Skip to main contentCambridge University Reporter

No 6214

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Vol cxli No 18

pp. 509–524

Report Of Discussion

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A Discussion was held in the Senate-House. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill was presiding, with the Registrary’s Deputy, the Senior Proctor, a Pro-Proctor, and three other persons present.

The following Report was discussed:

Report of the Council on an initiated Grace (USS consultation, consultative voting) (Reporter, 2010–11, pp. 420–21).

Mr D. J. Goode (Faculty of Divinity):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak today as Vice-President of Cambridge University and College Union (Cambridge UCU).

I speak also as the instigator (at least, the Cambridge instigator) of the initiated Grace which is the subject of the Report of Council under Discussion today.

Allow me to give a little background, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor. The President of Oxford UCU, Roger Undy, and I decided that we should use the fact that both universities are self-governing bodies of scholars to ensure that the views of members and eligible non-members of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) were recorded, made public, and entered into the official written record of both universities.

Of course, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I and others arranged for plenty of press coverage, making capital out of the fact that it was probably the first time that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge had collaborated in this way. We made much of the fact that we were, in both places, effectively ‘forcing the hand’ of our respective administrations.

As we know, Cambridge’s Grace and Oxford’s Resolution were successful, and both places recorded a humiliating rejection of the employers’ damaging proposals for our pension scheme.

As for the mechanics of the process, Council and the Vice-Chancellor were sympathetic to the Grace and requested that the University’s administration make the necessary arrangements for the ballot.

The Registrary, the Director of the Human Resources Division, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Affairs, and I met in person, by telephone, and by email, to agree the form and wording and duration of the ballot, and the content of the accompanying booklet.

The ballot was organized and conducted efficiently, which was vital given that time was of the essence. The result was announced to the University, and the USS informed of that result, before the deadline for the end of consultation on 22 December 2010. And I would like to add my thanks to those expressed by Council in the Report.

As far as I am concerned, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Council’s decision to go ahead with the ballot requested by the Grace, without putting the Grace itself to the Regent House, was correct. To have slavishly followed the requirements of Statutes and Ordinances would have significantly reduced the duration of the ballot, which may well have had an effect on the result. I think it is fair to say, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, that the law has been amply fulfilled in the spirit if not in the letter.

And finally, Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, five short questions, each of which has a one-word answer:

Do I believe that the end justifies the means? Maybe.

Am I often critical of Council and others for abusing Statutes and Ordinances? Yes.

Am I now guilty of condoning an abuse of Statutes and Ordinances by Council? Yes.

Am I contrite about this rank hypocrisy? No.

And will I do it again? Absolutely.

Mr M. B. Beckles (University Computing Service) (read by the Senior Proctor, Mr J. A. Trevithick):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am one of those who signed the Grace that is the subject of this Report. I am also a member of the University and College Union (UCU). Given that a ‘consultative’ ballot has now taken place, it clearly would be foolish to demand that this Grace now be put to the Regent House. However, there are a number of procedural matters upon which I feel some comment is necessary.

Whilst I understand, and greatly appreciate, that Council were sensible of the urgency of holding a consultative ballot, it seems to me that there were other ways of proceeding which they could have chosen, and, had they done so, the final outcome might have been better. As I am sure Council is aware, a similar resolution was proposed in Oxford, on a similar time scale, and in Oxford they discussed and voted on their resolution at a Congregation on 30 November 2010.1 I would like to think that Council are at least as familiar with Cambridge’s Statutes and Ordinances as I, an ordinary member of the Regent House, and so I am sure they are aware that under Ordinances, Chapter I, Graces and Congregations of the Regent House, Regulations 16 (p. 109) or 21 (p. 110), we could have gotten a speedy decision from the Regent House, and what’s more, on the same day as the Congregation in Oxford. Whilst it is true that in practice this would not have given all members of the Regent House a chance to vote, it would have been both timely and constitutionally appropriate.

It may be that there were sound operational reasons for rejecting such a course of action of which I am unaware. I therefore ask Council when it responds to this Discussion to tell the Regent House: did Council consider action along the lines suggested above, and, if so, why did it choose not to do so?

Now, I understand that Council may be indifferent to the enormous publicity that having Oxford and Cambridge both expressing a clear view on the proposed changes to the USS would have generated (and its consequent pressure on the USS Trustees to re-think these bitterly opposed proposals). Or, indeed, Council may feel that it is no concern of theirs that the pensions of a significant number of University employees are to be savagely cut, and this done in a way which doesn’t conform to the guidance provided by the Department of Work and Pensions on the conduct of a formal consultation by employers on major changes in a pension scheme.2 They may therefore feel that they do not need to do everything within their power to mitigate the proposed changes. Even so, there were some important practical consequences of failing to put the Grace, and as I am anxious that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, I feel these need to be enumerated to prevent such occurrences in the future.

