Skip to main contentCambridge University Reporter

No 6187

Thursday 6 May 2010

Vol cxl No 28

pp. 789–812

Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

A Discussion was held in the Senate-House. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dr J. Barnes was presiding, with the Registrary’s Deputy, the two Proctors, a Pro-Proctor, and thirty-six other persons present.

The following Reports were discussed:

1. Report of the Council, dated 15 March 2010, on amendments to Statute A (membership of the Senate and election of student members of the Council) (Reporter, p. 660).

Dr N. A. Dodgson:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak to the proposed changes to Statute A, I: the review of membership criteria for the Senate.

If I may be permitted to use management-speak in the Senate-House, it seems to me that this Report is trying to get all its ducks lined up in a row while ignoring the elephant in the room. The elephant is the Senate. And it is a white elephant: something that was once useful but which we now keep only as a memento of times past. Indeed, like many a white elephant, it is not clear whether we could actually get it to work again if we ever did need it. Perhaps the Council could consider abolishing the Senate, rather than trying to patch it up.

If that is unpalatable, then let us look at those ducks: the various Master’s Degrees. The Report tries to get them in a row so that all of them are treated the same. But these ducks are not all the same: one of them is a duck-billed platypus, a very different creature and a relic of another age. I mean, of course, our venerable M.A. Degree. The Report assures us that the M.Eng., M.Sci., M.Math., M.A.St., like the M.Phil., all conform to the descriptors of the Quality Assurance Agency for a Master’s Degree and therefore all should be treated alike. But the M.A. most assuredly does not conform to those descriptors. Every degree at Cambridge, other than the M.A., is now a certificate awarded for passing an examination. Only the M.A. requires that no examination be passed to get it, though retaining its purpose as an indicator of status, of ‘degree’, within the University. We, at Cambridge, understand this; we like the M.A.; it is nice to award it to our B.A. graduates when they return after three years’ absence, and it is nice to offer it to our senior administrators. But, to the outside world, it is an anomaly. Most people outside Oxbridge do not understand our M.A., many find it offensive that we should award a degree for doing nothing more than being able to breathe for three years, and, if we go back far enough in our own history, even we did not originally hand it out for nothing: it was originally awarded for three years of proper postgraduate study.1 It is only a matter of time before our M.A. spawns a PR disaster. Perhaps it is time, instead, for us to acknowledge that the rest of the world has moved on, and to align ourselves, reluctantly, with a world that believes that a degree should only be awarded for academic achievement.

I ask the Council to consider these two alternatives to the proposal in the Report. I assume, however, that the Council will be unwilling to abolish either the Senate or the M.A. Degree. I accept that they are both useful, at least, in alumni relations. I did, therefore, spend some time considering whether the current proposal is optimal. It does seem anomalous that an M.Phil. or M.A.St. student requires only one year to proceed from matriculation to membership of the Senate, while everyone else requires at least three years. An alternative would be to standardize on the basis of time elapsed since matriculation. Let the holder of a Bachelor’s Degree become a member of the Senate six years after matriculation, and the holder of a Master’s Degree become a member three years after matriculation. But, on reflection, this alternative is just fiddling at the margins. The Senate is such a non-functional body that it barely matters who is allowed membership and the Report’s proposal is sufficient to address the perceived inequities.


  • 1A history of the University of Cambridge, Vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, p. 22.

Mr M. V. Lucas-Smith:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the Report before us makes a correction to a mistake in the Statutes, which is a welcome one, concerning students’ representation on the University Council. However there remains a more fundamental issue relating to the system of election of student members of Council, namely that it ignores the University’s Students Union, making, in my view, a mockery of student representation.

By way of declaration of interests, I should state that I was a Sabbatical Officer of Cambridge University Students Union back in 2000, and I currently undertake some web development work in a private capacity for the same body. However, the views I express now are entirely my own. Indeed, these are views I have long held and I welcome the opportunity at long last to express them in a Discussion.

Cambridge University Students Union has been recognized by the University now for over 25 years. Indeed, it is regulated by the University under sections 20–22 of the Education Act 1994.1 This is arguably an unusual piece of legislation in that imposes obligations relating to proper conduct of the students union on the host university rather than the students union itself.

It is clear that CUSU is classed as a students union under the Act, as the legislation defines such a body as being made up of the ‘generality of students’ (who in Cambridge are all students who have not opted out of membership) as well as ‘constituent or affiliated associations or bodies which are themselves students’ unions’ (which in Cambridge’s case are the Student Associations in each College, namely the JCRs and MCRs).

CUSU thus exists as a representative body of students that is recognized by the University and in law. The University undertakes regulation through the Proctors whose role is often an ultimate arbiter in the case of disputes within the Students Union. There is no other body in this position in the University, although the Graduate Union is analogous in some respects. Although CUSU may have its faults – some of which are an inherent result of its structure in a collegiate system – it is unambiguously the representative body of all students, and the structure best placed to represent an informed student view, including both undergraduate and graduate voices, and to consult with students.

And so it is thus odd that this structure, recognized in law as the voice of students, is entirely ignored on Council, one of the two central bodies that have any real power in the University, other than the Regent House, of course. Instead, student representatives on Council are elected by direct election. This election is an obscure election that gets less than one-third of the turnout of the CUSU elections, and is merely about name recognition rather than a result of any debate or publicity.

We owe it to the students who come to live and work in the University and Colleges to give them an effective voice in Council. Students often have distinct and useful views which we should listen to and take heed of. The voices of students were important in the debate over the closure of Architecture. The voices of students are important in the current questions over the provision of a sports centre in West Cambridge. The voices of students over several decades have resulted in many improvements to student-related procedures and processes in the University.

However, the current state of affairs in my view has the effect of marginalizing student views by making them less effective than they should be. Why have a structure called a students union and then ignore it? It is my understanding that other universities include representatives of their constituent students unions on their main governing councils, so it is not as if there is not precedent elsewhere.

It is my contention that the University should make use of its official students union representatives in Council. Student representatives should in my view be placed ex-officio, or the next best, having direct elections for these positions organized by the Students Union (which would still mean University regulation, by virtue of existence of the Proctorial regulation).

It has been argued that this would mean that those wishing to be involved in University Council would have to give up a year to become a sabbatical officer. But this need not be the case: there are three student representatives on Council, and not all need to be ex-officio sabbatical posts. But to deny the Students Union president a formal position on Council, when he or she is the best person to know what students think, is to marginalize Students Union structures.

What deficiencies result from direct election of a student rather than treating this as a position from within the representative student body?

Firstly, the ability to consult in any meaningful sense with other students. How is an individual student with no institutional backup able to find out the views of a student population of over 20,000 people? The Students Union, by comparison, has a range of structures that enable students to debate and come to a collective conclusion on a whole range of issues. Key amongst these structures is CUSU Council, consisting of representatives of every JCR and MCR, plus additionally Faculty representatives, most of whom then consult with their own constituencies. Thus this body is thus well set up to gain cross-University student views.

Secondly, the issue of having time to research the issues fully. If one of the three positions were allocated to the Students Union president, then there is a much greater ability for the representative to get to grips with the content and implications of the papers under discussion, which I understand are often numerous and long.

Thirdly, it is arguable that the current system of election to University Council gives little in the way of any sort of genuine mandate. Turnout for the University Council elections is less than one third of the Students Union elections. There has consistently been an approximation to zero in terms of coverage of candidates for the University Council elections in terms of student media coverage or even manifestos, for as long as I can recall. By contrast, the Students Union elections result in newspaper, radio, social networking, poster, blog, and all kinds of coverage, not to mention hustings, debates, and so on. This results in a much bigger turnout and awareness of what the candidates actually believe in. By contrast, the University Council elections have effectively become a vote for a list of names that people may have heard of through the CUSU election coverage. It would be hard to argue with any seriousness that voters for University Council have any idea what they are voting for in the University Council elections.

Fourthly, an individual student has little ability to publicize issues to other students, or even to let them know how they have voted.

Fifthly, there is a lack of institutional memory, which is important in a University running on often long timescales and ancient structures. By contrast, the Students Union has records, structures, permanent staff, and policies having a three-year lifespan, that enable at least some institutional memory to be maintained.

