Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Meeting with UWE Vice chancellor Steve West

Students from the Frenchay occupation group attended a UWE board of governors meeting, followed by a meeting with the VC. We took with us an open letter that we had created based on meetings within the occupation group.

The letter stated the shared position of students who have participated in the occupation and the process of the camp for education and outlined a first list of demands. One specific demand, that we wanted to emphasise and try to resolve during the meeting called for the Board of Governors to "immediately [abide] by recognising the agreed dispute procedures by moving to status quo ante." This is because, as some of you may know, UWE's staff, represented by University and Colleges Union (UCU), unanimously voted to enter in a formal dispute procedure with management a few weeks ago. According to long-standing agreements, this should have normally suspended the process being disputed (rolling-out of the restructure). However, management didn't freeze anything. Since part of students' grievances is to stop everything that makes UWE worse (UWEWORSITY) and that the restructure is part of that, we agreed at our last assembly that this was a good move because it could help freeze the process and further raise awareness that, despite all their talking, management isn't playing "better together". Moreover, the last assembly thought that it would be a good way to express our solidarity with staff.

This "problem" has been created by UWE management to stall and disrupt the progress of the UCU in their pursuit of a swift resolution regarding the disagreement over the downgrading and pay cutting of 80 professors and readers at UWE. Tactics like this are used to de-moralise the members of the union and keep the process of resolution from even getting off the ground.

A UCU spokesperson told me, "we believe that not only is this bad management as such, but it also seems to contravene the University's own disputes procedure."

When called upon by a student member of the occupation group to end this counterproductive and frankly puerile avoidance of the issues brought up by the UCU, vice chancellor Steve West replied, simply "I am not accountable to you".

This is a demonstration of the attitude UWE management take towards the students of the university. The Vice Chancellor is prepared to "listen" to the opinions of union members and students on a superficial level, which benefits him because it makes him appear democratic. We have to remember that, in some way, our occupation could be of use to him and the board of governors because they can be seen to be allowing it and, apparently, appear to be engaging with students over the matters of concern.

However, despite the rhetoric of UWE about the student experience, at last management admit they are "not accountable" to us. Us, the very fabric of the university and the foundation of their business plan.

Without us the University is nothing. Without the students the Board of Governors doesn't have a function. And yet the decisions these people make about the University are not influenced by the people who attend it, make use of its resources, and create the vibrant academic atmosphere that Steve West and the governors then take credit for.

Essentially we have no say over the "product" we are being "sold". This situation is not concurrent with a democracy, but then universities are becoming increasingly corporatised, and corporations are specifically not democracies. They are private businesses that cannot be held to account by the general public.

This further proves that it is the task of students to create democratic structures within the university in order to fight the unfair decisions made by a Board of Governors who won't let these pesky students get in the way of their profits.

For instance: It was suggested to the Vice Chancellor that, since the government expects some universities to close down, one way of avoiding the downgrading to lecturers and their pay would be to decrease the number of students UWE takes on an annual basis. This would decrease the workload of the lecturers, making it easier for them to give quality lectures and have more face to face time with students. This would in turn benefit UWE management, since it may even lead to the dismissal of lecturers on the grounds that there are not enough students to teach. Furthermore, it would benefit the students who, being less in number have more time with the resources of the university, and with lecturers. Everyone's a winner.

Just a suggestion, then. The Vice Chancellor responded that decreasing the number of students admitted to UWE would "narrow the gate", creating a kind of elitism, whereas his objective was to "widen participation".

It is not necessarily true that decreasing the number of university students per year would create an elitism. If this proposed course of action were taken measures could be put in place to ensure that people from all classes get a chance to attend university. This might include the creation of waiting lists, which would mean that if a student did not get to the university their of choice first time round, they could get in on the second. Sure, some people would be dissapointed at the prospect of having to take a year out, but the assuredness of an affordable quality education after a year would surely soften the blow.

This is just a possible, debatable solution to the problem of education cuts: UWE management do not have to cut academic staff in order to cope. They can cut down on financial expenditure by taking fewer students per year, thus having to spend less, and being able to spread the existing resources over a smaller area. This would also ensure the quality of education for students when they did get into University.

The argument against this was a nice little piece of rhetoric: "elitism", which is obviously a bad thing. It occurred to us, however, that reducing the number of students would reduce the amount of profits an increasingly corporate University would make. It would also take away their need for expansion, and excuse for becoming large, impersonal, education supermarkets selling poor quality goods for an increasingly large amount of money.

However, it was dismissed simply as "elitism", a rhetorical buzzword loaded with bad connotations. This is one example of the University avoiding accountability to the students by giving one word dismissals to arguments and doing nothing more than superficially listening.

I suppose we can expect nothing more from a group of people that are "not accountable" to us in the decisions they make.

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