Cambridge University Reporter


Tuesday, 6 November 2007

A Discussion was held in the Newton Room of the Pitt Building. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Mrs Anne Lonsdale was presiding, with the Senior Proctor, the Junior Proctor, two Pro-Proctors, the Registrary, and eleven other persons present.

The following Reports were discussed:

Report of the Council, dated 22 October 2007, on governance: membership of the Council, etc. (p. 109).

Mr R. J. DOWLING (read by Mr R. J. STIBBS):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Members of Regent House, let us turn our attention to that unnumbered page in Statutes and Ordinances marked 'Historical Note'. It is neither a Statute nor an Ordinance, but instead precedes both and sets the context for all that follows. Within it we read that the Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars 'from time out of mind have had the government of their members.'

We are a self-governing body of scholars. That simple statement is a critical part of our identity and its erosion should be fought against.

The Council's Report, from which I have dissented, proposes increasing the number of external members from two to four. In itself, that might not be so bad if the four are selected carefully. The external members bring a different viewpoint on our problems which can be enlightening. Certainly they are politically useful and having only two of them constrains the use we can make of them.

But how do they square with our position as a self-governing body of scholars? The simplest approach for consistency is for that body of scholars to select them. We have boards of electors for professorships so a similar board would be a familiar mechanism here, so long as the body of scholars appoints those electors. We elect, in theory at least if not always in practice, members of Council from the Heads of House, from the Professors and Readers, and from the other members of Regent House. Why should we not have a direct involvement in the selection of externals?

If it is clear to Regent House that the external members of Council were appointed as nobody's cronies, then we can rest assured that the Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars still have 'the government of their members'.

Mr N. M. MACLAREN (read by Dr D. R. DE LACEY):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this Report makes very depressing reading. The Council, like the Bourbons, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Perhaps I should remind people of the Discussion of 11 March 2003, which was called by the Board of Scrutiny because of the widespread concern on governance issues. Almost nothing has changed since then. I could repeat many of the remarks I made on this topic in the Discussion of 4 November 2003 almost verbatim, but there is little point.

Paragraph 4 of this Report, in particular, leaves a very bad taste in one's mouth. Almost all of the comments on the method of appointment of external members related to the fact that they are effectively appointed by the Council, yet this paragraph implies precisely the opposite. Every single member of the Nominating Committee except for the chair is appointed by the Council (Statutes and Ordinances, p. 117) from a list consisting of the Council or people nominated by the Council (Statutes and Ordinances, p. 107).

Despite what will be claimed, most of us who will oppose this change are not opposed to an increase in external membership. Direct nomination and election by the Regent House may be too radical for this very conservative University, but the dissenters have proposed a workable compromise.

It is also very disturbing that a candidate pool of a couple of dozen people still nominates four members. Why should not the Heads of College membership be opened up to Bursars and Senior Tutors? That was narrowly rejected in the massive confusion of the multi-way vote, and it would be fair to expose the question to a straight yes-no vote.

Professor G. R. EVANS (read by Dr D. R. DE LACEY):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the Board of Scrutiny, whose Twelfth Report we were discussing a month ago, gave a cautious approval to the possibility of increasing the external membership of Council to no more than four. The present proposal is to leap to four at once. No mention is made in the Report of the imminence of a HEFCE Assurance visit or the determination of HEFCE to get all its ducks in a row by requiring all universities in England to move to governing bodies with a majority of external members. This seems a trifle disingenuous.

I am aware that Cambridge's senior administrators have been developing a strategy in the face of the disturbing news of HEFCE's recent behaviour towards Oxford and its refusal to accept the outcome of the free vote of Congregation not to move to a majority. The strategy is to offer HEFCE evidence that Cambridge is heading in the right direction, in the hope of avoiding a similar confrontation over its own Assurance visit. Remember Oxford already has four external members.

It may be timely to remind members of the Regent House what HEFCE said in its letter to Oxford's Vice-Chancellor in January 2007, shortly after the vote. 'It is a condition of grant that the University has a sound system of governance.' What does HEFCE consider a sound system of governance?

Under the recently rejected proposal the membership of Council would have fallen from 25 to 15 with seven internal members and seven lay, plus a lay chair. The adoption of this arrangement would have given Council a lay majority for the first time.