Sixthly and lastly, the ability for an individual student to back up work going on in other committees is very limited. There is thankfully student representation on many other committees – most of which use ex-officio posts that seem to work well as far as I can tell. An individual student on University Council could easily and arbitrarily undo months or years of hard work of Students Union efforts in other committees – efforts which are backed up by decisions of its representative body – by using wrecking tactics in Council. (I should add I am not pointing to any specific instance, but the potential nonetheless exists.)

Having a student who is basically an individual has in my view no real ability to offer any kind of genuine University-wide student view in any meaningful sense. The current situation suits the University administration by creating a structure that results in a less effective and pliant student voice – by allowing the existence of a students union but then ignoring it where it matters most.

There has been an interesting debate on these issues on the ucam.change.governance newsgroup, and I urge members of the Regent House to read and join in this debate.

Lastly, I have sometimes argued that CUSU could side-step this whole issue and force the University’s hand, by simply stating that its president shall be the winner of the University Council elections – which would result in people standing on that basis. Effectively this would reverse the direction of placement. However, this workaround though is not an entirely satisfactory situation. Instead, I would prefer the University to recognize its Students Union directly in this key part of decision-making where it matters most.

Thus I urge consideration by the central bodies of this question.

Dr J. S. Myers:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I should like to thank the Council for addressing an issue I raised in Discussion on 20 January 2009 (Reporter, 2008–09, p. 458).

Statute A, I, 6(c), concerning membership of the Senate, is referenced in Statute K, 3(h), defining the term in statu pupillari and specifying that the holder of ‘a degree which qualifies the holder for membership of the Senate under Statute A, I, 6(c)’ shall not be considered in statu pupillari. Many graduate students hold the Master’s Degrees resulting from four-year undergraduate courses, and so the proposed amendment will cause them not to be in statu pupillari.

The existence of graduate students not in statu pupillari is certainly nothing new, and has not so far seemed to cause any substantial problems in practice, but perhaps the increase in their number caused by the present amendment indicates that it would be timely to review the definition of in statu pupillari, and the uses to which it is put in Statutes and Ordinances, to see whether they continue to be appropriate. For example, the Ordinances for the Graduate Union (Statutes and Ordinances, p. 193) define the Union as ‘an association of members of the University in statu pupillari’, thereby seemingly excluding students holding any Master’s Degree under the proposed amendment. (The Graduate Union Constitution does not itself use the problematic term; the issue lies in Ordinances.)

Mr S. R. Wakeford:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, by way of declaration of interest I should say that I have been elected a student member of Council for the next academic year. The amendments to Statute A regarding the election of student members of the Council that are recommended in this Report are necessary corrections, and I do not stand here to disagree with them. CUSU is extremely disappointed, however, that the opportunity has not been taken to address the substantive inadequacies in the current arrangements regarding student membership of the Council, alluded to earlier by a previous speaker.

With considerable effort, CUSU organizes University-wide elections each year that, in a fair and regulated manner, provide students with an enormous range of opportunities to investigate, question, and engage with candidates through College hustings, broadcast debates, as well as campaign literature that is heavily advertised online and widely distributed in print. We provide the opportunity to vote on paper or online, at students’ convenience, and it is through these elections that the student body is able to make an informed choice of its principle elected representatives, principally the President. Turnout is in the thousands, and the current sabbatical team were elected on a national record turnout of over a fifth of the entire student body.

Rather than respecting the results of this election in determining the student representatives on Council, however, the University runs its own duplicate for this. No advance publicity exists beyond the publication of notices in Reporter, there is no significant distribution of campaign material online or in print, there are no hustings; in short, there is no meaningful opportunity for students to learn enough about candidates to make informed decisions. Voting is only possible on paper and within a very limited timeframe, and turnout this year was only in the hundreds – about four per cent of the student body, down from only six per cent last year. Colleges are left to run their own ballot boxes, which is an unwelcome and inconvenient demand on students’ time at a very busy time of the academic year, and also resulted this year in there being several Colleges in which students had no opportunity to vote at all.

These concerns have been raised repeatedly by CUSU and College student officers over a number of years, as a previous speaker has demonstrated. The Council’s Standing Advisory Committee on Student Matters has considered the issue at length this academic year and recognized that the current position is unsatisfactory. We are grateful that the University-run election was brought forward from Easter Full Term this academic year, which made it somewhat less inconvenient. To address the fundamental issues, however, a change to Statute A is required in addition to changes to Ordinance. We are disappointed that no proposals of such changes have been forthcoming. CUSU hopes that the Council will expedite these changes in addition to those in the current Report.

2. Report of the Council, dated 15 March 2010, on the construction of a new Student Resources Centre building for the Department of Veterinary Medicine (Reporter, p. 662).

No remarks were made on this Report.

3. Report of the Council, dated 22 March 2010, on the construction of a lift in the Old Schools (Reporter, p. 676)

Mr R. J. Dowling:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Regents, this is a disgraceful Report. Originally there was a fuss about a lift. A Grace was proposed by 79 Regents of the University regarding it. Following that, the Council of the University of Cambridge could have proceeded in one of two ways.

It could have debated the issue. It could have made the argument that, regardless of what possible errors of process or ill-advised actions there had been, the financial costs of reversal were too great. We could have had a rational debate about principles versus costs. We could have talked about it.

Alternatively the Council could have attempted to suppress the issue. At an institution that claims to uphold the right of argument no matter how unpopular the opinion, they could have tried to stop that rational debate.

To its eternal shame Council took the latter option and elected to suppress the original Grace signed by the University’s Regents.

This Discussion is not about a lift any more. The title of the Report, while inevitable, is misleading. The original Grace, signed by more than fifty Regents – literally the rulers – of the University, was about the lift. This Report is about suppressing the Regent House’s right to force that Discussion.

In its response to this Discussion Council may choose to permit the original Grace to proceed. I’m not optimistic. Having allowed criticism to start with the building of the lift, Council seems unable to face up to that criticism and instead has chosen to compound its problems by sticking its fingers in its ears and singing la-la-la very loudly hoping this troublesome incident will just go away. Regrettably, I expect the Regent House will have to force the issue with another round of signatures.

The University’s Regent House is established in Chapter III of Statute A. Its first paragraph reads simply, and in totality: ‘The Regent House shall be the governing body of the University.’ Council seems to need reminding of this fact.

Dr S. C. Wimbush:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this is no longer a discussion about a lift, nor in my view has it ever been. The question of how it could come about that a lift should be installed within the University Combination Room – the room most clearly designated for the use and enjoyment of members of the Regent House – against the wishes of that very Regent House was merely the scratch that revealed the underlying rot, which is to say the misappropriation of authority in this University from the Regent House via a pusillanimous Council to an insolent Administrative Service. I emphasise ‘Service’ while noting the vain and regrettable recent trend towards restyling as ‘Offices’.

With its latest act, the Council now exposes that rot to the harsh scrutiny of a far wider audience than might have concerned itself with the matter of a lift. Having backed itself gradually into a corner, an infuriatingly obstinate Council now takes the unprecedented and treasonous step of attempting to suppress the dissenting voice of the Regent House altogether! Already divided, the remaining Council members who support this absurd and offensive act would do well to remind themselves that they hold their office by consent of the same Regent House that they seek to usurp.

The Council raises the vulgar matter of cost in attempting to shield its iniquitous mishandling of these proceedings. The Council should be reminded that it was its own failure to adequately communicate its intentions to the Regent House prior to commencement of works that has caused any costs at all to be incurred, and that it has had ample opportunity to suspend works at a state of minimal cost pending the resolution of these discussions. Instead it has chosen to forge ahead with its misguided actions while subverting the proper decision-making procedures of the University until, it hopes, it will be able to claim that the job is done, and that it would be foolishness to undo it having brought it already to completion. This increasingly desperate and deceitful behaviour shall not slip by unremarked, but shall instead be highlighted as the only possible reason for its recent course of action. The Council is reminded that by its own fallacious argument, these ‘minor works’ are of insignificant cost, unworthy of the concern of the Regent House – a fact that applies as much to the undoing as to the doing. How interesting that this Council in its confusedness of mind can simultaneously hold and attempt to promulgate two contradictory viewpoints in the same Discussion!

