The University of Oxford is over nine hundred years old. Despite considerable effort by recent Vice-Chancellors to introduce modern management practices, it is still governed by an archaic system of decision making, originating in classical Greece, known as democracy. Over 4,500 members of university staff are entitled to vote in the university parliament, known as congregation. Most of the time, few pay any attention to the various changes in regulations that pass by, but every so often a major controversy will arise, such as debating whether senior professors should be forced to retire at a given age, or the remodelling of student accommodation blocks, which can divide the university. In such cases the sovereign role of congregation becomes clear.
Therefore, as soon as media reports of Oxford’s role in the proposed USS pension changes came out, it was no surprise that a proposal was put forward to change the university position. Most members of congregation like myself have a very limited idea of exactly how the system works—and I would stress this post is just a personal account of an eye witness and not a serious analysis—but there are significant groups of lawyers, historians, and other academics with a Hermione-Granger-like enthusiasm for studying the statutes, regulations, and history of our university. This led to Resolution 5, instructing our Vice Chancellor, Louise Richardson, to change Oxford’s response to the pension consultation.
However there was a procedural issue. For this resolution to have a meaningful impact, it had to be debated on 6 March, before the end of Hilary Term. This meant only eighteen, instead of the required twenty-two, days’ notice were given. Therefore it was accompanied by Resolution 4, requesting that this requirement be waived. This did not seem unreasonable given the urgency of the situation, coming as lecturers, researchers, and administrative staff were preparing to strike.
Thus, on Tuesday of Week 8 of term, several hundred of those of us privileged enough to have ‘Congregation’ printed on our university cards went through multiple security checks and into the Sheldonian theatre, the ornate arena for university ceremonies, design by Christopher Wren after the Civil War in the 17th century. We took our seats underneath the 32-panel ceiling fresco depicting “Truth descending on the Arts and Sciences to expel Ignorance from the University”. We were issued with ballot papers, and listened to the Pro Vice Chancellor (and experimental physicist) Ian Walmsley, talk through the formalities. Oxford University ceremonies, with all the fancy costumes, theatrical gestures, and use of Latin, always make for good theatre. Professor Walmsley was almost as good as his performance as Dr Eve in the 2008 physics department film The DiVincenzo Code.
He talked through Resolutions 1 to 3 (concerning use of space in the Fleming Boathouse, and requirement that the Sermon on the Grace of Humility be preached on Quinquagesima Sunday). The audience waited patiently, while we could hear the chants of the students and non-congregation staff who had gathered outside to support the motion. The best bit was when he got his tongue in a twist and said ‘revolution’ instead of ‘resolution’ to a huge round of applause from the congregation that took some time to die down.
He explained the rule that Resolution 4 could be dismissed if twenty or more members of congregation stood up from their seats. In such a case, the debate would be held, but the vote would be postponed until next term. The gossip on the picket line the previous day had been that the Vice Chancellor would use this to block the debate. She had sent an email the previous week stating she could not attend the meeting and adding “I don’t think the authors have made a convincing case for having the debate on pensions now, but that is for Congregation to decide.” Given the strength of feeling on the day, we wondered if this would really happen.
It did. On cue, a small number of people rose from their seats in silence. I counted less than ten, but evidently some more had taken places on back rows or behind columns, where I couldn’t see them. It took the proctors five or ten minutes to find and count them all. The enthusiasm of the crowd present had generated an atmosphere of optimism and for a few minutes it looked like there would not be enough standers to stop the debate.
Eventually it was announced that there were “more than twenty” (Later reports put the total at 21.) At this point things turned to mayhem. Some people shouted things like “I’m outta here!” and got up to walk out, while others stayed, unsure what was happening. As the Pro-VC tried to say there would still be a debate, it became clear that most people were leaving. Someone shouted out a proposal to hold the vote outside. This was immediately followed by a cry of something like “I second that!” That was the signal the crowd needed to all vacate the room en-masse.
Outside, in the courtyard between the Sheldonian and the Clarendon building, which security had sealed off from the protesters in the street, there was an informal vote in favour of Resolution 5, by a show of hands and then a collection of ballot papers before everyone marched into the street to join the students and other protestors. The final result was 443-2 in favour of the proposal. I say ‘informal’ as that is what I assumed it was, although those doing the counting treated it as a formal vote, and some subsequent reports have suggested that at least in some sense it was. Someone suggested the proposal to move the vote outside was in line with some regulation.
In Broad Street, we gathered in front of the steps to the Clarendon building, where a series of speakers presented the arguments they had prepared to give in the debate. The blocking of the vote had been predicted, but actually seeing how it happened made the reality of what was going on clear. It was a clear attempt to use a procedural tactic to block a debate. And Richardson’s fans said she was a hero of free speech. Suddenly our pension no longer seemed to be the big issue. It was about the university governance. I heard the phrase “vote of no confidence” mentioned several times. One of my professor friend shook his head and remarked that the VC was now “dead in the water”.
Yet the following morning, things took a new twist, when the Vice-Chancellor sent out an email announcing that she had changed her stance and would now recommend the University Council reverse its response to the USS survey. This news came as we were setting up picket lines, and talking about distributing details of those senior heads who had stood up to block the debate. Our numbers were augmented by new members who had decided to join in anger at the fiasco of the previous day. We waited all day for the news that council had approved this U-turn, which eventually came just before 6pm.
What is the outcome of all this drama? It’s a big victory. We achieved what we wanted in shifting the university position at the critical time in the strike negotiations. It was hoped that Oxford could be the tipping point to change Universities UK’s position. In the following days we had reports that other universities, and the Oxford colleges, were aligning themselves with this. Yet the battle is not over. There is no news of a breakthrough in negotiations yet. We are now well aware of the ability of those at the top to use dodgy tactics to achieve to achieve their objectives. The strike is still on.
So back to the picket Monday morning. Hopefully this will be the last week—Universities UK will see sense and compromise—and I can get back to doing, and writing about, science.