Ben Etherington, ‘Demos, Democracy and Governance in Cambridge, 2011: a polemical report’

Demos, Democracy and Governance in Cambridge, 2011: a polemical report [1]

 

IS THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE a self-governing institution?

‘Of course!’ What kind of question is that?

And, indeed, the University’s website tells us that the ‘Regent House’, comprising around 4500 members (‘University Officers, Heads and Fellows of Colleges and certain other categories defined by Ordinance’), ‘is the governing body and principal electoral constituency of the University’. To be an academic, or in some way directly involved in the apparatus of professional thought at Cambridge, is to be a kind of citizen of an academic demos.

The most crucial act of the Regent House in constituting itself as a demos is the democratic election of sixteen members to the University Council. Along with two external members, three elected student representatives, the Vice-Chancellor and the Chancellor, they constitute ‘the principal executive and policy-making body of the University’. As one scrolls through the descriptions of the various other entities which make up the University’s administration, one sees everywhere the Council’s power: particularly in its nominating the Vice- and Pro-Vice Chancellors and some of the members of the General Board (who in turn nominate heads of Departments and other key actors in the administration of academic subject areas). Insofar as we believe this university to be a self-governing institution, we need to have faith that the election of the Council is carried out in a democratic way, and that, on election, this body acts in a consultative and representative fashion. It follows that this faith will be tested if 1) the process and means of election are corrupt, or arbitrary, or in some way faulty; and/or 2) the Council does not act in a consultative and representative fashion.

Naturally, faith in demokratia also relies on a demos which cares to hold this faith. In January this year, a Discussion of the Regent House was called to consider ‘the proposed changes in higher education funding, in light of the more detailed proposals following the publication of the Browne Review. (Such Discussions are the principal means by which the Regents can address each other and their representatives.) Citizens of the demos were calling on their fellows to debate the completely new model for funding higher education then being instituted by the government, which would set the sector on a course of consumer-based market competition and private profit. At lunch at High Table I asked a colleague whether he would also be attending. In that congenial yet bullying way of the High Table he replied: ‘Oh yes! I like this idea! Yes, the don who takes tea after lunch, before trotting over to Senate House for a Discussion. Yes, how marvellous … but of course we none of us have time for these things any more – I have meetings with six PhD supervisees this afternoon.’ A response typical of atomised academe which must get out its next scholarly article at any cost, all the while complaining of overwork and managerialism, but which will not spare a moment to address the institutional forces which daily usurps the labour conditions necessary for patient scholarship.

Thankfully on this occasion the apathy was not shared. Citizens of the demos filled Senate House, and, in deeply felt and patiently argued addresses, affirmed the Regent House as ‘the governing body and principal electoral constituency of the University’. The arguments were diverse, but almost all decried the new funding structure and spoke for the benefits of a public university system set apart from commerce. They called on their Council to robustly represent this sentiment in the public sphere and to oppose marketising reform. The Discussion ran into a second, full session.

The demos spoke but the Council did not listen. Over 30,000 words of speeches met six pithy paragraphs. The crux was that the Council knew better than the Regent House the University’s interests and how it should conduct itself as a corporate body: ‘the Council believes that campaigning politically is not an activity in which it must necessarily engage as part of the University’s mission’ (para 18).[2] Its own response in the succeeding paragraphs effectively promised complete compliance with a policy platform that almost all those who had voiced an opinion in the Discussion had opposed. It would rush through the statutory means to do so according to a government schedule that was hectoring public universities into a system that would undermine their existence as public universities.[3] In doing this, the Council did not define the University in terms of its public role and place within British society, but ‘as an internationally-leading educator of excellent students’ (ibid.). It submitted to Regents a Grace (a statutory motion) which would approve the Council’s intention to propose an access agreement allowing the University to raise fees to the maximum possible level according to the wording of a previous statute conceived for a completely different funding structure.[4]

This was awkward, to say the least, and created uncertainty about the implications of a vote for or against, precipitating one of several serious breaches of proper electoral conduct in the lead up to the ballot. Those responsible for producing the ballot went to the extraordinary measure of interpreting for the voter the implications of their vote by actually editorialising on the ballot paper itself, next to the boxes in which the voter would vote.[5] The demos, supposedly one of the most highly educated and inquisitive constituencies in the world, was not given any account of why the failure to submit an access agreement would necessarily limit the University to charging the minimum £6000 a year. Even a member of Council, Professor Nick Gay, commented that it was a spurious logic which presented the Grace as a choice between two fee levels.[6]