If the cost of restoring the absolute authority of the Regent House in this University, and at the same time restoring the unblemished stature of the University Combination Room, is to be in excess of half a million pounds, then that is a small price to pay. Let the squandered funds be a lesson in humility to those who have done wrong in this matter. The Regent House – not the Council and most certainly not the Administrative Service – shall be the governing body of this University.

Professor A. W. F. Edwards:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this Report, it has been noted, has a misleading title. It is not about the construction of a lift in the Old Schools. It were better headed ‘Report of the Council on withholding a Grace initiated by 79 members of the Regent House in accordance with Statute A, VIII, 7’. In paragraph 8 the Council is claiming to be advising the Regent House that it would not be a prudent use of resources to remove the lift, yet in paragraph 12 it is proposing to prevent the Regent House taking a decision in the light of that advice. The advice is in any case premature. Its proper place is in a Council flysheet at the time of the vote on the Regent House Grace.

It is a plain abuse of power for the Council to propose withholding submission of a Regent House Grace using Statute A, VIII, 9(a)(ii) just because it advises against it. If it could do that there would be no point in Statute A, VIII, 7. The give-away is the word ‘therefore’ in paragraph 12: ‘The Council therefore recommends’, showing brazenly that its reason for withholding submission is indeed none other than the argument it has presented against removing the lift. As the signatories of the Note of Dissent correctly pointed out, this is not an admissible reason. Many others have said the same, publicly and privately.

Statute A, VIII was contained in the Third Report of the Statutes and Ordinances Revision Syndicate in 1993, where its purpose was clearly set out. The membership of the Syndicate at that time was Mr David Yale, Reader in Legal History and later honorary QC (Chairman), Professor John Baker, a former Proctor and now Sir John Baker, QC, Downing Professor of the Laws of England, Dr Gordon Johnson, a former Proctor and now President of Wolfson College, Professor Patrick Collinson, Regius Professor of History, Dr Trevor Lamb, later Professor of Neuroscience and FRS, Miss Diane Dawson, a member of the General Board, and me, a former Proctor and later Professor of Biometry. Nearly all had been members of the Council. The Draftsman, Mr H. J. Easterling, was secretary, and the Registrary, Dr S. G. Fleet, usually attended.

The Syndicate was required to draft an Oxford-style procedure for allowing 50 or more members of the Regent House to initiate a Grace, which would, of course, only happen if the Regent House, as governing body, wished for a vote on a Grace that the Council was not prepared to submit itself. The Report argued that in order to avoid having to give the Regent House its own administrative procedure for submitting such a Grace it would be preferable to use the existing Council procedure, with the understanding that this was for convenience only and not an invitation for the Council to withhold the Grace. I think this was the Draftsman’s suggestion.

But of course the Syndicate then had to guard against the possibility of a Council abusing the procedure and withholding submission without just cause (such as the Grace no longer being necessary for some reason), and it therefore left the ultimate decision firmly in the hands of the Regent House. That is, if the Council wants to withhold submission it has to get the approval of the Regent House by way of a Report giving an acceptable reason. Today’s Report gives no such reason.

The Council now has a simple choice. Its recommendation is unwise, and if put as a Grace would constitute an abuse of power. It can put its Grace and be remembered as the Council that knowingly chose to abuse the Statutes (perhaps for the first time in the century and a half of the Council’s existence), or it can put the Regent House Grace and be remembered as the Council whose majority were intelligent enough to see, as a result of this Discussion, that its minority members were correct.

If the Council cannot bring itself to do the latter, then the Regent House must emphatically reject the Council Grace. Not to do so would create a precedent that to all intents and purposes would give Cambridge a Council answerable to no-one, as in universities that have charters. This University would no longer be (in the words of the preamble to the Statutes) ‘a corporation by prescription consisting of a Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars who from time out of mind have had the government of their members and enjoyed the privileges of such a corporation’. Such a Council without a corresponding academic Senate is the worst possible form of university government. And how could the Regent House insist on creating an academic Senate against the wishes of an omnipotent Council if it had once allowed a Council to veto a 50-member Grace?

For this Council to submit its Grace would be an abuse; for the Regent House to approve it would be suicide.

Dr P. A. Linehan:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, we are regularly warned these days of difficult times in store. In years to come administrators who make a mess of things will be only too anxious to continue stumbling on into the Valley of Death on the grounds that the expense of doing otherwise would be even more damaging. And they will be able to point to the present case as precedent.

The determination with which the Council has welded itself to this confounded lift is scandalous: no less so indeed than its high-handed readiness to ride roughshod over our – and their – rules and regulations.

The Council’s appetite for government by decree is now well whetted. Members of the Regent House will need to keep a close eye on the development of the present issue. Either that, or to resign themselves to waking up one fine day to find the University being ruled by emergency legislation of the Council’s own devising.

All that is needed, Madam Deputy, is for enough good men to remain silent.

Professor G. R. Evans:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, can anything persuade the Council to bend down and pick up this gauntlet that it has thrown down and tip-toe away hiding its blushes before the Regent House accepts its challenge and there has to be a fight?

This is a matter where the Vice-Chancellor could certainly take a lead, so that the most visible legacy of her period in office does not become an ugly intrusion in the corner of a beautiful fifteenth-century room.

Let me quote what the Vice-Chancellor said in her Gomes Lecture in February:

An important university is – and must be – simultaneously a community of scholars and a very big organization, with operating and capital budgets well in excess of a billion pounds annually in the case of Cambridge, and substantial assets and liabilities. Scholars make discoveries through independent enquiry, informed by debate and argument within the scholarly community. That modality does not work well for the conduct of many of the affairs of a big organization. The resulting tension is recognized in Cambridge: the community of scholars delegates operational authority to individuals, and it also makes decisions by ‘democratic means’ – voting.1

The Vice-Chancellor is not here to preside at this Discussion and respond in person on the record, but as Chairman of the Council she will be in a position to influence the content of the Notice in reply. It is understood that she gave a strong lead in encouraging the Council to publish the Report we are now discussing, so she could certainly lead a rethink now. The Report before us today should not have been seen by the Council as a vote of confidence in the Vice-Chancellor. That way lies the subtle consolidation of a Chief Executive Vice-Chancellorship which was rejected by the Regent House in Cambridge’s governance battles of a few years ago. And even if they snap their fingers at that, Council’s members would be wise to consider the HEFCE-approved CUC guidelines about their responsibility to act as a check on the executive power of a Vice-Chancellor.

I see that five of the ‘elected’ members of Council contributed a Dissenting Note. They remembered their duty to uphold the Statutes. They said:

Statute A, VIII, 9(a)(ii) authorizes the Council to block a ‘50-member’ Grace where there are good reasons, such as if the Grace could not legally be implemented or is out of time. The Report that recommended such Graces said ‘the Syndicate envisage that the Council’s authorization would be withheld only on very rare occasions’. We do not think the reasons given in this Report for withholding authorization in this case are admissible reasons.

The Vice-Chancellor sought in her lecture to make a ‘modal’ distinction between the running of ‘a very big organization, with operating and capital budgets well in excess of a billion pounds annually in the case of Cambridge, and substantial assets and liabilities’, and the part played by its academics. She seemed to be saying that ‘debate and argument within the scholarly community’ is a ‘modality’ that ‘does not work well for the conduct of many of the affairs of a big organization’. So (I do wish she was here to put me right), she appeared to be suggesting in her Gomes Lecture that administration of the organization with its huge financial responsibilities not only ought to be left, but could safely be left to the Unified Administrative Service.

But surely that is a safe position only if the administrative arm does not make expensive mistakes?

The only time I recall a Vice-Chancellor actually presiding at a Discussion in recent generations ‘because of the significance of the issues raised … and the implications that they carry for the future governance of the University’ was the CAPSA Inquiry Discussion, held on 27 November 2001, before the assembled press who had been invited to the Discussion and lunched beforehand in the Combination Room by the Press Office. The Vice-Chancellor not only presided but made an opening speech. Are memories so short that we have all forgotten about that particular administrative ‘mistake’ with its huge financial consequences?

One of the recommendations of the Shattock part of the CAPSA Inquiry was the enlargement of the UAS, and it has been remarked more than once in this place that that has been going on apace recently. But it is admitted in the Report we are discussing that that expansion of the administrative workforce has not prevented mistakes, that ‘arrangements could indeed be improved’.

