Interview with Jack O’Dwyer-Henry on the Vote of No Confidence in the VC and Senior University Management

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SCAN’s News Editor Tom Burgess and Bailrigg’s News Manager Lucy Whalen interviewed Jack O’Dwyer-Henry on the upcoming referendum on the vote of no confidence in the Vice-Chancellor, Andy Schofield, and the senior university management.

The vote of no confidence was triggered by a petition that Jack put up on the SU website, which came out at the end of the student rent strikes we saw at the start of this term. To capitalise on this momentum and to prove students weren’t going to give up on making the university a better place, Jack explains that the petition for a vote of no confidence was the next step in putting pressure on university management. Jack also states that during his time being involved in student activism at university he noticed that he kept coming up against the “university management monolith” which he says doesn’t care what is right or what students think or responds adequately to students. Jack believes an important step in reforming the university to be better is by removing some of the individuals from senior management that are responsible for the situation we are in – and this begins with voting ‘No’ in the upcoming referendum.

But what can the referendum on the vote of no confidence actually achieve? Jack calls it a symbolic referendum – students do not have the ability to get rid of university management, but if students come out in big enough numbers and vote they have no confidence, Jack hopes this is something university management cannot ignore, and it will force them to reconsider decisions they take in how they run the university.

When asked if Jack thinks any of the senior management at the university, including Andy Schofield, would resign following the results of the referendum, Jack is hopeful they may consider it. He points out that a lot of students and staff are dissatisfied with how the university is run, especially during the pandemic. He states that several staff strikes over the past years reveal how some staff are unhappy with how they are treated, and some students are rightfully angry to be paying full tuition and accommodation fees when the university experience is nothing like what was promised. Taking this context into account, Jack is hopeful that the university management will consider how they have a duty to have the confidence from university staff and students and act accordingly.

He adds that the fact there is no way for students to have a say on who works for them proves how undemocratic the university has become. He believes the university has become a lot more undemocratic, unaccountable and centralised in the past few decades. A key example of this is how there is no way for students, who pay central management’s wages, to hold the university senior management to account, which could be easily reformed and changed if they wanted to.

So, why does Jack think students should vote ‘No’ in the referendum? Jack explains that throughout the pandemic it has been exposed what the priorities are of university management, and unfortunately it is not student’s welfare. He believes that the current relationship between students and the university management is centred around financial exploitation – which he thinks is evidenced through encouraging students to return to campus last year in order to take rent money. Then, when faced with students self-isolating on campus, rather than solve issues like providing food for free, they charged £17.95 a day for food packages. When students are facing increased financial difficulties due to the pandemic and 65 senior staff are being paid over £100,000, Jack believes this is a problem. Jack sums this up to be due to the decisions of a small number of people at the top, who have consistently reformed the governance structures of the university to make it as unaccountable as possible and make it difficult for students to have any input. This is why Jack thinks this referendum is important – he wants it to be a way for students to say ‘No’ and show they believe in a university founded on democracy and equality and not the financial exploitation which he believes currently characterises the university.

Jack also believes that the six-figure wages of some senior staff members reveals the inequality at university, pointing out that junior academic staff members with huge workloads are paid poorly in comparison. When asked further on if the VC and university senior management staff could actually do something about this, Jack recognises that a lot of these problems are to do with issues we see structurally in most British universities. But Jack does not think that the VC is powerless to make things better – and that the pandemic shows how other universities have done more for their students and staff than Lancaster has. Jack says another example is how rent on campus accommodation keeps on rising. For instance, the rent of a townhouse has increased by over 60% in the last decade. Jack says this is not down to inflation, but rather that year on year the university wants to make money from financially vulnerable students. Jack says that these decisions rest with senior management, and we shouldn’t resign ourselves to these decisions.

When asked how students can ensure that the vote of no confidence doesn’t lead to the employment of individuals with the same problems, Jack agrees that whilst changing individuals will make a difference, there also needs to be structural changes. Jack’s ideal university management would recognise that as well as removing individuals, we need to change the way the university is run. For instance, the University Council used to have more elected positions, but over the past years, many of the democratic elements of the Council have been abolished. What is left is an almost entirely unelected body which Jack doesn’t think is productive.

Andy Schofield came into the role of Vice-Chancellor in May 2020 – Lucy, playing the devil’s advocate, poses whether it is fair to give him another chance when the country is opening up again since he began the role in such an unprecedented time. Jack responded that he does not hold much hope the VC will change and that how you act in a crisis reveals what your true priorities are. Jack would have thought the pandemic would inspire a Vice-Chancellor and senior management to fund mental health support, cut rent wherever possible and introduce a no-detriment policy as soon as possible, but instead students were left with questions whilst “senior management sat on their hands”. He also points out that the vote of no confidence is aimed at all senior staff, not just Andy Schofield, who have been around longer than Schofield and have been given a fair chance.

When asked about funding being reduced during the pandemic creating some of these problems, Jack states that the university has cut funding over the years for different student services, and there has been years-worth of prioritising money over students. For example, Jack points out how a decade ago the university provided 24-hour health support, including for mental health, which shows how much student services have decreased despite the huge incomes of university management.

When asked for his prediction about the results of the referendum, Jack believes the fact no one has come forward to defend the Vice-Chancellor in an opposing campaign says a lot. He is hopeful that students will come out and vote ‘No’ in the referendum, even if he is unsure of what the turnout will be.

Voting on the VC No-Confidence referendum is available on the SU website now until noon Friday, March 12.

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