The demos would not be condescended to. There followed a flurry of amendments and Graces as students and scores of Regents tried to ensure that the great hike in fees would be offset by commitments to a larger investment in fee-waivers and bursaries, and that Council would provide a full rationalisation and justification for the fee level, with this amount being put to vote before any rise. Without amendment, the wording of the previous regulation would effectively cause fees to rise in future like a helium balloon, always bumping against the ceiling rate. What in 2011 could be cast as an unavoidable fee rise to offset the funding lost through the government’s dramatic cuts could easily become, upon further deregulation, a needlessly high rate. Now that the Council was defining the University in terms of ‘international excellence’ and not the public good, any such future rise already had its self-serving justification.

Enter Vice-Chancellor Borysiewicz. With a casual flick of his toga, he threw out all amendments. The briskness of his reasoning again made it clear how detached the administration was from its Regents. There wouldn’t be time to actually justify the University’s new fee levels. This would require thoroughness, diligence and clear-headedness which, the Vice-Chancellor assured us, would put the University at odds with government policy. Through bruised, puffy eyes the demos now began to wonder whether it was looking at an administration which was not in fact a synecdoche of Tory privatisation rather than its will, and threw itself into an outright ‘non placet’ (NO) vote to the Grace. If reform, however imposed by external bodies, could not be undertaken within the University in a rational and transparent manner, it would be opposed. The demos was fighting for its existence against a government disguising hardline neo-liberal reform as austerity, and for its sovereignty against a rogue University administration.

Congregating in the backs of coffee shops and on informally assembled email lists, citizens put to making the difficult but necessary case for non placet. Obviously, the point was not to bankrupt the University (and no Regent familiar with the facts could honestly believe that a non placet vote would have this effect). As one campaign leaflet put it: ‘A ‘no’ vote will require the University administration to re-engage the Regent House on a matter of the highest importance, according to our time-honoured structures of self-governance’. Toiling with no resources but their evenings and democratic resolve, the non-placeteers started to notch up victories: 115 Regents signed up to support the self-governance platform (see previous link), and non placet fly-sheets were drafted to appear in the pamphlet of official campaign material included with the ballot. It was not an easy case to make when the misleading notion had been implanted that anything other than a placet vote would be financial ‘suicide’, but the non-placeteers went about their work, always playing by the rules.

Yet even this modicum of resistance elicited dirty tricks. Rather than assemble their own e-mail lists and write campaign material which was forthcoming about its partisan character, the pro-placet camp simply disseminated the administration’s line through Faculty and Departmental lists. This assured blanket coverage and the stamp of authority. One Department Head beseeched colleagues: ‘It is of extreme importance for the financial well-being of the University that a positive (Placet) vote be secured’; another: ‘it is clear to me that in the present climate we have no alternative but to go ahead with the Council’s proposals. To do anything else would be economic suicide for the University’; another: ‘For myself, as the person with the most immediate responsibility for keeping the Faculty on the road, there is no alternative to voting ‘placet’. This follows the view of many of the senior people in the School of _____, that a ‘non placet’ vote would institutionally be near suicidal’. It transpired that some of the wording of this last message (‘institutionally near suicidal’) was transferred verbatim from a message sent by the Head of School (a message discovered when it was forwarded on directly to another Faculty).

To secure the legislation in the form it wanted, the administration and pro-placet allies had thrown out cautious and level-headed amendments, editorialised on the ballot, and hijacked official lines of communication. The non-placeteers had no chance against such ganging-up. Even still, 416 Regents refused to be cajoled and voted non placet, a quarter of the vote.

Whither now the demos? The limbs of self-governance strewn about as a sovereign administration hacked past? From the next kingdom could be heard blaring republican trumpets: ‘Congregation instructs Council to communicate to government that the University of Oxford has no confidence in the policies of the Minister for Higher Education’. The Oxford demos would not stand idle while ‘reckless, incoherent and incompetent’ policy was imposed on it. In this case, wonderful speeches accompanied action: their motion of no confidence passed in a meeting of congregation, 283-5. This reminded Cambridge Regents that they needn’t be held back by their recalcitrant administration and could speak directly to government using the statutory and electoral means available to them. The possibility of passing a motion at congregation is not available at Cambridge, so a group of Regents decided to initiate a Grace calling upon the University to communicate to HM Government ‘that it has no confidence in the policies of the Minister of State for Universities and Science, and that this duty be delegated to the Council’. 149 Regents signed the Grace, the local branch of the University and College Union passed a motion to support it, and, like the Oxford initiative, it received a good deal of media coverage.[7]

