On the day senate got too big for its boots...

March 17, 2006

Simon Larter, its student representative, decided to vote with his feet

On March 1, I stepped down from my university's senate. I have been its student member for most of this year. My departure was triggered by its decision, now suspended, to withhold money from staff who went on strike on March 7. I believe the decision, irrespective of the university's right to implement it, was unethical, offensive and stupid, and suggested that senate made decisions based mainly on economics.

I had been feeling increasingly uncomfortable about the way senate meetings were managed. I am not sure how other universities function, but I got the distinct feeling that senate was just there for the high-speed ratification of management change, with all but general comments discouraged. Pragmatism demanded that most detailed discussion happened elsewhere. By the time senate saw a proposal, it seemed almost always "a done deal". When the vice-chancellor asked for questions, few spoke other than in agreement or to point out subtle nuances. Why? Some senators seemed afraid to speak in case they looked stupid, some agreed with the policy, while others simply did not have the time to read and digest the papers that arrived only days before senate sat. The papers were often complex, with enormous implications for change.

Because the discussions that led to decisions happened outside senate, it was often hard to unravel how they were arrived at. At my first senate meeting, for instance, the vice-chancellor gave me an assurance that he had universal student backing to make a particular change to the academic calendar. This was news to me and, as the student member of senate, I felt exposed. I later investigated and found that there had never been what I would call thorough student consultation. That did not make the decision we took wrong, but how we got there was, in my view, misrepresented. The reality is that consultation is very difficult to achieve. Because senates are often in a terrific hurry to change many things, they have to work with compromise, but that suggests they are happy to be compromised. However, many decisions, such as the one over striking lecturers, seem to boil down to money.

Withholding money from those whom senate needs to implement its policies and make its money work seemed to me counterintuitive and indicative of a badly functioning collective mindset. For me, as a student, there is a definite danger, in the increasing focus on competition and funding, that senates may be sliding into making their projects bigger and more important than the people that they are supposed to represent.

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