That is what HEFCE is after, nothing less. It is also going to insist in the end on the Council becoming the governing body, not the Regent House, if we let it. Whereas Cambridge's Statute A is quite clear that the Regent House is the governing body it is nowhere spelt out in the post-North Oxford statutes that Congregation is the governing body of the University of Oxford. The HEFCE letter to Oxford asserts: 'The University has accepted that its Council is its single governing body responsible for academic and strategic matters.'

It will want the equivalent conceded in Cambridge too in the end, along with the majority of externals and external chairmanship. So I am not confident that the present proposed titbit will satisfy HEFCE for long. It is hungrier than that. I have spelt out in a previous speech a month ago what is now happening in Oxford, the list of eight questions the University has to answer, HEFCE's insistence that it is going to keep coming back until it gets what it is demanding, the threat to withdraw public funding.

There is of course an argument which stands on its merits and is put forward in the Report:

… there is a recognized need for the participation of external members in the business of the Council and its Committees, and that the existing number of external members, two, does not enable the Council fully to benefit from the service of external members …

But is there not a prior question? The method of deployment of elected Council members on Council committees is a matter on which concerns have repeatedly been raised, at least since my own time as a member of Council. After each election newly elected members find this bewildering. A quick head-count of memberships of the most important University committees over the years always shows a clustering of powerful positions in relatively few hands. The way these decisions to appoint to committee are taken needs reviewing first, surely, and made a great deal more transparent? Only when the 'talent' on the Council as a whole is sensibly and fairly deployed can the question of the special magic 'externals' bring, with the dew of the outside world still beading their coats, be set in the context proposed.

If external representation is thought desirable for particular committees, it can be addressed as a question in its own right. Or is it suggested that external members of the Council are not on equal footing with other members of the Council elected by the Regent House, and somehow special?

I support the authors of the dissenting note in their expression of concern about the membership of a Nominating Committee. It is one of the major weaknesses of the provisions of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 which turned the former polytechnics into the universities which are statutory corporations, that their small governing bodies dominated by external members are self-perpetuating oligarchies. The closer Cambridge moves to that model the more important it will become to prevent appointment to the Council resembling that opaque process which ensures the same few remain in power on the major committees of the University. I end with a URL to reassure members of the Regent House that Congregation in Oxford is alive and well and taking charge:

Professor A. W. F. EDWARDS:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, by whose leave did the General Board cease to obey the statute that required it to meet four times a term? Who thought they had the authority to dispense the Board from the requirement that the Regent House, as governing body, enacted as recently as 1994 under the provisions of the 1923 Oxford and Cambridge Universities Act and approved by Her Majesty in Council?

The Universities and Colleges of Cambridge and Oxford are in the uniquely privileged position of being able to alter their own statutes at will under the provisions of the Act, subject only to the approval of Her Majesty in Council, never yet withheld, I believe. They are therefore under a particular obligation both to obey their statutes punctiliously and to adapt them to changing circumstances in timely fashion.

By neglecting to do either in this case, the Council brought itself into disrepute. According to the University Diary, the irregularity began eight years ago, in 1999. The Council has been repeatedly censured by the Board of Scrutiny for it. People ask 'Why should anyone obey a General Board ordinance when it does not even obey its own statute?'

Speaking as one who was three times a member of the General Board in the days when it met fortnightly, I can only say that it was then by far the most efficient and respected major body in the University. Two hours precisely, four times a term, on a Wednesday afternoon was not unduly onerous. On the alternate Wednesdays each member participated in one of the three major committees. The whole operation was smoothly run by a sequence of distinguished Secretaries General and a much-admired secretariat. Reports were signed and passed to the Council for publication in the Reporter on a strict timetable, the whole operation running like a Swiss railway. Now we are told only that the Board 'finds it appropriate for the efficient discharge of its business to meet approximately monthly'. But is it any better? Can anyone be found to come and say it is an improvement? And why does the draft statute specify 'term' instead of 'Full Term'? And why does the preamble not draw attention to this?

Fortnightly meetings replaced the original weekly meetings of both the Council and the General Board in 1973, after they had experimented with the arrangement during the preceding academic year. In the Discussion of the required change to the Council Statute A, IV, 9, Dr G. A. Reid, referring to the experiment, said 'Why not be frank about it and write that 'for the current academical year the Council chose, on an experimental basis, to ignore Statute A, IV, 9?'' Dr Reid went on 'There is a slackness in the University, Mr Vice-Chancellor-Designate, which does not enure to its benefit.'

