Questions have been raised over education sabb Bee Morgan’s position on University Council, the highest decision-making body of Lancaster University.
Ms Morgan occupies a position which, according to the University Statutes approved by the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, is reserved for ‘One student of the University appointed by the Students’ Union.’ Ms Morgan is no longer a student, as she graduated in July 2019. Concerns have been raised to both the University and the Students’ Union over their interpretation of the Statutes, though neither organisation has agreed that the position should, in fact, be occupied by a current student.
The position was previously directly-elected from the student body, until 2019. The last elected student holder of the position was George Nuttall, who is now President of LUSU. Spineless understands that the role is now appointed from within the sabbatical officer team, hence why Ms Morgan is the current holder.
The decision to remove the elected student representative appears to have been discussed at a LUSU Executive Committee meeting on 26th October 2018. The University had undertaken a ‘governance review’ and asked LUSU to examine alternative ways to appoint the student representative, but agreed to defer the decision to LUSU. However, this meeting was inquorate so decisions were made to take it to a ‘digital resolution’, presumably meaning approval via email.
This decision by the Executive Committee has since been overruled by the quorate AGM in October 2019, which voted overwhelmingly to approve the Democratisation motion. This motion explicitly demanded the restoration of ‘the directly elected student position on University Council.’
The issue of the legal interpretation of the University Statutes is a separate one, but exposes hypocrisy in the University's governance. The definition of a student in the Statutes says they must be ‘pursuing any course of study in the University for which a fee is payable to the University and which leads to a Degree, Diploma, Certificate or other academic distinction of the University.’ They may also be ‘other such persons pursuing courses of study in the University’ as the University Senate determines. In fact, the Statutes explicitly say that LUSU-appointed student representatives ‘shall cease to be members of Council on ceasing to be students of the University.’
The only document in defence of Ms Morgan’s position on Council is the Code of Practice between LUSU and the University. This document is a legal requirement under the Education Act 1994 and was approved by University Council. It says that sabbatical officers ‘have the status of Full Time Officers alongside their status as students (for the avoidance of doubt this will also include individuals who become Full Time Officers following graduation).’
The Statutes and the Code of Practice are in direct contradiction on this issue, and it’s unclear which actually takes precedence. Spineless would lean towards the Statutes having greater precedence, as they are one of the two governing documents of the University (alongside the Charter), and are approved by an external government body: the Privy Council. If the Statutes do take precedence, does this mean that Ms Morgan is ineligible to hold the position she currently does? Does this, therefore, compromise votes that took place when she was on Council, such the approval of the new vice-chancellor?
The Privy Council Office has advised Spineless that a complaint could be made to the University on this issue, but on appeal would have to be heard by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education which could make a decision on the interpretation of the rules.
Spineless has come to understand that sabbatical officers were previously considered students by the LUSU constitution, as this had real implications for issues such as payment of council tax, from which students are exempt. It also held importance when sabbatical officers were elected but then failed their examinations. However, as the current set of sabbatical officers do pay council tax, this argument no longer holds up to scrutiny.
This is not the first time that the University's interpretation of its own Statutes has been a point of concern. In 2011, the University ward Labour councillor Paul Aitchison was nominated to sit on University Council as the representative of Lancaster City Council. The University initially refused to accept the nomination, claiming that as a then-student, Cllr Aitchison was ineligible to sit as the City Council's representative. The City Council argued that there was nothing in the Statutes to justify the University's position, and in defiance of the University, voted to re-nominate Cllr Aitchison. Obviously realising that their initial position had no legal basis, the University eventually relented, accepting the City Council's nomination in February 2012, nine months after it was initially made. The University later amended its statutes to disqualify current students from serving as the City Council representative on University Council, before abolishing the position entirely.
It is the hope of Spineless that Ms Morgan opts to resign from Council to avoid a constitutional headache, and instead allows a student to stand for election to the role, as the AGM mandated. Surely it's not too much to ask that students have at least one representative on their University's governing body?