Unannounced proposal to radically change staff membership of RHUL College Council

Proposals for radical change were sent to Academic Board members at the last minute.

On the Friday before the next Academic Board, members received some late papers to add to the (approximately) 500 pages already received. So it would have been easy to miss the fact that one of them was titled “governance”.

From this paper, we learned that the recent Council Effectiveness Review included the proposal that the number and process of appointment of staff members to Council be altered. As members of Academic Board we have approached the local branch of UCU to ask that it publicise this proposal on its blog, as we feel there may be many members of staff who are dismayed by such a proposal.

Given this proposal had already been discussed at Council, it can’t have taken a huge amount of work to prepare the documentation. So we can only wonder why it was given such a low priority.

What do the College Statues say?

The current membership of Council is laid out on the College statutes:

Statute 3:3

The Council shall consist of twenty-five individuals who shall be the charity trustees of the College as follows:

3.1 Sixteen Independent Members who shall be appointed by the Council in accordance with the procedures prescribed in the Standing Orders. The Independent Members shall always form the majority of the membership of the Council;
3.2 Three Members of Academic Staff who shall be elected in accordance with the procedures prescribed in the Standing Orders;
3.3 Three Members of Non-Academic Staff who shall be elected in accordance with the procedures prescribed in the Standing Orders;

The Statutes also stipulate that a staff member of Council, academic or non-academic, must be elected to the position. It is an honour to be elected to Council by one’s peers, and the list of elected Council members includes many long standing and committed colleagues. Changing the Statutes to reduce staff representation and/or to change the method of selection would require the agreement of Privy Council, a process which will require money that could be better spent at this time.

The proposal put to Academic Board

The current number of academic staff seats on Council is three, as is the number of seats for non-academic staff members. The proposal argues that the membership of Council is too large and that we should reduce the academic and non-academic elected members from three per category to two per category. The proposal also argues that as independent members are appointed following an interview process, the same appointment process should be used for staff representatives.

It also suggests that moving to a process of appointment, “the candidate pool will widen, and Council will also be able to appoint members with skills which are required on Council”.

The concerns of some members of Academic Board

Retaining a robust representation of staff who provide education, engage in research, interact with students and conduct the core professional functions of the College is of fundamental importance to the effective consideration of the current and future success of this College. It is of vital importance that the student and staff experiences at RHUL be brought to forefront of the productive scrutiny of the governance of College. This is particularly key given the evolving COVID-19 context, with its challenging economic and welfare implications for current and future students and staff at Royal Holloway.

As members of Academic Board, we are particularly concerned that whilst focusing on maintaining financial viability, the University maintains high academic standards and matches them with prioritising the welfare of students and staff. Members of the Senior Management Team have, by definition, less contact with students and staff (except in a managerial role). Independent members of Council have many strengths, but they lack contact with key stakeholders of the College other than Senior Management.

The members of Council are collectively the charity trustees of the College, responsible for the good governance and management of the College; it is through Council that the powers of the College are executed and delegated. These include:

1.3 apply the principles of justice and fairness to employment policies and procedures;
1.4 promote equality of opportunity, diversity, dignity at work and good working relations.

Moreover the Council retains ultimate responsibility for all matters affecting the appointment, employment, remuneration, superannuation, and conditions of service of members of academic staff.

Changing the make-up of the Council and removing any elected staff element is a substantial change in our terms and conditions of employment. It is also a transformation in our relationship with the institution. All elements of the longstanding vision of staff, students and the Council as partners in a joint enterprise could thus be replaced by a narrow system of appointment.

We believe that the idea of moving from elected staff members to selective appointments is profoundly undemocratic. This change, and the reduction in the number of staff members on Council from 6 to 4, is likely to make the institution weaker rather than stronger, and render it less effective in serving the interests of its students and staff. Given that it was not long ago that the College was looking for “trusted staff” to ask questions in open staff meetings, we believe this strikes a worrying tone. If we truly want a harmonious appointment process for Council, it would be far better to consider the election of all independent members by staff and students. This would allow us to diversify our independent members.

What can you do if you are concerned about this proposal?

There is so little time before the Academic Board of 3 June 2020 that staff have only a very limited opportunity to discuss the proposal with colleagues on Academic Board. We are also clearly hampered as remote working means we no longer bump into colleagues on campus, which would normally allow for a more “natural” discussion of this proposal. Any colleagues with concerns on this matter may wish to email the Principal at Paul.Layzell at rhul.ac.uk so he is made aware of their reservations.

This article was submitted to RHUL-UCU for publication by concerned members of Academic Board.

A report from College Council

Prof. Elizabeth Schafer is Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway. She is a member of Royal Holloway’s College Council, elected by the academic teaching staff, and a Branch Committee member of Royal Holloway UCU.

I am pleased to report that at council on 21 February there was a very reasonable and thoughtful discussion of the issues behind the strike action.  I was impressed not only by the concern expressed by lay members – concern for students and all staff, academic and professional services – but also by the fact one lay member – I guess he better remain nameless – displayed such excellent insight and made so many constructive suggestions on possible ways forward I only wish he was running UUK!

It’s also good to hear this morning that some from the SMT and college exec are on strike – after all their pensions are suffering too – although one member of the SMT in crossing the picket line muttered ‘I’m too old for it to make any difference’.  Clearly the message that older, more fortunate academics should be striking in solidarity with, and on behalf of  younger less fortunate colleagues has not got through.