university floated the idea of centralising the deanery system, and are currently assessing the merits of standardising college constitutions so that they all resemble one another in operation.
Why isn’t a louder, more vocal deal being made of this? Why is the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Colleges and the Student Experience appointed by a university panel, rather than elected by students and staff, as was the case before 2006? And why has said Pro-VC been so unbelievably spineless that the colleges have sunk into a state whereby they are little more than a sports team badge and a poorly fulfilled promise to prospective students?
Quite simply, the idea that colleges are to be spoken down to by university house has been accepted as a common truth by students and officers who, through no fault of their own, are unaware of the true purpose of a college – the colleges are what they are, but few know what they were. Few people bat an eyelid at the fact that only a small number of colleges still have a physical Junior Common Room, fewer find college spaces being centrally timetabled or centrally managed (see: the bars) to be at total odds with the right to autonomy that our colleges should have.
Good JCR Officers, and there aren’t enough of them in my opinion, work with the limited space and power they have to surround their colleges with as much excitement and social buzz as they can, and generally involve themselves in higher union politics on an individual basis. Bad JCR Officers (the ones who put their breasts up for election) see themselves as holiday reps whose sole purpose is to “make sure you all have an amaaaaaaaazing time!!!!!!” Neither of these groups fully push the idea that the college should essentially be the same as a small parish, with its directions and decisions created on a communal level with all of its members. In fact, it is the lax approach to this community spirit that has lead students and officers alike to view the college as a thing that gets you pissed a few times a year – hence, college boasting comes one week a year in the form of drunken chants.
University House will talk until they’re blue in the face about the ‘wonder’ of our collegiate system, and how it is a jewel firmly lodged in the university’s crown. And yet their rhetoric has consistently failed to meet the reality of their college-affecting decisions, each of which has served to obfuscate the colleges’ geographical location and importance and diminish the local, community level pastoral care they offer to students.