Visitor quits in union dispute

June 25, 2004

Bust-up between AUT and management at Swansea escalates into 'all-out war'. Tony Tysome reports.

A top barrister acting on behalf of the Queen as visitor to the University of Wales Swansea has stepped down in the middle of a dispute involving a staff petition attacking management.

The move by Neil Garnham QC is believed to be unprecedented in the 500-year history of the university visitorial system.

It is one of a series of extraordinary events to have arisen out of the escalating conflict between academic union leaders at Swansea and Richard Davies, the university's vice-chancellor, over planned course closures and restructuring.

The latest of these, a plea from Professor Davies to the national Association of University Teachers to investigate the behaviour of its Swansea branch, was described by one union leader this week as an act of "all-out war".

Other flash points include a preliminary investigation by the National Audit Office into claims by the local AUT that Professor Davies had pushed through spending plans without following proper procedures.

The battle lines were drawn in April when Swansea AUT filed a 120-page petition to Mr Garnham, as the visitor, claiming that Professor Davies had flouted university charters and statutes in the way he went about his plans to axe philosophy, sociology, anthropology, development studies and undergraduate teaching in chemistry.

But union representatives were furious with Mr Garnham's response. They said it addressed a "submission in anticipation of a petition", sent by university management a day before the AUT petition was made, rather than the petition itself.

In what has been described by local MPs as a "pre-emptive strike", the university's submission told Mr Garnham he would receive a petition from the local AUT that asked for him to decide only whether it was right to close chemistry and send prospective students letters telling them they no longer had places.

In fact, the AUT's petition was far more wide-ranging, encompassing other threatened departments and management plans.

Union representatives complained to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, formerly the Lord Chancellor's Department, which acts on behalf of the Queen in her capacity as visitor to a number of UK universities including Swansea.

The department wrote back to say that while Mr Garnham did not accept that he had "directed his mind to untrue and irrelevant considerations", he had suggested that "it may be more appropriate for another visitor to be appointed to decide the remaining issues in relation to the petition".

The department's letter added: "We will therefore be recommending to Her Majesty that a new visitor should be appointed."

Nicola Pittman, a senior lawyer in the department's constitutional law division, said it was not true that Mr Garnham had ignored the AUT's petition.

Mike Cohen, vice-president of Swansea AUT and coordinator of the petition, said there was now confusion over what parts of the petition Mr Garnham's replacement would consider.

He said: "The department told us we should select those issues we still regarded as live. But we never did that, we just said: 'You have mishandled our petition and treated it as if it was something else.' No one knows which elements are meant to have been decided."

Swansea has now been given until Friday to respond to the full petition.

Professor Davies said the situation was "highly complicated", because in coming to his conclusions Mr Garnham "dismissed a number of the areas within the petition". Meanwhile, Professor Davies is involved with the NAO investigation into claims that he had pushed through plans to spend millions of pounds on a new business school and 11 academic posts without following proper procedures.

He declined to comment on the NAO probe, other than to say: "We will robustly defend ourselves against the accusations made." He also declined to comment on his call for the national AUT to investigate its Swansea branch.

But in a letter to Terry McKnight, AUT national president, Professor Davies claims that in opposing his restructuring plans for the university "at every turn", Swansea AUT had adopted "confrontation for its own sake".

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