(Featured image: A 1970 demonstration in Alexandra Square calling for the resignation of Pro-Chancellor Lord Derby after his reactionary views on student discipline, a Senate, not Council, matter, were published in the press.)

During the recent LUSU election campaign, Spineless sat down with Marion McClintock MBE, Lancaster University's Honorary Archivist and an Honorary Fellow, to discuss student democracy: its origins, its development, and its present form. The conversation ranged from a potential Students' Union building to the role of student representatives on the committees of Council and Senate.

Marion McClintock runs the University Archive, located in the Science and Technology Building. The Archive can be visited by appointment, her email is m.mcclintock@lancaster.ac.uk.

Firstly, by way of introduction, not every student knows who you are. What is your role presently, and what's your history at the University?

I'm Marion McClintock, I was Academic Registrar for 12 years from 1994 to 2006. When I retired, I became Honorary University Archivist, and I work in the Archive on a daily basis and can be visited there.

For the sake of transparency, when did you begin working at Lancaster University?

We came here late in 1968. So much of what has happened here is personal knowledge to me.

We’re here to talk to you about student democracy and what form that takes. To start with, a question worth asking is: why do you think there is a need for democracy in the University at all? For instance, nowadays the University is about expanding its estate, expanding its offering, and having the money to do that. It's run more commercially and in competition with other universities. Why should staff or students have a say in how it's run? Why shouldn't it just be run by managers?

The University is a business, but it's also much more than a business. It's an institution governed by a charter and statutes, which have charitable objects, which require duties of all its members. All staff and students and graduates are members of the University and have a responsibility shared between them for everything which happens here in the University.

Of course, the University is in legal terms a public authority, as well. It is considered that way by the Freedom of Information Act, for instance. And it has always been funded by a significant quantity of public money, whether directly or indirectly as is now the case. It ranks among other public authorities such as Lancaster City Council, where there is a lot of oversight, a lot of democracy, lots of procedures, a lot of transparency. If you compare it to those institutions, you can see why there should be democracy in terms of scrutiny over how public funds are spent.

Universities are actually in a slightly ambiguous position. They are not fully public bodies in the sense that a local authority is, but they should abide by the Nolan Principles on standards in public life. These include things transparency and accountability, which means that just as public bodies should follow those and follow ethical practices, so should universities in the conduct of their business.

Certainly, the founders of the University agree with you. Hence why, when the University was set up in the 1960s, there was a wealth of democracy.

Yes, there was.

In the first few years, student democracy developed significantly. There were a lot of discussions around this reflected in your book Quest for Innovation, but the first forms of this were the Federation of JCRs and the Student Representative Council, which were both predecessors to the Students' Union. Could you explain the purpose of these and how they came to be?

We decided - I say we, in the sense of we and our predecessors - that the University should be collegiate, and the Colleges should play a major role in the way the University was run. That's why they were so prominent on University Senate and made up almost a third of its membership. The College Syndicates were directly responsible to the Senate and they had a place in the Charter and Statutes. The students in turn - let's be simplistic for a moment and talk about undergraduates - undergraduates were members of JCRs which were self-governing bodies, and they, in turn, had constitutions. That meant that the Colleges, in making decisions and in being accountable to the Senate, accommodated and took account of those decisions. Those decisions, collectively, between the colleges that existed - whether it was 2, 4, 6, 8, or whatever number it was - they became the decision-making bodies for the students. After a while, we had the grouping of the JCRs, and then we had the Student Representative Council, which included the Federation of the JCRs and a certain number of other officers. It was accountable to the student body and accountable to the University, and it had its own constitution from the beginning, which we have successive versions of in the archive.

So, these were the original bodies through which student democracy was carried out...

Yes, and there was actually a pretty hot debate in the late '60s because there was the original intention that Colleges and JCRs would be so independent that they don't need an umbrella organisation, just as we didn't need a Students' Union building because all the resources were being put into the Junior Common Rooms. There was a fierce debate over how students wanted to run their affairs, and it was agreed, after much debate, that it was sensible to have a single student voice while not ignoring the separate colleges. That's why, over time, we evolved to have a Union Council, where places like the JCRs were still very important. Even when the Union Council expanded to about 50 people, the Colleges were still important. They were particularly important because those JCRs officers, who often became Presidents themselves, came from groups who knew each other very closely and who discussed formally and informally on a day-to-day basis. They came with well-supported arguments, which they knew they could support, from their constituents - and that was really important.

A potential Students' Union building has been put back on the agenda in recent weeks. What are your thoughts on the merits of that proposal and the history behind it?

That's been often discussed, and it would immediately cause a stripping-out of resources from the Colleges because you wouldn't invest in both. At the moment, one small example is how we look after non-resident students. We've gone backwards and forwards on this, but by and large, non-resident students can, at the very least, declare their membership of a College, and they have rights in the College, and in the better Colleges they also have dedicated space. That means that they go into a community where they're immediately known on a personal basis and where people pick up things for them, carry, or say things - all kinds of small gestures that mean non-resident students have a very direct and personal day-to-day with the University which isn't just departmental. I think that's very important. There are lots of other examples but that's a good one.

I understand that following the Craig Affair of 1972, with lots of student unrest, University Council asked Tom Taylor to carry out an Inquiry to look into the reasons why it happened and the solutions to it. One of the recommendations, as I understand, was about a student space.

Yes, he advocated a social space which eventually became the Sugarhouse. He didn't advocate a Students' Union building.

But there was an effort, something called the Umbrella Project?