Firstly, I am afraid that there were a number of failings in the design of our consultative ballot, and specifically the ballot paper and accompanying booklet, which, at the very least, make it difficult to properly interpret the outcome of this ballot. Perhaps the most egregious of these is that the order of the options on the ballot paper was reversed compared to the order those options were given in the accompanying booklet. One does not need to be an expert in electoral ballot design to see the problem here, and I observe that if a similar thing were to occur in a national ballot, that would be grounds for complaint to the Electoral Commission concerning the validity of the ballot. We are faced with the real possibility that some of those who voted will have chosen the box for an option they honestly did not intend to select, and this casts doubt on the validity of the votes counted for each option.

Perhaps even worse, the information in the accompanying booklet was so poorly laid out and so lacking in context that anyone who had not been closely following the debate around the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme would have little or no idea what they were being asked to choose between. Whilst the booklet did give URLs to web pages where further information could be found, the URL of the only web page listed that gave information which contextualized the ballot itself was the last URL in the list. One doesn’t need a degree in human psychology to realize that most people new to the issues would have given up in despair before they reached that URL. I have spoken to a USS member at Cambridge Assessment and they told me that they and their colleagues were bewildered by the ballot and had no clear sense of what it was about, or of the importance of responding. Whilst I have no way of knowing, I would not be surprised if, in consequence, the turnout of USS members at Cambridge Assessment in this ballot was depressingly low. (I also suspect that something similar might be true of any USS members at Cambridge University Press.)

At this point, one might ask whether, given the short space of time in which this ballot was arranged, it is reasonable to expect it to have been better handled. An answer to this question may be provided by the observation that Oxford, having made their decision to hold a ballot after Council here made its decision to do so, had less time to organize their ballot, and yet managed to produce a much better designed ballot, with none of the problems I have mentioned. What’s more, they included on their ballot paper an option for ‘Not in favour of either set of proposals’. Anyone who has been following the debates around these proposed changes will know that many USS members are not in favour of either set of proposals and so would have welcomed the ‘Not in favour of either’ option.

Well, you may say, that may all be true, but how is that relevant to Council’s failure to put the Grace to the Regent House? Had Council put the Grace, in conjunction with a Discussion, then concerns about, and options for, the design of the ballot could have been expressed and so taken into account. Further, such a Discussion would have given interested parties an opportunity to publicly identify themselves so that they could then have been privately consulted for suggestions and/or feedback on drafts of the ballot paper and accompanying booklet. (Putting the Grace would also have allowed the possibility of amendments and fly-sheets (if a postal vote was then decided upon), which would have served much the same purpose.)

The argument against putting the Grace seems to have been that, if enough Regents called for a vote on the Grace, the entire process could have been delayed until it was out of time. This overlooks two points. Firstly, if either of the Regulations3 I previously mentioned were invoked, then any vote could have happened immediately, and thus there would have been no delay. Secondly, even if a vote was called, and that delayed a decision of the Regent House on the Grace, that would not, in and of itself, have stopped Council choosing to conduct a consultative ballot (regardless of the eventual outcome of the vote on the Grace). The only thing which would have stopped Council making such a decision would have been a Grace, approved by the Regent House, explicitly requiring that no such ballot occur. Indeed, at this point, we would do well to remember that what actually happened here is that Council decided to have a consultative ballot, without there being any Grace put to the Regent House about whether or not one should occur.

I think this episode indicates why Council would do well to involve Regents and the Regent House more in its decisions, even the finer details of those decisions. This is surely not such an unreasonable proposition: the Regent House is ‘the governing body of the University’,4 after all.

It seems to me that we need a procedure for getting a proposal onto Council’s agenda, short of a 50-member Grace, but which nevertheless carries the expectation that such a proposal would be seriously considered and a timely response given in the Reporter. Had such a procedure been in place, the 152 Regents who signed this Grace could simply have asked Council to consider holding a consultative ballot, and, since Council was evidently prepared to do so – one assumes moved in part by the level of support indicated by 152 signatures – we would not now be discussing this Report. In light of the difficult decisions facing the University regarding tuition fees, and the forcefully expressed wish by academics and others for a voice in these decisions at recent Discussions, it seems to me this is an issue Council would do well to look into sooner rather than later.

(I know that some may feel that Regents can always write or petition members of Council, and that that is sufficient. However, since one Council member has said to me that they regard form letters and petitions sent to them from members of the University as ‘spam’, and worse, as being positively counter-productive, we evidently do need some other way for Regents to communicate with Council.)

Returning to the consultative ballot, one might hope that the sub-optimal character of the handling of this ballot ended with the counting of the votes. Alas, one would be wrong. In the Notice5 in the Reporter of 12 January 2011 (p. 395), we are told that 802 people voted ‘[i]n favour of UCU’s negotiating position with regard to the USS pension scheme’. Having had the foresight to keep a copy of my ballot paper, I don’t believe that they voted in favour of any such thing. I believe they voted in favour of ‘UCU’s proposals’, as stated in the Report under discussion today. I don’t believe it is acceptable for an official report of a ballot to change the wording of one of the options on the ballot paper.

Therefore, please will Council issue a Notice correcting the aforementioned Notice of 12 January 2011, and also correct the announcement of the result on the University’s pensions website?6 Please will Council also include in the new Notice, and the corrected result on the pensions website, the numbers of spoilt and blank papers received (as they have done in the Report under discussion)?