In the Report I can hear echoes of the fallacious arguments of the MicrocosmographiaAcademica. First there is the ploy of taking an immensely long time and then answering a different question from the one asked. ‘The Council regrets that the process by which the decision to proceed with the lift was taken led to controversy’. But we will not rectify what we did wrong. We will just promise to be more careful next time.

Next we have the Good Businessman argument that because we have mis-spent a vast amount of money, questions of financial prudence now arise. If the 50-member Grace were to be put and approved, it is claimed, it would involve ‘expenditure from University funds additional to those already authorized’. This line of argument would surely allow almost any 50-member Grace to be stopped in its tracks, except that it is not for the Finance Committee or the Council ultimately to approve the additional expenditure but the Regent House, and the Regent House must therefore be given its chance, with the Council putting its ‘financial’ case in a flysheet if it chooses, not in a blocking Report.

Then there is the argument that the expenditure so far would be ‘abortive’ (who wrote this inexact piece of prose?) if the lift were removed and the damage made good. ‘The total abortive cost of the lift installation and reinstatement to original condition would be £352,000’. Wasted, they mean. But this expenditure, it will be remembered, was deliberately increased when it became obvious that it might be wasted, after a Discussion on a Topic of Concern to the University had been called; indeed work on the lift was restarted immediately before the Discussion was held. It was further deliberately increased when work was carried on in defiance of concerns raised at that Discussion. It was increased again by carrying on regardless when a 79-member Grace was placed in the Registrary’s hands. If the work had been stopped when it became apparent that the ‘arrangements’ had gone wrong and that the Regent House was getting angry, the sum of money ‘aborted’ would be considerably less.

When the Regent House delegates powers it is not relieved of the responsibilities it has delegated. By making this extraordinary blockading move in the present Report, the Council, led by a Vice-Chancellor who began her period of office on the heels of the Regent House decision not to turn the office into a Chief Executive post, has done what is famously the most foolish thing, the thing experienced administrators in the Old Schools in the old days would tell you they avoided at all costs. What is this folly? It is to wake up the Regent House from its gentle slumber. It is to set the ancient democracy of the University of Cambridge at nought, sniggering in its face. It is to say ‘we will do what we like and if what we do turns out to be unconstitutional or silly or aesthetically unacceptable we will still do what we like, and if you try to exercise the powers the constitution gives you and act like the governing body you are, we shall not take a blind bit of notice. We are the Management and you should confine yourselves to your nice little scholarly activities. Don’t argue with us. We have a big organization to manage with “operating and capital budgets well in excess of a billion pounds annually”’. The Regent House is quite a big beast when it gets its dander up and I shall be disappointed in its dander if it is not up now.

I won’t say this is no longer about the lift. The lift is still of great importance. But it is now about much more than the lift. If there is never any accountability for serious mistakes made by senior figures they will never learn. I do not mean initial errors made in good faith of course. I mean ignoring constitutional challenge and trying to beat it down rather than admit fault and take the consequences. After CAPSA one or two heads did eventually roll. But of course if the Management gets away with this it will become unchallengeable by the Regent House and no more heads will roll, whatever culpable cock-ups occur. We might as well get the Vice-Chancellor’s words in her Gomes Lecture engraved in tasteful capitals over the entrance to the lift straight away. Shouldn’t cost much.


  • 1Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor, The 12th Gomes Lecture, 12 February 2010

Professor C. F. Forsyth:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, there is a preliminary but important point. This dispute over the lift in the Combination Room is not about access to the Combination Room by the disabled. Whatever the outcome of this dispute access to the Combination Room for those unable to use the stairs will be secured. It is true, of course, that it is the University’s obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 that led the Old Schools to decide to build the lift. But the Disability Discrimination Act does not require the University to build this lift in this place. The Act only requires (s. 21) the making of adjustments that are reasonable in all the circumstances of the case to secure access for the disabled. This leaves the University with a wide choice of methods whereby it complies with the Act. There are several alternative sites for the lift none of which are as intrusive as the one chosen. If we succeed in stopping the current plans a lift will be constructed in one of the alternative sites. The objectors to the lift take second place, if I may speak for all of them, to no one in their desire to see proper arrangements made for access to the Combination Room by those unable to use the stairs.

Now to the dispute itself. It starts with an aesthetic judgment. When it became apparent last September that a lift was being constructed in the University Combination Room regular users of the room were shocked. The lift, it seemed, would dominate and despoil the Combination Room, the ancient heart of the University. This many felt should be resisted because, apart from this Senate-House which is magnificent and in a category of its own, the University Combination Room is the most beautiful and elegant room in the University (not including the Colleges). Views will of course inevitably differ on aesthetic issues but this sense of shock and outrage was pretty universal amongst users of the room with whom I had contact.

That shock deepened when it emerged that no user of the room had been consulted, no member of the Regent House had been consulted, and no Grace had been sought approving the construction. The Council, it seems, nodded through the approval of the lift without any substantive consideration of its merits or whether a Grace was required. It was barely aware of what it was doing. No one was alert to the aesthetic reasons. No one was alert to Regent House opinion. It may be that the decision squeaks within the letter of the Statutes – as an ‘insubstantial’ alternation – but it is not within their spirit. Whatever else might be the case this decision was an example of bad government.

So what was to be done? The disquiet within the Regent House was first raised with the Old Schools in September last year, the Discussion on a Topic of Concern, following petition by members of the Regent House, took place on 10 November. At that Discussion strongly critical views were expressed by many Regents.

By November then it was as plain as a pikestaff, that unless the Council was prepared to compromise, there was only one way in which this matter could be legitimately resolved. And that was by a vote of the Regent House … which is, as others have pointed out, the Governing Body of the University.

It would have been so sensible and so easy for the Council in November (or even October) to submit a Grace to the Regent House seeking approval for the construction. If the Regent House did not approve the construction of the lift, alternative and inoffensive plans could have been made and the wasted expenditure would have been modest. If the Regent House did approve the construction of the lift then the objectors would have had to accept the patently legitimate decision with good grace and learn to live with the lift. Was there no wise counsel urging this course? Or if there was, why was such good advice not followed?

Instead we have the sorry saga that has followed with the majority of the divided Council seeking every opportunity to delay the moment of truth when it must allow the Regent House to vote. Astoundingly ‘the lift’ was first formally considered by the Council on 18 January 2010 more than four months after it had become clear that there was serious concern in the Regent House about it. Surely it is reasonable to ask that concerns of this kind are dealt with in a less sclerotic manner…

What became clear on 18 January too was that the Council was divided and a small majority insisted on pressing ahead with the construction. The Governing Body of the University is the right place to resolve divisions in the Council. And this division in the Council shows again with clarity that it is right to bring the matter before the Regent House for decision. It is the only legitimate way in which it can be resolved. Again the early submission of the Grace (now insisted upon by seventy-nine members of the Regent House) would have minimized wasted expenditure and brought the matter to a legitimate conclusion. But the majority pressed ahead with construction and delayed the day of reckoning.

And now the majority of the Council has opted to make this Report to the Regent House seeking the House’s approval for their decision not to submit the 50-member Grace. Of course, the only way – and fortunately the Statutes make this crystal clear – in which the Regent House can approve anything, including the recommendations in this wretched Report, is by Grace … so there is no escape from a Grace. The majority of the Council will have to let us vote! True we will be voting on whether the 50-member Grace should be submitted not on the Grace itself but I venture to suggest that no member of the Regent House will be found who would have voted for the removal of the lift, but being unable to do that is going to vote for the approval of this Report! So little other than delay in facing the Regent House has been, or ever could have been, achieved by this Report.

Now what is to be said about this Report? To be frank, it barely defends the decision to build the lift. There is really only one argument in it, viz, that a significant sum of money will be wasted if the lift, by now effectively complete, is demolished and replaced with an inoffensive construction. Of course, as others have pointed out, this argument could readily be made in a flysheet opposing the approval of the 50-member Grace … and that is where it should have been made. There seems to be absolutely nothing in the Report that could stand as a proper reason for not submitting the 50-member Grace … disagreeing with it is not enough!

