Cambridge ‘forces of conservatism’ fight postdoc voting plan

Conflict over proposals to grant say in running of university to all 4,000 postdocs, who conduct ‘bulk’ of research

October 24, 2018
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A battle is under way over which University of Cambridge staff are granted a say in the running of the institution, with the “forces of conservatism” seeking to block plans to give 2,000 more postdocs a right to vote on its governing body.

Backers of plans to make all Cambridge’s 4,000 postdoctoral researchers members of the Regent House – at present around half are – say that the move would give a proper voice to staff who conduct a major and increasing proportion of the university’s research, but are on insecure short-term contracts.

They have submitted a formal proposal to the Regent House, a Grace, which would put that change into effect.

But an amendment to the Grace has been proposed, backed by some members of Cambridge’s executive body, the council, which would extend the franchise to only those postdocs with three years of continuous service at the university.

The absence of a “grandfathering” clause in the amended Grace providing exemptions would mean that some postdocs would lose their existing voting rights.

The rival Graces have now gone to a vote of the Regent House.

The number of postdocs at Cambridge has doubled over the past 15 years, according to the Postdocs of Cambridge Society annual report. Postdocs make up “a diverse and international group of people which delivers the bulk of the university’s research output, striving to succeed with limited tenure”, says the report.

At present, the right of postdocs to vote in the Regent House is dependent on whether their department or faculty grants them such rights.

Supporters of the original plan said that any requirement for a continuous qualification period “will discriminate against staff who take a career break – with women likely to suffer most”.

They added in their written statement circulated with voting papers: “Cambridge must extend the franchise to all postdoctoral research workers, as inclusive faculties already do. It must not expel existing members of our governing body and it must not discriminate against women.”

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, a member of the council and a backer of the original Grace, described council members who opposed it as “the forces of conservatism”.

He said that the amended Grace imposing a continuous service requirement would be an “absolutely bizarre” way to mark the 70th anniversary of women gaining the right to receive full degrees at Cambridge.

But others say that maternity and other family-related leave would not constitute a break in service.

Supporters of the amended Grace said in their written statement that the qualifying period is “not a perfect solution”, but “serves as a proxy for selecting those most likely to have an interest in Cambridge’s particular needs and governance arrangements”.

Another statement backing the amended Grace says that the Regent House currently consists of about 1,800 academics, 850 academic-related staff, 1,300 research staff and 1,550 others.

If the original plan were approved it would mean “about 2,100 persons” being “newly enfranchised, resulting in research staff being close to, or in, the majority, and further increasing the imbalance in membership between the arts and sciences”, the statement says.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Voting closes tomorrow, not in three weeks! This is vitally important for the rights of research staff. At present, most researchers in the arts/humanities/social sciences are not Regents, while those in STEM are more likely to be enfranchised already. The concern for maternity and family leave is that if a grant ends while on leave, and the researcher comes back afterwards on a new grant (and this is not uncommon) then it will be a break in service.

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