UCL inquiry to put ‘academic values back at centre of governance’

Academic board votes for governance commission after lecturers’ campaign

May 21, 2018
College sculpture
Source: Alamy

UCL lecturers have successfully pressed for an inquiry into the institution’s governance aimed at “re-establishing academic values” at the centre of how the university is run, following concerns over its strategy.

Lecturers had forced a special meeting of the university’s academic board – which advises the governing council on all academic matters – to consider a motion to hold a commission on governance at the institution, which is led by president Michael Arthur.

On 14 May, the academic board passed the motion by 149 votes to 44, with seven abstentions.

The moves comes after an informal “town hall” meeting in February, prompted in part by concerns over UCL’s £483 million plan to build a new campus in east London, which scholars fear could put the institution under pressure financially and – because of rapidly expanding student numbers – endanger its academic quality.

At the meeting, which was attended by more than 100 staff, 94 per cent backed a motion of no confidence in the governance of UCL. A similar motion was backed by 97 per cent of voters at a UCL Students’ Union general assembly in February.

A letter “requisitioning a special meeting of academic board” to vote on the motion to hold a commission, signed by 148 academics, cited these factors and also “a document (originally circulated to the 78-person communications & marketing team) that indicates a culture of anti-academic and anti-democratic attitudes in sections of UCL operations leadership”. This appears to refer to an email sent after the town hall meeting by Charles Hymas, at that time UCL’s director of media relations.

In the email, reported on by Times Higher Education in March, Mr Hymas wrote that there was “such a frenzy of hatred against the evil management of UCL that they would have made a blind, three-legged elephant provost of UCL”. Mr Hymas has since “left to pursue other opportunities”, according to the university.

The academics’ letter also cited “the decision of UCL senior management to adopt a position on the USS pension scheme of fundamental import in 2014 and 2017, that was kept from the academic board”.

“In light of all the above, it is clear that members of the college identify problems of governance, management culture, and with the strategic direction in which UCL has been taken,” the letter says. “These issues must be addressed and a positive way forward found that respects the academic and learning communities of UCL, re-establishing academic values at the centre of UCL’s governance and ethos.”

The motion put forward by the academics says that the commission will have a membership comprised of two former elected members of council, two current elected members of council, three members of the governance committee of the academic board, one member of the senior management team, four heads of academic units, six elected members of the academic board and two students.

One UCL academic, who asked not to be named, said: “This is a really good example of how to deal with these problems. The academics have agreed to set up a commission to look into the problems that have occurred and to provide for the council recommendations to rectify them.

“Rather than just moaning, we’ve done something about it in a non-confrontational way.”

A UCL spokeswoman said: “The debate at academic board was collegial and illustrated that governance of a large, complex university is a real challenge. The commission is committed to making positive suggestions for improvements to governance, and these will be considered carefully in due course by academic board and council.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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