(Featured image via Pat Reynolds, licenced CC BY-NC 2.0.)

A new policy proposed by the education sabbatical officer Bee Morgan means LUSU is now boycotting open days and applicant visit days until Lancaster University commits to sustainable growth.

The policy paper was supported by the LUSU Executive Committee on 28th January, in the same meeting where they narrowly approved George Nuttall's officer review.

The proposal pointed out a number of issues with the extended timetable that has resulted in 6pm to 7pm lectures for a significant number of students. It pointed out that the University is ‘playing catch-up’ with the student population, scurrying to finish the Health Innovation Campus, the Library extension, and build a new 400-seater lecture theatre.

Ms Morgan’s proposal also makes the overwhelming case of the effects on academic staff. It points out that there has been ‘double teaching’, that greater workloads are being heaped on graduate teaching assistants, staff are unable to form working relationships with students in such large classes, staff can sometimes not have the time or focus to provide useful feedback, and counselling and learner development staff are constantly overbooked and overworked.

This is a far cry from the LUSU AGM in October, where Ms Morgan proposed a motion on potential strike action, which, among other things, described Lancaster UCU as ‘very anti-students’ union’, and said that it had ‘blocked progress on several key student issues.’ An amendment to the motion was passed during the meeting, which changed the motion to be pro-UCU. The motion was subsequently passed.

Ms Morgan's boycott is based on five conditions: that student numbers are capped at the current level or lower for the next three years, that 6pm to 7pm teaching is scrapped, that teaching is removed from the Great Hall, that there is a real commitment to ‘future proof’ space, and that the first-year accommodation guarantee is upheld.

Issues with the unsustainable growth of the University came to the fore in October 2019, when serious safety failings were uncovered at the Caton Court ‘student village’ in Lancaster. Hundreds of first-year students who came to the University through clearing were unable to secure accommodation on campus and were advised to seek rooms in Caton Court and other private-sector developments.

As recently as April 2019, the University has proclaimed the value of its ‘accommodation guarantee’ to all first-year students:

The University has an established guarantee to all first-year students that they will be accommodated in on-campus accommodation, enabling them to have a safe and full first year university experience by being placed into one of the 'colleges'. This 'accommodation guarantee' is considered to be one of the pillars of success for the student experience at Lancaster, for which the University is "triple top 10" ranked in the UK; it is therefore a critical contributor to the University's successful recruitment and league table position.

An email obtained by Spineless under freedom of information laws indicates that Steve Bradley, the Interim Vice-Chancellor, endorsed on 23rd August a policy of continuing to outsource student accommodation to the private sector:

Ms Morgan’s proposal pointed out that the 2020 Strategic Plan issued by the University has a target of 15,000 students for this year. Spineless understands student numbers at the start of the year were in the region of 15,500. The Campus Masterplan, published in 2017, suggested that 2020 ‘could be a ‘tipping point’ where the size of our undergraduate body could damage the positive campus experience cited by students as a key reason for high student satisfaction at Lancaster.’ The Masterplan suggested capping undergraduate student numbers at 12,000 in 2021/2022.

The University has been criticised in recent years for its use of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers to attract students, a practice opposed by the Office for Students. Former education secretary Damian Hinds described their use as an ‘unethical practice’, but a University spokesperson has claimed ‘Lancaster’s unconditional offer scheme is linked to excellence in scholarship to attract the best applicants and therefore encourages students to continue to strive for the best possible grades in their exams.’

Over 50% of the University’s income is from tuition fees, and another sizable portion will come from student accommodation fees. Without this guarantee of incoming cash, the University would have been unable to fund its vast ongoing capital expenditure programme worth circa £300 million. One impact could be the 2019 Augar Review, which looked into funding of higher education, and proposed reducing tuition fees to £7,500 (this had an impact on the University's credit rating). But University management knows best: former vice-chancellor Mark E. Smith, who refused to declare a Climate Emergency in his time in office, described capital expenditure projects as ‘about simple sustainability’. So that’s that, then.