But there is an answer to the argument over wasted cost. And it is simply to ask, who is responsible for all that wasted expenditure? As others have pointed out, the Old Schools and the majority of Council delayed for so long before considering the concern over the lift and then, knowing that the matter would be taken to a vote of the Regent House, persisted in the construction. It is that wholly inadequate response to the concerns of a significant part of this House that has maximized the cost of setting this folly right. The responsibility for the waste of money then lies squarely with the Old Schools and the majority of Council.

But the true cost to the University of this sorry saga is much greater than the money that may be wasted in removing this lift. It lies in the loss of goodwill and loss of trust in the University’s institutions of government and in the damage done to the University’s reputation. The instinctive understanding by all concerned of the University’s constitution seems to have vanished. The craft of self government is forgotten in the Old Schools. This matter is in some ways a storm in a tea cup – the University will survive a folly in the Combination Room – but the response of the Old Schools and of the Council to this matter raises grave questions about the quality of our governance.

So what happens now? It may be that the majority of Council having successfully delayed until it is in a position to present the Regent House with a fait accompli will now rediscover its common sense and submit the 50-member Grace initiated by the 79 members and let us vote. Or it may be that the majority of Council will submit a Grace asking the Regent House to approve the recommendation in this Report in which case we will be able to vote on that. Given their record we must expect that latter course will be the one chosen; and we will get to vote on a Grace approving the Council’s decision not to submit the Grace. Given the controversy the Council ought of its own volition to order a ballot on that Grace but if it does not, I can now say, sufficient members of the Regent House stand ready to force a ballot. There will have to be a ballot.

Nobody knows how the Regent House will vote. It is my hope that large numbers of Regents will be implacably opposed to despoiling the Combination Room. It is my hope too that large numbers of Regents will, for the reasons given above, see this Report as the unconstitutional distraction that it is. If this Report is not approved, the 79-member Grace will have to be submitted to the Regent House and the Council will doubtless then start to seek a serious solution to this problem.

But it may be that the argument about wasted expense will carry weight. Regents may feel, even though it is the majority of Council which is responsible for the waste, it is in the wider interests of the University in a time of financial astringency not to waste this money. They will recognize the fait accompli. With heavy hearts they will hold their noses while they mark their ballots approving this Report. If this happens their decision will be legitimate; and it will be accepted by the objectors.

But whether the lift is approved or demolished will be decided not by the Council but by the Regent House. It is right and in accordance with the constitution of the University that this should be the case and whatever the outcome of the vote the objectors will at least have secured, against opposition, the right of the University’s Governing Body to speak on matters concerning a significant number of its members. But now we must concentrate on the coming ballot. Those who know and love the Combination Room unspoilt will not hesitate in casting their ballots and will know how to cast them. Many Regents, I have discovered, will not know the Combination Room. May I urge them to visit in order to see the before and after photos to see what the fuss is about. Who knows when Council will submit a Grace. There may be more delays but every day that passes brings closer the day on which the Regent House will be able to vote. For the objectors the message has always been simple: Let the Regent House speak!

Dr D. J. Chivers (read by Professor C. F. Forsyth):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, while I am totally committed to providing access for the disabled to the University Combination Room, I am appalled by the way in which this has been done by the University authorities. To desecrate one of the finest rooms in the University is inexcusable (especially when there is a good alternative), to do so without the approval of the Regent House doubly so.

To claim that it is minor works is also inexcusable, as is the refusal of Council to allow the ballot requested on the issue. I join with those who request that the Regent House be allowed to speak.

Dr A. L. R. Findlay (read by Professor C. F. Forsyth):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, in order that the Regent House may express its view, I undertake to request a ballot on any Grace submitted seeking approval of this Report.

Mr N. P. Myers:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am an undergraduate of Clare College, speaking on behalf of the Disabled Students Liberation Campaign. We sincerely regret the anger and the upset that this issue has caused. We regret that it has become a political issue and that it has clearly ‘got people’s dander up’ in a significant fashion. We have heard several times this afternoon that ‘this debate is not about a lift’, but there is nevertheless a lift at the centre of this debate, and we would like to speak on behalf of the lift (as it were).

It is not only a legal obligation, it is also the right thing to be doing. Colleges across the University look to the Regent House for leadership, students look to the Regent House and to academics for leadership, and universities across the country (and to some extent still across the world) look to Cambridge for leadership. This level of access should be granted; it is wonderful that it has been granted at the very heart of this institution, regardless of the ruckus it has caused. We very much believe that implementing a solution regardless of current demand is again the right thing to do. At Clare College we recently received an undergraduate who is in a wheelchair and immediately had to make some very radical changes to the layout of certain bits of our building in response to his arrival, at a financially very unfortuitous moment. These were fortunately minor works, but had we had these in place before he arrived we could have saved ourselves a lot of bother.

There may well be other solutions to this issue. It may be that there is not enough funding to reverse this solution; it may be that it has been gone about in the wrong way; that the mechanisms through which the lift was put in weren’t correctly respected. However, please let us not allow stubbornness or a desire to be proved right or strong reverse what is certainly a step in the right direction. Old buildings are notoriously difficult to make accessible for many people, and it would be a shame if a political argument were to allow us to repeat yesterday’s short-sightedness.

Mr N. M. Maclaren:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I was not one of the signatories in the initial Request for a Discussion, I did not speak at that Discussion, I have no strong feeling on the project one way or another, and yet I signed the Request for a Grace. You may reasonably ask why.

My reason was the increasing disregard for the status of the Regent House and processes of the University, as laid down in Statutes and Ordinances. I do not feel that such an attitude should prevail, and urge people who believe in the value of Statutes and Ordinances to vote against this Report. We shall then still have the opportunity to vote against the removal of the lift, if we wish, but that decision should be taken in proper fashion and not by subterfuge.

My objection was not to the initial decision to proceed without a Grace, which sounds like an honest mistake, but the subsequent implications that the Regent House should not be even kept informed. This is in conflict with Statute A, which states that ‘[The Council] shall advise the Regent House on matters of general concern to the University.’ Note ‘shall’ and not ‘may’. The Council had a duty to produce at least a Notice on this matter, but did not do so.

There have also been some surprising delays: two months between the publication of the Discussion in the Reporter and it going before the Council, and four months from the submission of the Grace to this Discussion. However, I shall neither describe the sorry saga, nor speculate on the reasons for the delays. I shall merely describe a scenario that has happened in other universities but has not, yet, happened here. All of my time lapses are taken from the handling of this matter and the proposed changes to Statute U.

My protagonist is head of a small, academic, but highly regarded, Department or sub-Department. Half-way through the Michaelmas Term, he receives a letter from his School telling him that he has not obtained enough external sponsorship, and therefore his funding will be cut by 30% from the start of the next academic year, and again the year after. He is further instructed to take on no new staff or research students, and to submit a list of non-established and support staff to make redundant, so as to reduce his salary bill by 30%.

He takes this up with his School, which tells him that the decision was taken by the General Board, it is a reasonable instruction by a superior body, and to cooperate or be suspended as Head of Department. He appeals the decision under one of Statute D or K, and is informed that he has no grounds for refusal because the reduction could be performed without making any Schedule J officers redundant. So he reluctantly starts cooperating, and gathers 50 signatures for a Grace to reverse the decision.

After a three-month delay, the Council publishes a Report, recommending that his Grace be rejected, on the grounds that it would cost money; a Discussion is scheduled for a month after that, followed later by a Grace. He then obtains 25 signatures to call for a ballot, which is scheduled, taking another three months, and gets that Grace rejected. His original Grace is now scheduled, and is accepted, after another three months. So he has now won, and the decision to truncate his Department is reversed.

Even if the initial appeals take only a month, and calling for a ballot and publishing the initial Grace only a fortnight each, a full year has now passed. So the first 30% of reductions have already taken effect, and the best of his remaining staff have found jobs elsewhere. But he is now free to apply for permission to refill their posts and to start rebuilding his Department. Let us assume that he manages to get his Department back up to strength by the end of the next academic year, mostly with young researchers who are prepared to take a gamble on his Department’s future.

Unfortunately, the next year is a RAE year. Because his Department has just come through two years of chaos, and many of his staff have only just started publishing, his ratings drop very considerably. At which point, the second phase of the story begins, but most people will be able to complete that for themselves.