To be sure, this was an unusual use of the Grace mechanism, although the instruction to communicate to an external body on behalf of the Regent House as a corporate body did have precedent. In the period before the Grace was submitted there were intensive debates in various forums as to whether this was an appropriate statutory gambit. Those proposing it pointed out that in the face of its administration’s intransigence no other means were left for the University to speak out against ill-thought through HE policies. Those against argued either that the Regent House could not hold a position on government policy as a corporate body or that if Regents were to employ their democratic means too often those means would be taken away from them. (By whom? If the Regent House is a true demos then it could be only Regents taking power from themselves.) The decision rested with the Council, and the proposers of the Grace feared the worst. To their surprise and delight the Council agreed to submit the Grace to the Regent House, albeit with some qualifying comments obviously intended to discourage Regents from too frequently taking to such measures.

Despite passing the Council, the controversy over whether or not this was a legitimate use of a Grace lingered, and the No campaign exploited this. Previously of a ‘what Council says goes’ mindset, those opposing this Grace continued to insist on its illegitimacy even after its approval. These arguments were easily dismantled,[8] but the doubts, once sewn, almost certainly influenced voters’ thinking. Also, several colleges were spammed en masse with a message agitating against the motion and requesting members to sign a non placet flysheet. Foolhardy, the placeteers (most of them non placeteers on the fees Grace) continued to campaign using only their own resources and playing by the rules.

The voting period closed and the result was posted on the notice board at Senate House:

In favour of the Grace (placet) 681

Against the Grace (non placet) 681

A tie! Astonishing! The motion did not pass. This clearly showed a divided demos, and divided two ways: on the question of how it should act qua demos, and on the question of the policies of the Universities Minister.[9] But this need not necessarily be understood as a mixed message. Those Regents who had no confidence in the policies of David Willets but baulked at using the means available to counter them were natural allies of those who approved of the reforms. (Where were these 681 non placet voters in February when the Discussion of the proposed changes to higher education funding took place?) If nothing else, the vote showed again what good bedfellows silence and complicity make: ‘I have six PhD supervisees to supervise(!)’

A result of the finest possible margin, it had the effect of turning heads towards the other vital aspect of a functional democracy: the procedures of balloting, vote collecting and counting. Ultimately, it was probably not greatly significant for the University community whether or not the motion passed given that Regents were so evenly divided. In the national sphere, however, that one vote was very significant, being the difference between Cambridge accelerating or decelerating a no-confidence movement then gathering momentum (Leeds, Bath and some individual academic departments had joined Oxford in expressing no confidence. More recently, they have been joined by Birkbeck.)[10]

So I took it upon myself to make some straightforward enquiries about balloting procedures. Particularly, whether balloting had been conducted in an orderly and airtight fashion (rumours had circulated for some time that ballots had been opened and pre-sorted before the voting period concluded), and whether there were any ballots that were marginal cases. If there were, what had been the principles for accepting or rejecting them? If such principles were not clear and objective a second vote would surely need to be called. So began an extensive correspondence, in which, to my great bemusement, direct but polite enquiries were met first with a few answers, then vagaries, then stonewalling and finally reprimand.

I first e-mailed the Registrary, ‘Cambridge’s senior administrative officer’, and his secretary informed me he was away from the office. Unsure whom to contact in his absence, I emailed the University Draftsman and also the Vice-Chancellor to be sure of being put in touch with the right person. The University Draftsman got back to me the next day; she told me she had been the Presiding Officer for the ballot. She informed me that she had complete discretion over the collecting and counting of votes, that two spoiled votes had been rejected and that two ‘doubtful’ votes (the quote marks are the Presiding Officer’s)  had been accepted. The two that were accepted counted towards the non placet tally.

