Governance as trade union strategy: Interview with Bath UCU’s Michael Carley

Michael-Carley-is-president-of-Bath-University-and-College-Union

Building a focus on governance into local trade union strategy is a good way to create leverage for existing campaigns and bring them together under an over-arching narrative of democratisation, according to University of Bath University and College Union (UCU) branch president Michael Carley.

In an exclusive interview with HE Marketisation, Carley described how he has led his branch in fighting a long and highly successful governance campaign at Bath University, which recently resulted in the resignation of vice chancellor (VC) Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell.

Breakwell took early retirement after Bath UCU – working closely together with Unison and the Students’ Union branches at the University, as well as local politicians – revealed that she had not only been a member of the renumeration committee that approved her eye-watering £468,000 a year pay package, but had also tried to stop information about how her pay had been decided coming to light (HE Marketisation, 2 December 2017; 4 October 2017).

By requesting information through the 2000 Freedom of Information Act (FOI) and putting motions through the University’s Court – the statutory body representing the interests of the University’s internal and external constituencies – trade unions have been able to uncover shortcomings in governance.

Reflecting on the strategy behind the campaign at the University of Bath and what could be applied to similar campaigns at other HE institutions, Carley said activists and trade unionists should “look for contradictions” in governance and for when institutions were “not following their own rules.”

“Just pretend that governance really works and see how far you get,” Carley recommended. “And when you do you’ll run up against a brick wall in various places and then you see how it doesn’t function. If you make progress that’s great, but if you get blocked you can still use that as propaganda.”

 

Role of trade unions

The governance campaign at Bath University began with a Bath UCU ‘High Earners‘ report in June 2012, Carley noted.

In the report, Bath UCU pointed to the fact that Breakwell – who was appointed vice chancellor in 2001 – had received an “extra two pounds for every pound” staff had gained over the years in pay rises.

At the time of the report, Breakwell was ranked only 15th in the VC pay league table of UK higher education, compared to the number one position she held just before announcing her retirement.

The report also pointed to a lack of transparency at the level of governance.

In 2011, Bath UCU had sent a letter to chair of the University’s renumeration committee – which sets senior management pay – asking for the minutes of meetings for this committee, and for there to be ordinary members of staff on the membership of this committee.

The University refused Bath UCU’s request. Four months later, Bath UCU found out that the renumeration committee had approved an aggregate pay rise of 5.76% for senior management, 10 times the rise that the rest of staff had received during the same period.

The problem, for Bath UCU, was that the renumeration committee acted on “delegated authority”, which meant that the full Council did not make the decision about senior pay, but rather handed over full authority to some of its members on a Council subcommittee.

It was this discovery that the renumeration committee was operating with no oversight from the council that led Bath UCU into what Carley described as the “rabbit hole” of governance.

Furthermore, while this subcommittee “reported a decision”, Carley added, it did so “without any real minutes”.

“You have a serious problem with governance when governors – people in charge of running the university who have a legal responsibility for doing what they do – can’t do their job properly because the governing body refuses to provide the information justifying its decisions.”

In the absence of such information, Carley argued that trade unions could play a crucial role in occupying the democratic space vacated by faulty governing bodies.

Reports and pamphlets analysing finances and governance processes are not just useful for raising awareness of potential issues with union members, but also for bringing together the “meat and potatoes” work of a trade union branch within a wider political narrative, Carley added.

“The fact that we were putting a pamphlet together, getting the work done, putting the numbers together,” Carley said, “began laying the groundwork for the governance campaign at Bath.”

Pamphlets and reports can also be supported with innovative promotional campaigns.

For example, Bath UCU created a tear off postcard to promote its ‘High Earners’ report, which could be used to write to the chair of Bath University’s governing council – who was also the chair of the renumeration committee – asking for transparency and the publication of minutes of the committee.

“Because the postcard was printed on yellow paper,” Carley added, “our Unison colleagues in the post room were able to tell us roughly how many were going through, because they just stood out in the internal mail.”

 

Freedom of Information

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 also became an important weapon for Bath UCU in its developing governance campaign, Carley said.

“We started learning how to use FOI Act well,” Carley added. “It’s a useful skill, especially using refusal to give information as well as the information you get. If you chase through an Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the very end you’ll always dig up something.”

The Freedom of Information Act gives the public the right to see all kinds of information held by public authorities – a category that still includes colleges and universities – and activists can use the Act to uncover information not necessarily published as a matter of course.

The Act states that public authorities must maintain a ‘publication scheme’, which lists all the classes of information an authority voluntarily makes public, how this information is made available and details of any charges made to this information.

However, if the information needed is not available via an institution’s publication scheme, the second provision of the Act allows information to be requested in the public interest.

Public authorities are then required to respond within 20 working days, confirming or denying whether the information requested is held, and either providing the information or explaining why it has not been provided, quoting one or more of the exemptions in the Act (e.g. that disclosure would damage commercial interests, or prejudice health and safety).

But even if the information is claimed by an institution to be exempt from the Act, activists and trade unionists can still apply to the Information Commissioner for a review, and in some cases exempt information may have to be disclosed in the public interest.