The reason to vote against this Report and for the original Grace to be voted on is to avoid establishing a precedent for this dystopia.

Professor Sir John Baker:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this is a sorry business, and I regret having to criticize the majority of the Council for what seems to me to be remarkably high-handed behaviour. Most of my points have already been made with much eloquence and cogency, so I will be brief. I struggle to understand the Council’s intransigence. It is reported that the Warden of Robinson has decided, on an application under Statute K, 5, that the lift was not a ‘substantial alteration’ to the Combination Room. I of course accept that decision with respect to Statute F, I. However, I note that he found it finely balanced; moreover this was not just any old building, and the work was not in any normal sense a ‘minor work’. If cost is the only test of unimportance, spraying the interior of this Senate-House with pink gloss paint would be a minor work – I could do it for a few hundred pounds; yet no one in their right minds would suppose it could be done without asking the University. The University’s obligation under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, s. 21, is (as Professor Forsyth has reminded us) to make such adjustments as are reasonable in all the circumstances; it is not required to make unreasonable alterations; and the guidance published by English Heritage; Easy access to historic buildings, p. 39, says ‘lifts are best located in the less sensitive parts of historic buildings’.

This was not therefore an obviously correct decision, opposed by a few cranks who did not understand the issues. I am troubled that the Council (by a majority) pressed on with this potentially wasted expenditure after receiving ample notice that the matter was controversial. I think that was an unworthy way of suppressing opposition and I agree with the previous speakers that it poses a serious threat to the Regent House. I therefore feel reluctantly compelled to join those requesting a ballot.

Dr F. H. King:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Council is once again attempting to circumvent our governance procedures and, in so doing, it has fallen foul of what Dennis Healey once referred to as the First Law of Holes:

When you are in a hole, stop digging.

The currently relevant hole, the one in the Combination Room floor, is one of many holes, both real and metaphorical, which stem from a well-meant but poorly-thought-out enthusiasm for accessibility. Accessibility, of course, is the new-speak term for attending to the well-being of those with disabilities.

An example of misplaced zeal is provided by comparing some sensible light-weight advice given by our own Disability Resource Centre (DRC) with the interpretation of that advice by the Board of Examinations. In giving advice about people with a visual impairment, the DRC suggests1 that ‘an example might be to agree that any handouts are produced in … sans-serif’.

The modal phrase ‘might be to agree’ strikes the right tone. You may, or may not, take up the suggestion.

By contrast, the Board of Examinations is much more assertive. In its Guidance Notes for Examination Question Papers2 the Board insists that we ‘ensure that the question paper uses a sans-serif fount for the purpose of improving accessibility’.

[As an aside, I make a plea to those who type-set these Remarks to use the English spelling of the word ‘fount’ by incorporating a ‘u’ in the middle of that word.]

For many people, sans-serif founts are harder to read than founts with serifs. Moreover, embedded mathematics, which may be the principal substance of an examination question, becomes drowned out by the screaming insistence of the surrounding sans-serif.

I showed a mock-up examination paper written in sans-serif to Annika Larsson, who runs Inscriptorum,3 a noted Swedish design workshop. She took one look at it and referred me to a T-shirt which she had seen at a lettering convention. On it was written just one word: Hellvetica.

The more sensible approach, which the DRC widely adopts, is to establish on a case-by-case basis just what each candidate with special requirements needs and not to insist on a one-size-fits-all solution.

It is right to provide Braille examination papers for blind candidates but would obviously be silly to insist that all candidates should have papers in Braille. It is almost as silly to insist that all candidates should be forced to read papers in a sans-serif fount.

The vandalism that is the Combination Room lift has likewise been forced on all those who use this room and who may use it in future. As any who signed the 50-member Grace will testify, there must be a better alternative.

Council has chosen in its Report not to put the 50-member Grace to the Regent House. At the very least there should be a ballot on the consequential Grace to approve this Report. Should this ballot not be forthcoming from Council, I shall certainly be adding my name to a request for such a ballot.

Dr N. Bampos (read by Dr S. J. Cowley):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, it is my view that even if the appropriate means of consultation had been exhausted, the preferred site for the lift will have ended up where it currently stands in the Combination Room. However, as a member of the Council and current Chair of the Joint Committee on Disability I apologize to the Regent House for the process by which we came to that decision. I for my part accept responsibility for having failed to scrutinize our decision, which is why I did not sign the Report of the Council. Unfortunately, as much as some members of the Regent House object to the site of the lift (or perhaps even for the need of a lift altogether), I share the view of my colleagues on Council that in the current financial climate we can not entertain the suggestion that the lift might at this stage be removed from the Combination Room so that the consultative process can start again. I suspect many members of the Regent House would object to our spending a large amount of money to address a point of principle when so much else is at stake. If our finances allow at a future date, the University might think again about the lift in the Combination Room and perhaps more generally about public spaces in the Old Schools.

Dr S. J. Cowley:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak as a member of the Council, and as a member of the evil empire that is the Resource Management Committee (RMC). It was the RMC, acting under delegated powers (subject to Statute K, 9(b)(ii)), that approved the construction of the lift.

In order to place matters in context, and possibly to correct at least one apparent misapprehension, it might help if I provide an early history of the lift up until the point where construction was approved.

The story starts before I joined the Council, when in March 2006 the then Registrary, Tim Mead, presented to the Council a paper on the ‘Development of the Combination Room’. That paper includes the sentence ‘We will not be considering any major works (for the installation of a lift, or any new access to the Combination Room, for example) as such matters will be picked up by the broader study’ (where the broader study was about the redevelopment of the Old Schools).

This paper resulted in Paper RMC C.241 that came to the RMC on 25 April 2007. This paper proposed both the development of the Combination Room and the installation of a lift. My recollection is that during the meeting the lift, rather than the development of the Combination Room, was flagged as more urgent. The Minute1 records that ‘the Committee agreed that it was imperative to decouple the issues’ of the installation of the lift and the development of the Combination Room; my memory is that a number of the members of the RMC robustly objected to the fact that the March 2006 paper had been turned on its head. However, the need to provide disabled access to the Combination Room and other areas on the first floor of the Old Schools was accepted, and a budget of £24,000 was approved for the development of estimates.

The matter returned to the RMC on 2 July 2008. The Minute2 notes that ‘the City Council’s Conservation Officer had suggested that the project might only be approved if a staircase was constructed at the same time’ and that the ‘Registrary wished to postpone implementation of the project for the time being’. On that basis ‘the Committee [including myself] agreed …that, subject to City Council Planning Department approval, the project to install a lift should proceed with a budget of £210,000 … at a later date to be determined by the Registrary’.

The Minutes of the RMC were circulated to the Council in Circular 26/08. Since the lift was not explicitly drawn to the attention of the Council, I do not think it is fair to say, as has been suggested elsewhere, that the lift was ‘apparently highlighted in the Council Circular’.

I have a number of comments on the above process and subsequent events.

First, in my opinion the most important discussion was that at the RMC on 25 April 2007, when the March 2006 paper was effectively turned on its head. My recollection (which may be faulty) is that the argument over the reversal somewhat overshadowed the substance of the lift. Further, it might have helped if RMC C.241 had put an explicit case for reversing an assurance to the Council and if the paper had concentrated on the matter in hand, rather than becoming sidetracked in discussing the remodelling of the Old Schools to ‘offer superb accommodation for the University’s leadership’. Indeed, the paper should have addressed the Grade 1* status, and the permissions needed, in more detail.

Second, with hindsight, approval by Grace of the Regent House should have been sought. I am one of those to blame for not spotting this oversight, and for that I apologize.

Third, it would have helped if this mistake had been recognized earlier, and if digging had stopped both metaphorically and physically.

Fourth, following submission of the 50-member Grace, on 26 January 2010 Anthony Edwards informed me that paragraph 4.12.2 of the Third Report of the Statutes and Ordinances Revision Syndicate3 stated that the ‘Syndicate envisage that the Council’s authorization [of a 50-member Grace] would be withheld only on very rare occasions’. My second apology (particularly to Anthony Edwards) concerns my failure to raise this point at the Council meeting on 15 February 2010; eventually I did so in an email to the Vice-Chancellor and the Registrary on 16 February 2010. I expected the point about authorization being withheld only on very rare occasions to be included in the Council papers for 15 March 2010, but it was not. It was left for me to table the relevant extract from the Third Report of the Statutes and Ordinances Revision Syndicate at that Council Meeting. I am sorry to say that the entreaties of myself and others, that the 1993 statement of the Revision Syndicate be respected, had no effect.