Very interesting

The fate of the motion rested on these four spoiled and doubtful votes. I replied three hours later with two follow-up questions: ‘Would you, or the Senior Proctor (now cced), be able to give a detailed description of the two spoiled votes and the two doubtful votes, with a full account of the principles on which they were admitted or rejected? Ideally, these ballots could be scrutinized by a third party as well. Though the ballots were not counted in a running tally, were they presorted in [any] way?’ Five months later I am yet to receive answers to these questions. In the intervening three hours the University Draftsman had put on her auto-vac message; she would be back four days later. I emailed the Senior Proctor and another of the officers present at the count. Neither could answer the questions. Upon her return, the University Draftsman did reply, but with generalities that shed no further light. Half an hour later I received a message from the Registrary asking me to a meeting the following week. I jumped at the opportunity, believing it to be a chance to get answers to my questions. I requested that other interested parties might also attend and that minutes be taken so that any information pertaining to the ballot could be confirmed by all and then conveyed to the University community with authority. No reply. It wasn’t until I prompted his secretary three days later that I received one. The Registrary had not intended to answer my questions about the vote, but rather, it would seem, to censure me for making inquiries in a forthright manner. He now withdrew the offer of a meeting, and asked me to give reassurances that I had not meant to impugn the integrity of the Presiding Officer. I refused; my scrupulously polite inquiries concerned strictly the procedures and principles for the conduct of the ballot, not any individuals involved.

Pinging further emails around the administration clearly would be futile. A colleague decided to try a different angle, submitting a Freedom of Information request to see copies of the four marginal ballots. This was refused.[11] There was only one further avenue: the Board of Scrutiny.

It is not surprising that, in a year in which the Regent House has continually found itself at odds with its representatives, tensions should lead here. The Board of Scrutiny was formed in 1995 in order to balance the increasing levels power bestowed on the Council.[12] It is elected separately, and its principal function is to ensure the accountability of the Council to the Regent House. A sanctuary, one would have thought, for Regents uneasy with the conduct of various actors within administration. Along with 15 other Regents and Senior Members of the University, I requested that the Board look into 1) the process of collecting and storing ballots 2) the principles on which marginal ballots are decided 3) whether Regents could enquire into the integrity of University processes without fear of censure and 4) instituting an electronic ballot system. The then chair of the Board emailed back to say that he was in a difficult situation as the Presiding Officer for the no confidence ballot had been his wife (oh Cambridge…). He assured me, nevertheless, that by the time the Board came to consider our submission he would have stepped down. On 21 September I received another message from him saying that the matter had been raised at the Board that day, a meeting at which he had been present (the minutes for this meeting have not been posted on the internet).[13] He hinted that our submission may well fall outside the remit of the Board. It was not clear, however, whether he had participated in the discussion or in any way influenced its course (just being present, I would have thought, would already colour the situation).

Several weeks later I received a message from the new chairman. He confirmed that the Board would not be investigating the matter as it fell outside its remit, breezily citing the entirety of the statutes pertaining to the Board.[14] It was not at all clear why our submission fell outside the relevant statutes, particularly A.VII.6.c which gives the Board power ‘to make enquiry […] of the officers of authority [such as, surely, a Presiding Officer?] on matters pertaining to a subject of enquiry [such as, surely, balloting procedure?]’. I asked the chair to explain the Board’s reasoning, and whether or not there had been a conflict of interest with the previous chair participating in or sitting in on deliberations that might concern his wife. No reply. I e-mailed again a week later. No reply. I emailed again four weeks later (a week ago). Still, no reply.

TO FOCUS ON GOVERANCE IN CAMBRIDGE in 2011 is to survey an arrogant administration and a beleaguered demos. We cannot focus only on the refusal to disclose principles for scrutinising doubtful ballots or only on throwing out relevant amendments or only on using official emails lists for partisan means or only on tendentious ballots or only on stonewalling inquiries or only on the marginalisation of an alarmed and dismayed Regent House. Are all these actions and behaviours linked? Do they start to constitute an image of an institution’s culture? One is hard pressed to find anyone in the University who is enthusiastic about Tory-Liberal HE reform. To find critics of the reforms, though, is not hard. One can eavesdrop on hundreds, if not thousands of masterful critiques of government policy delivered in faculty corridors and tea-rooms, high-tables and SCRs, coffee shops and email lists, exclusive lecture series and classrooms, high-brow periodicals and the odd broadsheet op-ed column. Why then is our self-governing University not only fully compliant with the reforms, but contemptuous of the Regents who have dared to challenge its complicity? It is a question of demokratia: an academic demos with the means and will to govern itself and to decide as an active and engaged community what its priorities are and to create the institutional circumstances in which they can flourish. To call the University to account is to hold ourselves accountable.

-BEN ETHERINGTON


[1] While the shape of the following account is my own, much of the knowledge of institutional practices and further research comes from working with an inspired group of campaigners.

