FAQs on Academic Board Special Meeting, Survey and the call for a Governance Committee

Below are some FAQs to help colleagues understand the issues behind the latest controversies taking place at Academic Board:

A recent survey to all members of Academic Board (the principal body of UCL responsible for academic governance) broached a number of questions as to how the members of the Board felt about recent changes in the university, about management, about student numbers, morale, and finally about a proposal to call a Special Meeting of the Board to discuss these questions in a focused way.

Many of the 492 responses showed dissatisfaction with the management of the university, with over 67% responding to the statement "UCL is well managed" with "disagree" (40.85%) or "strongly disagree" (26.83%). 95% of the respondents said they agreed that a Special Meeting of AB should be called to discuss these matters.

As a result, 22 members of AB signed a letter calling for that Special Meeting. In the letter, there is a proposal for a Governance (scrutiny) Committee of AB to be elected from AB members, to assist AB in its work, and to better represent the voice of the academic community at UCL.

In response, the Provost put forward his own proposal. This is to convene a SMT-led working group to look at how to "better communicate" priorities to Academic Board and to look into how representative it is. In other words, the SMT expresses the view that academic staff dissatisfaction with Senior Management is merely a symptom of poor communication - and worse, AB is not ‘representative’ of staff.

In an unprecedented move, the Provost placed this proposal on the Agenda of the Special Meeting requisitioned by the letter, despite the fact that the constitutional rules on Special Meetings do not permit this, and despite the lack of consent of the 22 signatories of the letter. This has now been withdrawn.

To help those who would like to delve deeper into why we might need a Governance Committee of AB or those who simply wonder what all the fuss is about, below are some FAQs and answers.

If you are a member of Academic Board you can attend the Special Meeting on Thurs 18 May, 12.30, at the Quad Pavilion. You can become a member of AB by following the instructions in the answer to the final question.

Should you have any more specific questions, please comment on this blog (moderated) or write to ucu@ucl.ac.uk

Q1. Another committee? Do we really need that?

A1. The proposal is not just another committee. It will be a body that *scrutinizes* changes, policies, and initiatives at UCL on behalf of the academic community and in terms of their impact on academic work. It will pay close and focused attention to documents and proposals, and make recommendations to the wider academic body (the Academic Board), with an eye on academic values and academic priorities.

Currently, reports, policy proposals and other documents to AB tend to come from, and be dominated by, Senior Management priorities. They usually take the form of pre-prepared documents which AB is simply expected to approve in time for the next Council meeting that will ratify them.

Not only that, but the structure of AB - the Chair being the Provost, the agenda being set in advance at full discretion of the Chair, papers only released 5 days before, and the size of the Board being large, encompassing a membership that cannot be expected to scrutinise all the detail - create a situation where AB is often unable to carry out its constitutional obligation to make decisions on significant academic matters. It is difficult for the academic community to remain fully informed, engage with issues except where they are very serious and large scale, and make its voice and priorities heard loud and clear.

The proposed AB Governance Committee is an attempt to address this deficit. It will have the responsibility to scrutinize documents, policies, and initiatives on behalf of the Board, make recommendations to AB and communicate forcefully the priorities of the academic community. It will be able to undertake soundings, polls, and generate discussions to get a better picture of the direction in which the academic community believe their university should be going.

Q2. But surely that must already happen on other committees/bodies at UCL?

A2. Unfortunately not. Academic Board comes close to doing this, and can be inspirational in generating sub-committees and working groups on single issues to undertake scrutiny, but the sheer volume of material coming before it and the form that Senior Management “consultations” tend to take, means that often AB is simply stopping the worst and catching up with the rest.

Even active members of AB do not get a clear insight into policies or changes that come before them only 5 days in advance. Frequently documents do not consider the effect and impact of the proposals on the academic community and academic work at UCL, and to identify potential impact takes critical scrutiny from multiple perspectives. Not only that, those wishing to engage in careful scrutiny and raise academic-focused concerns, have to contend with the fact that the agenda of AB meetings is not set by the academic body itself and presentations to AB are frequently dominated by Senior Management.

Q3. Does this proposal undermine the work of Senior Management?