Fifth, given that I believe that the 50-member Grace should have been authorized, some may ask why I abstained, rather than sign the Note of Dissent. The problem is that in some eyes, but as we have heard not all eyes, the aim of the Report is now muddled. In paragraph 4.12.2 of the Third Report of the Statutes and Ordinances Revision Syndicate it is stated, as regards the publication of a Report withholding authorization, ‘Such a Report would lead to a Discussion and, in all probability, a vote; if the vote went against the Council they would be required to submit the Grace, whose approval would then be a formality’. The trouble is I want to vote against the Report (because I believe that the 50-member Grace should have been authorized), but I do not want the 50-member Grace to be approved as a formality, because in the current financial circumstances I do not believe that it would be wise to fund the deconstruction of the lift from the Combination Room. The issues of the submission of the 50-member Grace, and the deconstruction of the lift, need to be decoupled.

Sixth, we should formalize the assurance that only on very rare occasions will the authorization of a 50-member Grace be withheld. At present Statute A, VIII, 9(a) is unclear; I propose that it be amended to read:

9(a) Subject to the exercise by the Vice-Chancellor of the powers conferred by section 8 or by Ordinances made under that section, the Council shall consider any Grace or amendment initiated under section 7, and either (i) shall authorize the submission of the Grace or amendment to the Regent House or, exceptionally, (ii) shall publish a Report giving reasons for its decision to withhold authorization and recommending the Regent House to approve that decision.

My suggested change is to add ‘, exceptionally,’.

Seventh, and maybe this is my most important point, in future the Regent House and the Council possibly ought to take assurances with a pinch of salt. In 2006 the Council was told ‘We will not be considering any major works (for the installation of a lift, or any new access to the Combination Room, for example) …’. In 1993 the Regent House was told that the ‘Syndicate envisage that the Council’s authorization [of a 50-member Grace] would be withheld only on very rare occasions’. In the former case there was a U-turn, in the latter case the assurance was first overlooked and then there was, in my eyes, a U-turn. This brings us to a more topical matter. Some will have already voted on Statute U; to those who have yet to vote my advice is understand what is being proposed in Statutes and Ordinances, and ignore any assurances given in the accompanying Report (because in 1, 2, or 17 years time such assurances might be overlooked). In this case, the way to ensure that there is no future U-turn on Statute U is to vote Non Placet, Non Placet.

Mr S. R. Wakeford:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, CUSU has discussed the issue of the lift at some length at our own Council.

I should explain that we are still celebrating – and are at this moment in the process of recruiting – our first ever student advisor. Every other students union in the country has a student advice service, even Oxford. Most have a large team of advisors. Despite our collegiate structure, we have demonstrated an acute need here in Cambridge as well, and CUSU has been campaigning for a student advisor for more than a decade. All the while sabbatical officers, myself included, have done our best to help students who have slipped through the all too many cracks in our largely wonderful collegiate system. This year we have finally succeeded in getting from the University the funding for one staff post, shared between CUSU and the Graduate Union. Needless to say, scarcity of financial resources has been given as the primary barrier all this time, in the face of the overwhelming evidence of an advisor’s value for money.

Regents, the Council has apologized for the process followed in building the lift. No one, if I understand correctly, actually disputes the clear legal, not to mention moral, necessity of enabling disabled access to the Combination Room, and the digging, both physical and metaphorical, has now finished. If an amount of money ten times the order of what we have spent ten years campaigning for to meet an urgent student welfare need, was to be thrown away to demolish then rebuild the lift, purely on a point of principle, I think the student body would be appalled not only by the waste, but by the perspective it would appear to offer on the importance the University places on student well-being. CUSU would exhort the Regent House to heed the earlier advice of my Senior Tutor, Nick Bampos, to put the Council’s mistake in perspective.

Dr E. S. Leedham-Green:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Statute A, VIII, 5 requires that ‘Any proposal to be placed before the Regent House or the Senate for approval shall be in the form of a Grace’. It is my hope that we shall be offered one on this Report. Or is the Council of the opinion that a proposal not to do something is somehow not a proposal? Better still, let the original ‘fifty-member’ Grace be put to the Regent House.

The response of the Council (with no fewer than five dissenters) to this ‘fifty-member’ Grace was that as £240,000 had been spent in installing the odious lift and that an additional £100,000 or so further would need to be spent in uninstalling it, the Grace would not be put. The argument had been that anything costing as little as £240,000 was a ‘minor work’ and therefore did not require the assent of the Regent House.

I know a man who knows a man who knows a man who has a mate with a ball and chain and who for less than that would probably be prepared to demolish this Senate-House altogether (though not perhaps to clear up afterwards), and he, no doubt, has a mate who could supply a range of Nissen huts in the style of the neighbouring Waterhouse façade of Caius, with full video conferencing facilities (allowing the Old Schools to actually employ wheelchair-users in the offices on all three floors (which at present, and with the intruded lift, they still cannot)), a centrally located Disability Centre, and a tea room (which might actually be open for tea).

I join with others present in undertaking to request a ballot if the Grace on this Report, as it should be, be put.

Dr C. L. Galletly (read by Dr D. R. de Lacey):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, whatever one may feel about the merits or demerits of the construction of a modern-style lift in an historic building in order to comply with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act, the issue at hand today is not to argue such points. Nor is it, even, to complain that the consent of Regent House was not sought before such potentially controversial building works were begun.

What is the issue at hand is that Council deemed it appropriate to use its somewhat dubiously gained powers to reject the opportunity of a ballot on a Grace signed by more than the requisite 50 members of Regent House – that is, to deny the members of the Regent House their constitutional democratic rights.

Furthermore it appears that this whole matter appears to have become so emotionally entangled as to have been regarded as a motion of confidence (if the Regent House’s Statutory rights were denied) or no-confidence (if they were asserted) in the current Vice-Chancellor.

This is simply not acceptable. It exemplifies exactly why having such a democratic system of governance is not only preferable, but absolutely necessary. Without the necessity of having even to listen to other dissenting points of view, much less take them into account when forming policy, the University becomes much more susceptible to being swayed by every passing fad and fashion. Emotive arguments (such as motions of no-confidence) play no part in the smooth running of a university expected to carry on at the forefront of knowledge for the foreseeable future. And running rough-shod over the Statutes will not go unnoticed. Even in Oxbridge.

Dr D. R. de Lacey:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the Report before us is a fine example of sweet reasonableness. The Council has considered the Statute A, VIII, 7 Grace submitted by 79 Regents. It regrets the controversy which has been raised by its commendable attempts to provide universal access to the Combination Room and other parts of the Old Schools. It consulted the Finance Committee as required, and finally it ‘has agreed [an interesting word!] to take the exceptional step of withholding the authorization of submission of the initiated Grace’ (emphasis mine). After all, the costs involved in implementing the Grace would be prohibitively large. It almost comes as a surprise to discover that a significant number of elected members of the Council find this unreasonable.

Almost. Until you look at the issues. A building project bound to cause concern among all users of the Combination Room (and that is now pretty well anyone with any links to the University) was initiated without consultation. It was continued despite objection from Regents. I do not know precisely what advice the Finance Committee gave but it would surely be ultra vires to advise the Council to flout Statute A, VIII, 7; and the Council in any even is not bound slavishly to follow Finance Committee advice. The Report fails to note that a 50-member Grace is itself utterly exceptional. And finally it ignores the fact that at least for now the University is governed by its Regents. If it was convinced that the Grace is inappropriate it should have produced a flysheet to that effect and left the issue to the wisdom of the Regent House. But it now risks the worst of all possible worlds: that Regents reject the Council’s recommendation in Paragraph 12 of this Report, and give approval to the 50-member Grace merely out of irritation. And if Regents accept the financial argument, no doubt that would be seen as supporting the initial decision not to consult. Either way the Council has created out of administrative incompetence a constitutional crisis of significant proportion. Members of the University can be grateful that there are five members of the Council who understand these issues. It has been suggested that questions of confidence in the Vice-Chancellor influenced the Council’s decision. This is dangerously close to becoming a vote of confidence (or lack of it) in the Council as a whole.