[2] See paragraphs 16-21. http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/reporter/2010-11/weekly/6215/section1.shtml#heading2-3. In her address at the Discussion, Dr Rachael Padman, a member of the Council, made the odd claim that although the Council members are elected as representatives of the Regent House their mission is not necessarily to represent the interests of the Regent House. Their principle responsibility to the University is in its capacity as a charitable organisation: ‘the Council are the legal trustees of the charity that is the University of Cambridge, and are legally required to act in the interest of the charity’. She did not explain how acting in the interests of the University of Cambridge as a charity could be dissociated from representing the interests of the Regent House, which just about constitutes the entirety of the charity in question. She then cited guidance from the Charity commission on the constraints on charities when engaging in political activity, citing a passage that actually validated her fellow Regents’ calls for the University to politically campaign in order to protect the University’s delivery of its charitable purpose. (See particularly point D7: ‘Can a charity carry out political activity for a change in the law? Yes – charities may carry out political activity for a change in the law if it supports their own charitable purpose.’) Of course, what was being debated that day was specifically the University’s purpose, and those that spoke up in these Discussions were almost unanimous that it was the provision of a public good.

[3] In a later Discussion, Professor Gillian Evans noted: ‘The Council “regrets” the “compressed timetable”. Why accept it when the Government itself cannot stick to a promised date? The “responsible” thing might be for Cambridge to insist on a revised order of proceeding, with the necessary legislation passed and brought into force, or at least visible as published proposals, before it will countenance, by any action of its own, the piecemeal scramble of untidy adjustments going on, to the accompaniment of the Minister’s cry in the House of “not panicking; we’re not panicking!’”. http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/reporter/2010-11/weekly/6218/section9.shtml#heading2-19

[5] The two options on the Ballot paper read: ‘In favour of the Grace (PLACET) (that is submission of a proposed access agreement to the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education; in accordance with the Ordinances the University Composition Fee for home/EU undergraduate students would be 9,000 a year)[;] Against the Grace (NON PLACET) (that is no submission of a proposed access agreement to the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education; this would limit the University Composition Fee for home/EU undergraduate students to 6,000 a year)’

[6] Professor Gay commented to one of the student newspapers: ‘To use an analogy, the grace is asking the turkeys if they are for or against Christmas while everyone knows that Christmas is going to come anyway no matter what the outcome of the ballot. In the event of a non placet vote [a vote against the University’s proposals] the administration will simply say that Ordinances require us to charge £9000 and there is no alternative proposal. By contrast the amendments would allow regents to send a clear message that high fees are not the way forward for HE and mandate the Council on the balance of fee waivers and bursaries.’ http://www.tcs.cam.ac.uk/issue/news/what-are-they-thinking-outrage-as-cambridge-university-ignores-its-own-democratic-process/

[8] See also the debate between Rachel Padman and me in the comments beneath this article http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=416938

[9] This was pointed out in a press release following the result: http://www.defendeducation.co.uk/no-confidence-ballot

[10] See http://www.bbk.ac.uk/ucu/news/Govt2. A colleague who has spent time at Birkbeck has pointed out that this was a particularly resolute action. Birkbeck have been lobbying to preserve funding for ELQ degrees which so many of their mature-age students study for (see: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/mybirkbeck/finance/fees-information/elq). To protest directly was to risk falling on the wrong side of the fine line they had been walking between working with and criticising government, and so to risk their bottom line.

[11] Even here the reasoning – that disclosure of the ballots ‘would bring into question the very nature of a secret and confidential ballot overseen by senior Officers of the University in an impartial manner’ – was self-serving and needlessly defensive. A secret, anonymous ballot is anonymous at the point of marking the ballot. An example where such freedom of information requests are not deemed to compromise confidentiality is state ballots in the United States, which are available under that country’s Freedom of Information Acts (e.g. http://www.ag.state.mi.us/opinion/datafiles/2010s/op10324.htm).

Since this article was initially posted, the working notes for this count have been accessed via further Freedom of Information requests:

[13] Minutes for 2011-2012 minutes are currently (07/12/2011) to be found at http://www.scrutiny.cam.ac.uk/minutes/. See http://www.scrutiny.cam.ac.uk/minutes/previous.html for the minutes of meetings from previous years.

[14] The message from the chair was sent on November 7. From what I can tell, the discussion concerning our submission had taken place almost a month earlier (see item 6: http://www.scrutiny.cam.ac.uk/minutes/11-10-13.htm) and perhaps also in the meeting of September 21, which does not appear to have been minuted (see above).

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2 responses to “Ben Etherington, ‘Demos, Democracy and Governance in Cambridge, 2011: a polemical report’

  1. Pingback: Release of New Documents Pertaining to June 2011 ‘No Confidence’ Grace | donsspeakout!

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