“It takes a lot of time, you need patience,” Carley warned.

“Universities try to play silly games when they send stuff back, they might for example answer precisely the question you asked very pedantically, but they know damned well what you are asking for,” he added. “So the way you phrase your questions and the way you break your requests down into very tight categories is really important. And you just keep digging away at it.”

“For example, I was informed that council was seeing misled about the implementation of the living wage, and they were being told that it couldn’t be done because it would be breaking out of the national framework agreement – which was just not true.”

“I asked as a member of the governing body for the evidence that was presented and was told that I wasn’t going to get that information, so I went to the information commissioner and then I ended up going right up to the tribunal.”

“When you appeal to the information commissioner they make a decision, but when you appeal that decision you are taking the information commissioner to court. At this point you get this bundle of evidence sent to you in the post, with all the internal documents that were used to justify why the University would not release the information.”

 

Joint union work

Carley also pointed to the importance of working with other recognised unions, such as Unison and Unite, and also the local Students’ Union (SU).

“We’ve always had good relations with the other unions here,” Carley noted. “There have never been any conflicts of interest with the other unions because we represent different staff groups.”

“We always try to meet together with the other unions before going in to a joint negotiating committee (JNC) meeting with management. If we present a united line, even if we are not all getting exactly what we want, we will all be a lot better off than if we let management split us off.”

“Management generally try to ignore us, but by working together with the other unions we have lines of communication that get us pretty much everywhere, so we try to put out joint statements that can go out to all staff groups where possible.”

When the governance campaign started to take off at Bath University and reach the national public sphere, Bath SU also began to get involved.

“Up until recently the SU at Bath was fairly neutral – Bath has never been a very political campus,” Carley noted. “However, in the last month or so they have been consulting the membership on governance issues.”

“The SU takes its mandate very seriously, so when we had the no confidence vote at the University’s Senate [the supreme academic authority responsible for regulating and directing the academic work of the University], we had four student representatives there and they said “we’ve been mandated, we’ve consulted, and we vote no confidence in the VC”.”

Before this, Bath UCU had been building links with students ever since the introduction of £9000 tuition fees in 2010. Carley said that it was at this point that students began to “align themselves consciously” with staff, as there was a shared and growing resentment towards and political consciousness about the marketisation of higher education.

However, many SUs remain a-political and in some cases even reactionary.

As Rachel Brooks, Kate Byford and Katherine Sela have argued – based on a UK-wide survey of students’ union officers and two focus groups at each of ten case-study higher education institutions – the role of SUs has changed significantly over the last few decades.

Within the context of marketisation in particular, SUs have moved from an adversarial relationship with senior management to a “co-operative” one, while at the same time taking on a “representative” rather than “activist” function for student members.

“The evidence provides some support for the arguments made by scholars that the student voice has become increasingly ‘domesticated’,” Brooks and colleagues concluded. “By focusing on representation, students’ union officers inevitably foreground issues that affect the day-to-day lives of students rather than broader political or social concerns that may be more aligned with an ‘activist’ agenda.”

“Moreover, the increasing convergence between the values and priorities of students’ unions and senior management (as a result of similar pressures coming to bear on both parties),” they added, “suggests that fewer spaces are now available within higher education institutions from which to offer a radical challenge to either local or national policy.”

In such situations where SUs are unsympathetic, Carley recommended that UCU branches could “build relationships with campaigning student groups”, which can then push forward solidarity agendas through formal student representative structures.

However, SUs and UCU branches must remain politically independent. “We don’t want to be interfering in the operations of students’ unions,” Carley stressed.

 

Bath goes public 

The governance campaign at Bath began to escalate significantly as local politicians became involved.

Councillor Joe Rayment –  Labour Party Deputy Group Leader for the Bath and North East Somerset (BNES) region – was a strong and consistently critical voice throughout the governance campaign at Bath University.

Cllr Rayment had worked at the University, was active in the Unison branch there and was also a UCU member, Carley pointed out. He had been pursuing the governance issue while at the University, and once elected to the BNES Council, continued to push the issue through local government channels.

When Bath UCU discovered that the University was paying £20,000 a year towards the upkeep of Prof Glynnis’ flat in Landsdown Cresent in the city of Bath, Cllr Rayment put in an FOI.

“It was a stroke of luck,” Carley commented. “Basically someone discovered that Bath University had paid employees at Landsdown Cresent, which was odd because there was no campus there, and then when Cllr Rayment put in an FOI all the stuff about the housekeeper etc came out.”

While living at the Landsdown Cresent property rent-free, Breakwell not only claimed £8,738 for a housekeeping and laundry service, but also claimed back £2 for a pack of biscuits.

“We knew about the house, but we did not know it was costing £20k a year in biscuits and gas,” he added. “That’s what took it up to another level.”

Significantly, this was also when the local Bath Chronicle newspaper began to take up the story and run with it. As a result of its coverage of the issue, the Chronicle was the only local paper nominated for national scoop of the year at the 2017 British Journalism awards.

Commenting on the nomination, Bath Chronicle reporter Sam Petherick said he was “over the moon” that a judging panel of more than 50 experienced journalists saw his story “as one of the biggest scoops of the year”.