Mr A. C. Norman (read by Revd. L. A. Yates):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, first let me make it clear that I do not wish to focus on whether the lift should be built in the University Combination Room. I have never been in that place, I have not seen the new lift, and therefore I have not spent time weighing the case outlined in the Council’s Report against removal of the lift with those arguments heard here on 10 November 2009 for its removal. That is for the Regent House to decide.

Since it is unlikely that there will be another Discussion on this topic before the Regent House is asked to consider this question, hopefully via the Grace initiated by the Regent House itself, I shall first comment briefly on that Grace. When considering it, members of the Regent House should ask themselves how they would have answered the question of whether to build the lift, if it had originally been asked, and the plans were known to them. If they would have supported the plans on their own merits, they will almost certainly reject the Grace to reverse the work which has been done. If they would have opposed the plans at their outset, their decision now must additionally take into account the cost to the University of the removal of the lift which has been built. The issue of disabled access is served both by the present lift and the Grace for its removal, which also demands this, and so although it has been much bandied about (especially by CUSU), is not itself a reason to reject the Grace. Questions of aesthetics and intrusiveness of the construction works are subjective, but it should be noted that the present lift satisfied English Heritage and the Cambridge City Council Conservation Officer.

It is certainly regrettable that this lift has caused controversy. It is clear that many members of the Regent House feel strongly about the University Combination Room, and therefore it is surprising and perhaps something of a shame that its Committee of Management was allowed to lapse in 2001. An early consultation with that committee, if it had existed, might have allowed concerns to be raised before work on the lift had started. Maybe the current resurgence of interest in matters relating to the purpose and use of the University Combination Room will lead this committee to be reconvened?

Despite the post hoc assessment by the Warden of Robinson College that the installation of the lift did not amount to a ‘substantial alteration’ within the meaning of Statute F, I, 2, it would have been better in this case if the decision-making process had erred on the side of ensuring that the Regent House had been consulted, either via a specific Grace, or at least publication of the plan to build a lift in the Reporter. It is therefore pleasing that the Council has accepted recommendations to take a broader view of what constitutes a ‘substantial alteration’, and that it has made arrange­ments to publish periodic lists of works in the future.

My understanding is that the lift is now nearly finished. Out of respect for the views of the Regent House (the governing body of the University), made known through the exceptional step of calling a Discussion on a Topic of Concern to the University, work on the lift ought properly to have stopped, to give time for a decision to be reached on whether to proceed with it. The government and democracy of the University demand no less, and are important enough to warrant the inconvenience. There is no excuse for the Council’s second guessing the views of the Regent House, or even worse ignoring its views and ploughing ahead regardless.

After the Discussion here which was called by the Regent House, the Council was given yet another opportunity to heed the views of the Regent House when it received a request for the submission of a Grace initiated by 79 members of the Regent House, calling for work to stop and the building works to be reversed. Yet still it decided by a majority that, instead of reaching a constitutionally proper decision, work on the lift would continue. The failure to respond appropriately to that wake-up call smacks of a Council which has already decided that the views of the Regent House are of little consequence, and is aiming to present a fait accompli to the Regent House when it finally does have to face it (as is now happening).

It almost goes without saying that the 79-member Grace ought to have been published for voting, since it is totally improper for the Council to block voting by the Regent House (to which Council is answerable) on a Grace initiated by the Regent House. Of course the Council is allowed to report to the University via a Notice advising rejection of the Grace, and include in that advice the statutory counsel of the Finance Committee about how expensive it would be to reverse the work already done, but for the Council to say that, with all the evidence before it, the Regent House cannot be trusted to make a good judgement is constitutionally unacceptable.

The members of Council are not elected and appointed as a government for the University, who will only submit questions to a referendum of the Regent House when it suits them, and when they think it will ‘go the right way’. The Regent House governs the University, actively, by approval of Graces submitted to it, and members of Council are the servants of the Regent House. If the Regent House accepts a Grace to approve the Council’s decision to block the 79-member Grace, it will be accepting implicitly an erosion of its right to govern the University, which would be disastrous for its supremacy as the governing body of the University. Whilst the ends which the Council is hoping to achieve are well-intentioned, they do not justify the means which are being used to attain them in this case, and that is why I wholeheartedly agree with those members of Council who signed the Note of Dissent.

The only way out of this mess is for the Council to authorize submission of the Grace initiated by the Regent House, and to reverse its decision to withhold such authorization, and I hope that this will be done without delay. I hope that the Council will think again, and will choose not to promulgate a Grace for the support of the recommendations in this Report. However, if the Council presses ahead in refusing to allow the Regent House to make a decision, I urge all Regents who wish to assert and defend the Regent House’s ability and right to have the ultimate power of decision-making to reject any such Grace (even if they fully agree with the lift as built and would also reject the 79-member Grace).

Mr P. Woudhuysen:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, from the recent Report by the Council it would now seem that we have moved from the lift problem itself to the question of whether the Council can continue to refuse the Regent House the Grace on the matter. May I suggest that the Regent House, the Governing Body of the University, be allowed to request, in accordance with the Ordinance on Graces and Congregations, a ballot on any Grace submitted seeking approval of the said Report.

Dr M. R. Clark:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak today as one of the five members of Council who signed the Note of Dissent on the Council’s Report, that note of dissent said

Statute A, VIII, 9(a)(ii) authorizes the Council to block a ‘50-member’ Grace where there are good reasons, such as if the Grace could not legally be implemented or is out of time. The Report that recommended such Graces said ‘the Syndicate envisage that the Council’s authorization would be withheld only on very rare occasions’. We do not think the reasons given in this Report for withholding authorization in this case are admissible reasons.

I note that none of those who signed the Report have turned up to explain their decision although two who abstained have explained their position.

Two issues seem to have been confused in this Report. The first issue is whether or not we should have a lift in the Combination Room of the Old Schools, but the second issue is whether or not it is right for Council to attempt to block a ballot of Regent House on whether or not to have a lift in the Combination Room. I would have hoped that members of Council would be able to distinguish the two issues, but unfortunately it seems that the majority could not. I believe that Council allowed itself to be misdirected by the advice of the Registrary and the Vice-Chancellor. The matter was presented to Council in such a way that I am sure that many members of Council treated the decision as one of a vote of confidence in the Vice-Chancellor and the Registrary. However the result is quite clearly a challenge to our normal democratic processes. Under our governance structure it is Regent House that should have the final say, often this is by accepting without challenge the validity of the Graces put before it. Occasionally on important, substantive, or controversial matters there is a need for a ballot to gauge the level of support amongst Regents. This is clearly a matter where Regents should have been given an opportunity to exercise their full rights under a ‘50-member Grace’ to hold a ballot. Council could then, as has been explained, if they so have wished, have made a strong case to Regent House for a Non-Placet of the Grace put forward for ballot.

When I stood for election to Council in class (b) I made it clear in my statement that one of my main interests on Council was in defending our democratic processes of academic self-governance against a creeping tendency to undermine the rights of Regent House. I am reminded of the fact that I was elected by 612 votes to 537, a majority of 75. Thus a Grace proposed by 79 members of the Regent House represents more than 10% of the number of votes by which I as a member of Council was elected, and is larger than the majority I had in that election. Looking back to earlier elections of the other members of Council I see that it is not unusual for a member in class (b) to be elected with only about 400 votes, or a member in class (c) with only about 200 votes. Of course some members of Council such as Heads of House in class (a) routinely arrange to stand unopposed in elections and thus cannot gauge what support they have in Regent House.

It is clear to me that our self-governance is definitely being undermined. The proposed changes to Statute U, for which a ballot is currently underway, represent another example of this process. It is proposed that Regent House should no longer have any say in the details of redundancy of University officers, such as would occur should a Department be targeted for closure. Instead Regent House should only be consulted during the preliminary process that outlines the principles for a need in the reduction of staff numbers.

So in future it would seem the main role for Regent House is in approving outline principles, not in approving the final details of proposals. Regents beware, this is a dangerous situation to tolerate if, like me, you wish to continue our democratic process of self-governance.