A3. It depends on your vision of a university. The proposed committee should actually aid the work of Senior Management by apprising them more fully of the views of the Academic Community.

In many contemporary universities, a growing Senior Management Team (with its support structures) tends to develop its own priorities. Senior Managements around the country have been engaging in large scale building projects and chasing league table positions. More recently - as we are seeing in Manchester, Aberystwyth, Southampton Solent, Sunderland, Kent, and elsewhere – they have cut academic and support jobs (the latest being 171 jobs axed at Manchester University placing 926 staff at risk) where they feel that certain subject areas do not reap enough financial reward or help them fulfill their National Student Survey (and soon, TEF) targets.

Changes that Senior Management might think are financially desirable (such as increasing student numbers) can turn out to be academically damaging in terms of reputation, quality of teaching and research. Often the impact on academic work of these initiatives is realized after the fact.

Scrutiny by the academic community is essential to fulfilling the mission of the university. The Charter and Statutes of UCL are based on the priority of the University being academic work: high-quality teaching based on high-quality research. Universities are not businesses or property speculators where success is measured in income, buildings or student numbers, but communities of scholars bound by academic values. Academic innovation is necessarily bottom-up. Therefore academic governance must be based on the academic staff body having a meaningful say in the trajectory of the university, especially when other priorities threaten to overwhelm academic priorities.

From this perspective, Senior Management exists to facilitate that community and its work, not develop its own agenda. The proposed Governance Committee for Academic Board is designed to redress the balance at UCL, which has historically had an egalitarian and democratic outlook for the participation of academics in defining the ethos and direction of their institution.

Q4. Aren’t there already too many committees at UCL?

A4. There are many committees dominated by Senior Management (and the Senior Management Team) in number, chairperson, and priorities.

Academic Committee (AC) only has a minority of elected academic representatives. Committees like the Human Resources Policy Committee (HRPC) overlap substantially with SMT and reflect a specific set of priorities.

The only body that currently oversees policies and initiatives at UCL from an academic perspective is the Academic Board. The Board has recently been successful in halting damaging initiatives and scrutinizing pre-prepared policies that SMT initially brought to the Board for rubber-stamping. However, there are problems. The agenda for this body is set by the Chair (the Provost), and the communication of its views to Council (the highest governing body at UCL) is currently limited to what the Chair interprets to be the case.

The amount of work that it takes to scrutinize documents also means that a large body like AB needs a scrutiny committee to assist it in its work, to inform AB better of the issues raised by policies and initiatives, to uphold AB’s decisions and communicate these decisions on behalf of the academic community. We propose that such a scrutiny committee be set up and termed the Academic Board Governance Committee.

Q5. What is the make-up of this proposed new body?

A5. The proposal is that it will be composed of elected academics from AB, people who have been elected to Council from AB in the last six years but do not sit on Council right now, student representatives, and two representatives elected from Academic Committee.

It is fundamentally a committee representative of the Academic community, with the Academic Committee places giving an academic place for Senior Management representatives should that committee elect them. There would also be an ability for the committee to invite people with expertise to attend and advise.

The features of this Committee are
a) that membership is primarily by election;
b) the Chair will not be reserved for a member of SMT;
c) its remit is to reflect the priorities and perspectives of the academic community.

Q6. What is the Provost proposing?
A6. The Provost has declared openly, and regularly, that he favours removing Academic Board and replacing it with a Senate. See Q7 below.

However, members of Academic Board recently ran a Survey which gathered 492 responses, with a clear majority showing significant discontent with the direction the university has taken and with Senior Management initiatives, and a large degree of agreement (95%) with calling for a Special Meeting of Academic Board to discuss these matters and their remedy.

In response to this initiative, the Provost put a proposal for a Working Group to be set up under SMT control. This would be chaired by SMT, have a reserved seat for the Director of Communications and Marketing, a seat for a member of SMT that the Provost would select, in addition to elected members of AB.  The Provost would no doubt wish that this Working Group will end up proposing the replacement of AB with a Senate.

Q7. What’s wrong with a Senate?

A7. Terminology is misleading here. The UCL Academic Board is a Senate – it was simply renamed Academic Board at a certain point in the history of the university.