“It has been an enormously rewarding story to work on over the past 12 months,” he added. “I’d like to say a huge thanks to my outstanding contacts who have provided countless quotes, Freedom of Information responses, tip-offs and encouragement.”

Bath Chronicle editor Gavin Thompson added: “This nomination for the Chronicle reiterates the important work done in local newsrooms on holding those in positions of power to account.”

 

Enter Adonis

The next thing that happened was the “notorious” meeting of the Bath University Court in February this year, Carley said.

In August, Dame Glynis Breakwell was accused of a ‘cover-up’ after a motion arguing for increased transparency on the university board’s renumeration committee was voted down by a margin of 33-30 (HE Marketisation, 4 October 2017).

Following the meeting, in a letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), Cllr Rayment had blown the whistle on what he described as “questionable” events that took place at the board meeting.

“Among those 33 voting against were: the vice chancellor, at least five others whose pay is set by the remuneration committee, and two other members of the remuneration committee,” Cllr Rayment revealed.

Reflecting on what happened, Carley noted that although the Court – the stakeholders’ body consisting of people from the institutions that accredit Bath University’s degrees, the emeritus professors, staff and student representatives – has “no real power”, one of its functions is to receive the University’s accounts.

A member of the Court had submitted a motion to “receive the accounts with concern”, Carley reported, because of the lack of transparency and the lack of justification with regards to how the VC’s pay for the year had been decided.

“You could see them visibly panic,” Carley remembered. “The meeting was appallingly chaired, it was dreadful.”

“Although the motion was defeated, we twigged afterwards that there were a whole bunch of people there who were either on the renumeration committee or were paid by it,” he added.

“By any other standing orders at the university they would have been expected to leave the room. Not just for the vote but leave the room while it was being discussed. They certainly would have had to declare an interest.”

At this point Lord Andrew Adonis intervened after noticing Bath University’s vice chancellor was the highest paid in the English higher education sector.

Despite describing himself as a “moving force” behind increase in fees to £3,000 when he was an adviser to Tony Blair in 2003, Lord Adonis has recently been on the warpath against the leaders of higher education institutions for “forming a cartel” and charging as much as the Government would allow.

Alongside Cllr Rayment’s letter, Adonis also complained to Hefce regarding what had happened at the meeting, calling for an investigation into allegations that the university overrode internal objections to Breakwell’s pay level.

“If the VC’s pay had been held down even by 1 or 2% over the last few years, none of this would have happened,” Carley commented. “A tiny bit of restraint would have been all it needed. But as it was, Adonis went for it.”

“A number of people were already feeding Adonis information,” Carley added. “When he found out what happened at the meeting, he thought “I’ll have them” and he shopped them to Hefce.”

“I think there are very worrying things that he is pushing for with universities, for example wanting to make post-92 universities into polytechnics again,” Carley warned. “But he’s absolutely right about this.”

Hefce published its report on 20 November. The report concluded: “While the remuneration committee meets the basic requirements of Hefce and the guidance issued by the Committee of University Chairs, the university has a significant distance to travel to open the [renumeration] committee’s work to legitimate scrutiny through enhancing its use of various measures of transparency.”

Crucially, the report pointed out that the University had been in breach of its own statutes – which provide the constitutional framework allowing universities to govern their own affairs independently – for 50 years.

“They probably thought it would never matter,” Carley reflected. “That is why it is worth treating the governance structures as if they really work.”

“I always liked the Charter 77 thing in Czechoslovakia,” he said, referring to a petition drawn up by a Czechoslovakian writers and intellectuals in 1989 demanding that the country’s Communist government recognise basic human rights.

“Formally you have all these rights and are covered by this governance structure, so why not just pretend that they really work and see how far you get?”

“Hefce actually noted this in their conclusions,” he added. “They noted that people had in good faith made representations for years through the proper channels and had been ignored.”

 

Democratisation

The University of Bath is now undertaking an “effectiveness review of governance”, Carley revealed, something the University had already committed to but was now being expanded in light of the Hefce report.

“They have to do it every few years,” he said. “The last one found that governance was ‘unsatisfactory’, so the University is now going to hire someone to do an independent assessment.”

As part of this independent review, Bath University announced that the academic senate would be involved, and could make recommendations to the University’s council.

However, Bath UCU intends to run its own “commission” in parallel to this management initiative, Carley revealed.

“We intend to hold hearings, take evidence and seek submissions and basically produce a detailed proposal for a set of governance structures,” Carley said. “That’s in the medium term.”

Realistically this process wouldn’t start that until the new year, Carley added. In the mean time Bath UCU are still conducting their own investigation into what actually happened with governance – particularly now that Breakwell is set to receive full pay until the start of March 2019 and a car loan write-off worth £31,000 as part of her retirmenet package (HE Marketisation, 2 December 2017).

“I think they still believe that they have some authority and they still believe that by going through a mechanical process they can go on doing what they are doing,” Carley commented. “What they do not understand is they have completely lost their authority – moral and formal authority. People are just not going to do what they are told.”

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