I further note that, in the absence of a ‘Not in favour of either’ option, USS members might have felt that their preference would have been best expressed by spoiling their ballot paper; however, unless they knew for certain whether or not the count of spoilt ballot papers would be published, they had to run the risk that such a choice would be meaningless. In the run up to the deadline for the voting papers to be returned, I attempted to discover whether or not this count would be published. Unfortunately, official responses to my question were slow to arrive, unclear when they did arrive, unhelpful, and, given the counts now published in the Report under discussion, ultimately incorrect. So, once again, the results of this ballot are unfortunately less clear than should have been the case.

Lest anyone feel that I am nothing but critical of those involved in the ballot, I would like to go on record as thanking the Proctors, who were unfailingly helpful, prompt in their replies to my questions, and accommodating of requests in so far as it was within their power to do so.

Noting that most ballots in the University are single transferrable vote (STV) ballots, I observe that the Electoral Reform Society’s rules on STV elections7 clearly state: ‘The declaration of the result comprises the total vote, the total valid vote, . . .’ (section 2.5). Our Single Transferrable Vote Regulations8 do not include this expectation, and they should, so I ask Council to address this matter prior to our next STV ballot. Also, for those ballots not conducted according to these Regulations, please will Council adopt, as a ‘code of practice’ or similar, the publishing of both the total number of votes cast and the total number of valid votes cast in the official ballot result?

When I was a student at this University (1991–94), all the elections in my College (King’s) included an option to ‘re-open nominations’, and this was straightforwardly accepted as sensible practice, since an election where voters are forced to choose between candidates or choices, none of which they are willing to accept, is an election in name only, and has no place in a properly functioning democracy. So, as the issue of the proper conduct of elections and ballots has arisen, I ask Council to consider amending our Statutes and Ordinances and adopting codes of practice, etc. (as appropriate) so that in all future elections and ballots, voters have a clear, unambiguous option to register dissatisfaction with all the candidates/choices put forward.

Finally, despite repeated requests, I have not been told who the presiding officer for the consultative ballot was, although I have been told who the deputy presiding officer was. Since there are a number of matters concerning the conduct of this ballot which I would like to take up with its presiding officer, please will Council, when they respond to the remarks made at this Discussion, tell the Regent House who the presiding officer was for this ballot?


Professor G. R. Evans (read by the Senior Pro-Proctor, Dr A. Winter):

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, the attempt to resist one 50-member Grace during the Easter Term 2010 has gone down in history to the discredit of the present Council. In this case, there was a practical reason for not putting the Grace, namely that time was short and a consultative vote could in fact be arranged, and was arranged. It was of course arranged without benefit of a Report and Discussion. It therefore did not allow for the suggestion that the vote might include a ‘neither of these’ option and also a space for comments, as was provided for in the counterpart vote in Oxford. And the present Report argues a rather lame case for the anomalous way in which things were done.

So I suggest that this is an opportunity for some rebalancing and re-educating of those entrusted by the Regent House with constitutionally important respon­sibilities.

Now that the Council has adopted the practice of having a ‘Statement of Primary Responsibilities’ as the Committee of University Chairmen ‘Guide for Members of Higher Education Governing Bodies in the UK’ expects, I wondered whether it is also meeting a further expectation of theirs, namely that:

The chair shall ensure that new members receive a full induction on joining the governing body, that opportunities for further development for all members of the governing body are provided regularly in accordance with their individual needs, and that appropriate financial provision is made for support.1

I asked the Registrary about this because there has been a worrying record of hints in recent months in these two episodes of taking a 50-member Grace as somehow optional, that it is not fully understood by all members of the Council that the Governing Body of the University is not the Council but the Regent House.

Statute A, III, 1, states that: ‘The Regent House shall be the governing body of the University’ and A, III, 4 that:

Whenever it is provided that an act or thing shall or may be done or determined by the University, it shall be done or determined by Grace of the Regent House unless it is expressly stated that it is to be done or determined otherwise.

It would be good to see some attempt made to ensure that new members of the Regent House had it explained to them why they have the vote and what it means. The Registrary helpfully assures me that ‘new Council members have been offered (and given) induction. For the new externals there is an explicit follow-up in six months.’ I would like to be confident that the Council knew its place and understood its role and its functions and its members could pass a test in what they have been taught.

There are respects in which Cambridge cannot comply with CUC guidelines, not least in the recommendation that the Governing body appoint ‘the head of the institution as chief executive of the institution’. That proposal was voted down in the ‘governance change’ debates of a few years ago. (I recommend a search of the Reporter under ‘chief executive’ to those who would like to trace the arguments then put for and against.) As Stephen Cowley memorably put it:

If it looks like a duck, squawks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it is a duck. If the proposed amendment is passed the Vice-Chancellor will look like a Chief Executive, talk like a Chief Executive, and walk like a Chief Executive, because she or he will be a Chief Executive. . .

I prefer the democratic model where the Vice-Chancellor is first amongst equals on Council, and where members of the Regent House are treated as responsible peers to be persuaded, rather than employees to be ordered.2

His last point is to the point here and now. Let us restore the right balance.