AB was originally established so as to enable the input and oversight of the Professoriate into the running of the University (its membership was later expanded).

Replacing the present Academic Board with an elected Senate would automatically disenfranchise over 1,000 professors and remove them from the possibility of having any say in the running of the University. Aside from being the most undemocratic move in the history of the University, one may ask why the University would no longer wish to avail itself of the expertise and experience of its own academic staff.

Many of the universities around the country that are implementing academic job cuts have Senates. This is the case at Manchester University where 171 jobs are set to be cut out of 926 staff in the ‘pool’ for redundancies and the criteria for staff keeping their job have been set in a way that exemplifies the business priorities of Senior Management rather than academic priorities). Similarly, Liverpool University Senate did not even discuss the USS pension scheme crisis.

The Senates in these institutions have not opposed these major management decisions. They have not even raised the question.

This is because of their structure. Their chairpersons are senior managers and their agendas are set by senior management. The bodies themselves are numerically dominated by senior managers rather than academic staff. They also contain large numbers of appointed members in universities where Heads of Department and Deans are appointed rather than elected.

Senates are large bodies which can be unwieldy and in which, just as has been happening with our own AB, it is easy to rush things through and arrive with policies simply for approval.

It is also easy to see how discussions can be intimidating for academics in those contexts where power structures mitigate against the academic voice and academic priorities. The proposal to abolish AB at UCL and replace it with a Senate is clearly designed to generate a more pliant rubber-stamping body that presents less of a challenge to senior managers. The positive effects of Academic Board are either ignored or seen by SMT as obstacles.

AB (our Senate) is not perfect, and the Governance  Committee being proposed by academics will go a long way to addressing the logistical problems of the larger body.

Even, however, if one thought a Senate of a different kind might be worth considering, the key question here is who should decide the nature of this. The proposal from members of Academic Board is for a Governance Committee that might itself make proposals for improvement to AB.

Fundamentally it must be for academics to decide the future of their representation at UCL without the agenda being set by Senior Management, and free from interference. How else could AB carry out its constitutional obligations?

Q8. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to have SMT represented on, and chairing, this committee, and wouldn’t that make communication easier?

A8. This is the status quo, and it doesn’t work. There are many committees that have SMT heavily represented on them already, as mentioned above, such as Academic Committee.

Two places on the Governance Committee are reserved for people to be elected from Academic Committee. So, there is an opportunity for SMT members to be elected to the GC. Members of SMT can also be invited to attend as experts where technical expertise is required.

There is just no special privilege for SMT to populate it or chair it. As a sub-committee of AB, the remit of this committee would be limited to the constitutional remit of Academic Board: concerning academic values and needs, and representation of the academic community.

If the problem is insufficient academic representation and scrutiny, the solution cannot be to water down that kind of representation on a scrutiny committee.

Q9. Isn’t this all very confrontational?

A9. Not at all. The academics who ran the Survey and those who have proposed the Special Meeting and the AB Governance Committee, did something that should be entirely reasonable in an institution of scholarship and learning. They highlighted the interests, perspectives, and views of the academic community, and they proposed ways to better do that in future. It could only be experienced as confrontational if one was opposed to these ends and the academic values behind them. A reasonable administration would facilitate this initiative rather than try to block it.

Q10. Isn’t Academic Board too large and unwieldy to decide complex matters?

A10. Not necessarily. It has been surprisingly agile in setting up working groups to address very complex questions and contribute to them constructively and positively (the new Academic Promotions Framework for example). However, it would benefit from a clearer examination of matters by academics who can advise it on those matters in advance of open meetings and final decisions on the position it will take and the advice it will send to Council.

But to answer any charge that AB could work better or be more agile, the proposal is for it to have its own Governance Committee, which will work on making proposals transparent and scrutinizing them from the point of view of academic values and perspectives, and report to AB. Of course, if this sub-committee proves ineffective, Academic Board would be empowered to reconsider this question. Abolition of AB is rather more permanent!

Q11. Isn’t Academic Board un-representative of the university?