I hope that the Council will instruct the Registrary to bring to its attention any further instances in which a statutory body is in breach of its obligations. And Boards, Syndicates, and other statutory bodies should alert the Council early to any proposal they may have for a change in their procedures so that it can be brought before the Regent House for Discussion and decision in good time. Good governance and good administration require nothing less.


Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak as President of the Cambridge University and College Union.

One of the concerns of the members of Council who signed the note of dissent to the Report under Discussion today was that members of Council in classes (b) and (c), for whom there are regular contested elections, would no longer be in the majority. This is a real concern.

But it is worse than that. At least potentially. If Council carries the day in the Regent House with this proposal to increase from two to four the number of members in class (e), the 'external members', it would meet statutory minimum requirements for Council to transact University business with only the following members present:

This might sound absurd - Council transacting University business with no practicing academics present and the four external members being the majority, and with not one single member present who was actually elected by, and therefore directly accountable to, the Regent House1 - but it could happen.2

Statutes and Ordinances could end up permitting this mockery of the principle of self-government,3 Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, but we most certainly should not.

1 Only members in classes (a), (b), and (c) are elected by the Regent House. The Vice-Chancellor and the members in class (e), the external members, are appointed by Grace of Council, and the members in class (d) are elected from and by the student body. See Statutes and Ordinances, Statute A, IV.

2 Statutes and Ordinances, Statute A, IV, 10: 'No business shall be transacted at a meeting unless seven members at least are present'.

3 Statutes and Ordinances, Statute A, III, 1: 'The Regent House shall be the governing body of the University'.


Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I was one of those members of Council who signed the Note of Dissent.

When the issue of external members on Council arose a few years ago my initial reaction was that the University was perfectly capable of governing itself without outside interference. The late Roger Needham persuaded me that there was a strong case to answer, and experience suggests that the right externals (in moderation) can enhance the deliberations of Council, and so improve the governance of the University.

However, for any external there is a steep learning curve, since although our procedures may well be on the whole correct, some of them are peculiar to Oxbridge (and in a number of cases Cambridge alone). Someone who is not inherently sympathetic to our model of governance of a bottom-up organization could rapidly become frustrated (as events in the last year at a certain College seem to confirm).

If the number of externals on Council is to increase, then the mechanism of appointment should have checks and balances. We do not wish to end up with an external who brings in lawyers (Carter-Ruck no less), to demand an apology from a Head of House who was a fellow committee member (as happened at the other place last year). At present Oxford's Council nominates its externals. It is now following our precedent in setting up a Nominations Committee, but a Nominations Committee that is not independent of Council stands the risk of becoming a cipher of Council.

Further, a committee that works effectively under a benign regime, may not have the necessary checks and balances under another. Last time out the University's Nominating Committee for externals consisted of equal numbers of externals and internals including one Dame, fours Knights, and three Vice-Chancellors (although recent honours would add one Peer and another Dame to that list). While in some respects Cambridge ought to be grateful that it can field such a distinguished committee, the committee does have the slight whiff of establishment. The establishment does not necessarily make an easy bed-fellow for the proletariat. In particular it is not immediately clear to me that Vice-Chancellors from other universities will fully appreciate why our Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars 'from time out of mind have had the government of their members'.

If the University is to share power with externals, for that is what we are Discussing, then those externals should be nominated by a committee with members who are not on Council and who are directly elected by the Regent House. If we need externals on the Nominating Committee then they should be elected by the Regent House, and if external Vice-Chancellors or others are not willing to stand, then so be it.

Joint Report of the Council and the General Board, dated 22 October and 10 October 2007, on a Gender Equality Policy (p. 111).

Mr N. M. MACLAREN (read by Dr D. R. DE LACEY):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, at the risk of perpetrating a cliché, this policy is clearly the moral equivalent of motherhood and apple pie. But the Sex Discrimination Act is now 32 years old, and the Equal Pay Act is older.

At a recent meeting of the Triple Helix on the topic of women in science, there were some very interesting talks. One was by a Cambridge professor, and said that the problems were not overt and explicit sexual discrimination, but indirect, and impacted on many men as well. I can witness that she was right.

My remarks on the Disability Equality Policy in the Discussion of 9 October apply with just as much force here, but I shall not bore you by repeating them. We may need a policy for political reasons, but effective action will need an improvement to the University's management structure, as well as some way of resolving minor problems with minimal conflict, including when the Head of Institution is reluctant to act or even is a part of the problem.

Report of the General Board, dated 10 October 2007, on the re-establishment of a Royal Society Professorship of Astronomy (p. 112).

No comments were made on this Report.