A11. All professors of UCL are automatically members of AB. There is a reserved set of seats for staff who are not professors. Non-academic roles are also represented. They be elected to AB through a relatively simple process.

The least ‘representative’ part of AB is the fact that its agenda is determined in advance (and then issued with only 5-days notice – even where there are 150 pages of papers on the agenda, and where the repercussions of a proposal for the academic community are often opaque) and that a large number of members of SMT and other appointed staff of the university sit on it ex officio (without election) and with voting rights.

Ideally, all staff would be members of the Board, but in a university the size of UCL, the current system has worked well at supporting staff who find themselves forced to question issues of wider UCL governance to put themselves forward and engage at the Board meetings, Non-professorial group meetings, and on Working Groups the Board has created.

A Senate, because of the structure of the membership and how the agenda is set, would almost certainly be less representative. It would certainly exclude the larger academic community even when large-scale discussions are important.

But even if one thought reforms to AB would be useful and necessary, the chief question is how those reforms should take place. The signatories of the letter calling the Special Meeting have proposed that it should be academics who lead, set the agenda, and scrutinize all proposals based on academic values, and that this should take the form of a Governance Committee of Academic Board.

Q12. But is it not the case that hardly anyone turns up to Academic Board?

A12. No. This is not true. There are occasionally poorly-advertised Academic Board meetings where it is unclear what the point of the agenda is and where long presentations are arranged with no obvious action points, and these tend to disengage the academics of the university. These can be frustrating affairs which lead to a sense that UCL SMT does not take AB seriously and can, therefore, discourage attendance. But this points to the problem.

The increased removal of powers from academics at UCL, the design of agendas that do not have academic values as a defining priority, and the marginalization of elected representatives of AB on Council and elsewhere, have no doubt contributed to low attendance when decisions are presented as a ‘done deal’ and presented in language that does not engage the academic community.

However, where issues of importance are clear, and the academic values at stake are highlighted, attendance has been large, the meetings active, and a wide range of AB members engaged. There are many examples of this in recent times (Statute 18; Discretionary Accounts; Promotions Framework are significant ones). The Provost’s proposal does not arise from an inactive AB, but from the opposite observation, that AB in defending academic priorities stands in the way of his agenda.

The information and transparency that a Governance Committee would bring to the Board, plus the emphasis on the academic perspective, would also activate interest by re-engaging the academic community from a process where they have been increasingly alienated. 

Q13. Isn’t Academic Board just a place where academics can go to “let off steam” as the Provost has said (at the Special Meeting on Discretionary Accounts), and so is better replaced by a body that does things?

A13. Many members of the Board who have attended assiduously for years or have worked to get elected to the Board and to its committees and working groups consider this pejorative statement to be less than accurate. It is also highly disrespectful of the vote at that particular AB: it implies that he as Chair could simply overrule it. In any case, the Survey results suggest that staff are far more deeply dissatisfied than this soundbite suggests.

More seriously, those who attend and intervene on important questions have alerted the wider academic community to significant issues that would otherwise be missed, and have slowed down rushed processes to allow for proper scrutiny. Respect for an academic community begins with respect for its bodies of representation and for those who serve diligently on those bodies. Academic Board has acted decisively to make valuable changes or to halt damaging decisions in the past.

It is true that the increasing alienation of academics from the levers of decision-making at UCL and the setting of agendas with pre-conceptions about the solutions that academics should accept have acted to increase feelings of disenfranchisement. However, voicing concerns and giving the academic perspective on major issues is crucial for a community of scholars. Science does not progress on the basis of managerial fiat.

Q14. Is this a conspiracy to remove the Provost?

A14. No. It appears that rumours are being spread that are unhelpful and damaging to what would otherwise be a reasonable conversation about representation and governance. The signatories of the letter calling the Special Meeting absolutely reject the idea that they are involved in a conspiracy to unseat the Provost. They are making an open and transparent proposal to improve the representation of the academic community at UCL. The letter calling for the meeting and the proposals presented explicitly say this, as do the arguments in their favour.

Q15. Did the signatories leak a report to the Guardian last week recounting the 3 May Academic Board meeting?

A15. No. Rumours are also being propagated that members of the letter signatories group leaked a report to the Guardian. This is defamatory. The signatories to the letter calling this Special Meeting have absolutely nothing to do with the issuing of the report to the Guardian, in fact they believe that this was not a constructive contribution to the debate, and would prefer that this had not happened. However, it is worth noting that in the same Guardian article the Provost and official spokespersons for UCL claim to the reasons for the Survey and for the special meeting that has been called as the fact that “some people” at UCL do not like “change” and that better communication would solve the morale problem highlighted by the Survey. This is pejorative and unhelpful. The detailed responses by the academic community highlight concrete areas and ways in which the “change” had not taken place with proper engagement of that same academic community. This is precisely what the Governance Committee proposal is designed to remedy.

Q16. Is the proposal for a Governance Committee not just a power grab by disgruntled academics?

A16. No, this does not make sense. The proposed structure of the committee is fundamentally determined by election. No selected or chosen seat is reserved for anyone. No privileges are built into it. Those members who will sit because they have been previously elected from AB to Council (in the last 6 years but not currently sitting) have been elected from AB to Council. Most importantly of all: the Governance Committee is answerable in all it does to Academic Board. It is therefore proposed as a way of informing Academic Board, as a properly constituted subcommittee of AB with the remit of pre-digesting large of documents to bring out issues that affect academic work, consulting the academic community and the Board, representing the views of the Board, and making proposals to the Board that can easily be rejected. It is a way of facilitating the Academic Board rather than taking any power away from it. If an SMT that is not itself elected by AB can put papers and proposals before it for consideration, then a committee of elected academic members cannot represent a threat to AB.

Q17. If I believe the academic community should have a stronger voice in UCL’s governance, what should I do?

A17. If you are a member of AB, you should attend the meeting on Thursday 18 May, 12.30, in the Quad Pavilion.

If you are a member and cannot attend, then send in your apologies plus a statement on whether you support the proposal for a Governance Committee of AB as set out in the letter requesting the meeting.

If you are not a member of Academic Board you may be able to join it. You will need to ask two of your peers (e.g., two lecturers) in your faculty to agree to nominate you for AB. You then need to send an email saying you would like to be elected to the board and stating who is nominating you, copy the people nominating you into the email, and send this to the Secretary of Academic Board, Derfel Owen, at: d.owen@ucl.ac.uk

If you have any other FAQs that you would like to see answered here, please send as a comment, or write to ucu@ucl.ac.uk. All comments are treated as anonymous.

Q18. Is this a power play on the part of people from one School (SLMS)?

A18. Not at all. This is a rumour that has been spread by people seeking to undermine the initiative to establish a body that will improve transparency, representation, and governance for Academic Board and the wider academic community. Large representative bodies without good committee structures are notoriously bad at holding executives to account. The signatories of the letter calling the special meeting came from all four Schools, of UCL (SLASH; BEAMS; SLMS; IOE) and the primary work in preparing the proposal and the briefing documents associated with it had significant input from each of these Schools, including many people who are not on the signatories list. That included philosophers, language experts, geographers and physicists. The speakers at the special meeting in favour of the motion were predominantly from SLASH and BEAMS (e.g., Political Science and Engineering). There is no conspiracy or single interest clique here, but rather a genuine collaboration between faculties and Schools to highlight the problems of Academic Governance at UCL. 

Q19. Does this initiative pose the threat of cliqueism or AB being sidetracked by "activists" as members of SMT claimed more than once at the Special Meeting?

A19. This is one of the most astonishing claims made by the SMT. It should not be lost on anyone that the accusation of favouring a clique was being made by a group of unelected Senior Managers who had originally placed on the table a proposal for a Working Group chaired by a member of that same group, plus two reserved placed for their membership (the Director of Communications and Marketing and an open seat for an SMT members), with the goal of “reviewing” the functioning of Academic Board. So when academics organize and mobilise Academic Board to take an interest in its own affairs, and to create committee structures, that is “cliquetivism” but when SMT decide matters for us, that is fine. On a number of fronts (Discretionary accounts; the Promotions Framework) a wide range of people from a wide range of Schools have taken part as members of AB in scrutinizing policies and proposals that SMT simply expected the academic community to accept, or to be satisfied with a consultation that lasts 10 days and is advertised initially via twitter. Further, the proposal on the table at the meeting was one in every element designed to improve processes on AB by improving the transparency of proposals for academics. It focused on how the Governance Committee can engage the membership of Academic Board, and serve them, rather than replace them or side-track them. It makes that committee subject both to election, and so democratically accountable, and also answerable for its deliberations to the wider Academic Board itself, through presenting its findings and work, and seeking discussion of its proposals. To pain this as cliquetivism, without a better argument and coming from who it did, could only be motivated by a fear that Academic Board is becoming more and more interested in scrutinizing those policies they are simply expected to accept.

Q. What was the issue with the agenda of the Special Meeting on Thursday 18 May?

A. Calling a Special Meeting of Academic Board to discuss a subject matter has very clear and strict rules at UCL. These are defined in the University’s Charter and Statutes. The rule for calling Special Meetings says that one can be ‘requisitioned’ by a letter signed by 10 members of the Academic Board.

Importantly, the relevant rule says that the meeting shall be called to discuss only the subject matter for which it was requisitioned by the letter:

Statute 7(6)
“Upon the written requisition of not fewer than ten Members of the Academic Board the Secretary to the Board shall convene a Special Meeting of the Board. Such requisition shall specify the object of the desired Meeting and the Secretary shall within seven days after receipt of such requisition convene a Special Meeting to be held within fourteen days of the date of the notice convening the Meeting for the purpose specified in the requisition.”

As a matter of fairness, this has always been understood as excluding the addition of material/propositions/motions etc., to the meeting agenda. The Provost’s proposal is not an even amendment to the proposition on which the meeting is called. It is a wholly different proposal, indeed it is one that the Provost could have put on the agenda of an Ordinary Meeting of Academic Board. A Governance Committee of AB would supplement the work of AB: a Senate would replace it.

During the disputes on AB over SMT’s desire to ‘reform’ (remove) Statute 18, the academic freedom statute, that strict reading was enforced against academic members of the board wishing to introduce amendments or additions to motions before the Board.

In fact, there is no historical precedent of any Special Meeting of AB called in this way having had any item added to the Agenda beyond the subject matter specified in the letter requesting the meeting.

The reasons for this rule are clear: it would be easy to crowd out the purpose of a meeting called by letter with other material and propositions that would then render it not a special meeting on the subject of the letter but a meeting on whatever the Chair decides should be the emphasis. The rule protects the integrity of the AB discussion and its focus.

On this occasion, however, the Provost had added his own proposal (which had changed from its original form as presented at the last ordinary AB meeting) onto the agenda of the Special Meeting on Thurs 18th May.

He did so without consulting the 22 signatories of the letter requesting this Special Meeting, and without obtaining consent from AB to do so. In fact, he simply did so unilaterally.

He has now withdrawn this, after complaint from the signatories, but the Secretary to AB sent out a message claiming that he would be in his right to include it. This is not only constitutionally wrong, it is still disrespectful to the Academic Board.

Crowding the agenda in this way has two effects. It is disrespectful to the whole of Academic Board, not just the signatories of the letter, because it signals to members of AB that the Chair can ignore constitutional limits on his powers. Secondly, in practical terms, this creates a confusing and conflicted agenda, rather than a focused discussion on one matter. 

As noted above, the Provost, as Chair, can put any agenda item he wishes on the agenda of any Ordinary Meeting of AB. Claiming privileges to change the agenda of a Special Meeting represents the arrogation of an additional power, one that is explicitly denied in UCL’s Charter and Statutes.

It is just this kind of constitutional failing, despite protests of academics, that the Special Meeting was called to discuss and the Governance Committee was devised to remedy. In this case respecting the rule means respecting the academic community.

We are pleased that the proposal has now been withdrawn from the agenda, but are concerned that the Secretary to Academic Board is still insisting that it is within the Provost's right to do this should he wish to do so in future.

Again, a Governance Committee would be an ideal vehicle for sorting out this kind of problem and standing up for the rules that fairly represent the academic community at UCL.


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