Yes. There was a feeling that the students needed somewhere to be boisterous, joyful, noisy. And so, it was thought that on the slope that goes down fromthe Chaplaincy Centre towards Bigforth Farm, that we could put up a building, and it was going to be a round building, and it was going to be for the benefit of the Students' Union but paid for by the University. This was at a time when the University could still get funds, bearing in mind you had local authority input for student support at that time. Rather than have a formal Students' Union building, the project was thought to be more beneficial, and wouldn't have conflicted with having JCRs.

When abouts was that discussed?

That was in 1972.

Do you recall why that fell through?

Partly because of money, partly because people couldn't completely agree on the brief, and partly because actually the space was rather constrained. It is a difficult area, it's not straightforward to develop there.

Since then, there have been very big capital expenditure programmes that the University has carried out - building works - particularly in the 1990s also in the present day. A Students' Union building has not featured in either of these programmes. Do you have any idea why?

We have talked endlessly about it. The Students' Union started in the east end of Alexandra Square. They then had Slaidburn House built for them specifically. So that was going to be the solution, that we'd actually given them dedicated space. Except they then grew out of it, and there were too many functions. So, we adapted part of Bowland College, so the whole of what was the English department and beyond became the wing for the Students' Union. So, we'd sorted the problem, we'd given them high-quality, centrally positioned space, from which they can operate effectively. So that's the current state of the argument. What do they feel about it?

Part of the argument is that there's an element of prestige - every other Students' Union has some kind of nice large space. There's also an element of discomfort at how it is right beside University House. There is a symbolism there. Also, you find University staff are constantly in and out of their building and using their meeting rooms, things like that.

I think even we were to build a building; I can't imagine the University saying, "And by the way, we'll never use your meeting rooms." Space is just too valuable here. And the University would have to put up the money, the Students' Union couldn't possibly do it. So, it would come with enormous conditions, and increasingly so.

This discussion does tie into democracy in the student body, fundamentally it relates to college spaces and JCRs, and because we have these, there has never been the willpower to invest in a big, shiny Students' Union building. JCRs are fundamental to student democracy in Lancaster, where you have a collegiate system. But one of the things that is said nowadays is that JCRs and College power on University committees has decreased, and Colleges aren't taken as seriously anymore as they used to be. One example is 10 or so years ago when the University centralised College bars, removing the power from the Colleges. Is there not an argument that power has moved from the JCRs to the Students' Union?

I'll take that question in two parts. The colleges have been more reviewed than any other part of this University, constantly, including, for example, the Audland Review of the mid-1990s, which was probably the most significant. He was particularly concerned with making sure College senior officers were adequately reimbursed and making sure they were effective bodies. And it carries on and on and on. The way in which the Senate was restructured under Mark Smith was also significant, as the College membership was cut back severely in the reduction of Senate. Senate is now very strongly ex officio. However, the College Principals are still on the Senate, and part of my response to your question would be: let's assume for a moment that democracy is re-established at Lancaster and the Senate plays a more significant role again in the future, then the fact that the College Principals are on the Senate will be very important.

If you have a Students' Union that, constitutionally, is already a separate charity, already had its own building, reworked its constitution to be even more separate, then I suspect that would then be an argument for taking the College Principals off Senate. Because they would then just become more like Wardens. In other words, you would be demolishing the College system at Lancaster. It's more fundamental than you imagine. You really are picking at the core fabric of the University. We advertise ourselves as a collegiate university, it's one of our strengths. If we have any sense, we will continue to do so. Why do I say that? Because there is evidence over time, and in everything that students say to me, there are all sorts of ways in which colleges actually matter. Alumni, particularly, remember them. You can always ask somebody, and they will say "Oh, it was so-and-so, and I lived in so-and-so." Immediate. It's very interesting. The Colleges do matter and therefore saying that they are being depowered is about the will of this University in the way it manages itself and the way it faces up to difficult issues.

The other problem is that they don't have appropriate representation at Pro-Vice-Chancellor level, within the senior management team.

That is another interesting question because you had the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs and the Colleges, then you had the Provost position, but now it's disappeared. It was previously elected by the Senate, so it was, in essence, a democratically elected role, when Alan Whitaker held it for instance. And he was elected, as I understand it, as the student and college candidate, because there were the votes on Senate to do that. How did this role come about; I assume it wasn't originally part of the University?

Well, you are not required to have any Pro-Vice-Chancellors. At first, we just had generic Pro-Vice-Chancellors. Philip Reynolds was our first one. Gradually the roles differentiated themselves and we got to the point - very early on actually - where we began to have a Pro-Vice-Chancellor who began to have a particular specialism with the colleges. All these Pro-Vice-Chancellorships were elected posts, up until Paul Wellings, really, who terminated elections. He didn't like them. During his period as Vice-Chancellor they came to an end.

After Amanda Chetwynd's retirement, the position has now been lost.

We now have a senior college principal, Nigel Watson, who is sort of a supra college principal. But I don't know whether he attends UMAG, for example.

Our view is that it's important to have a student and college representative in the senior management team, and the fact that it's gone is not a good thing. It's a good time to ask about the committees of Senate and Council themselves. Students are on the committees and have always been...

Well, they weren't when we opened. It came about in the late 60s when the NUS and the Vice-Chancellor signed a concordat saying that students should be part of senior University bodies. In fact, we were already moving in that direction, of our own volition, but nevertheless that was a helpful statement. From '68 onwards, students have been members of senior bodies and share responsibility, e.g. on Council, with other trustees of the University.

There was an interview between Charles Carter and a John O'Gauntlet reporter in 1972, where they were discussing student membership on Senate. The number of students on Senate at the time was nine, and the JOG reporter said "that's not enough! There are 40, 50 people on Senate, how is the student voice supposed to get represented?" And Charles Carter said, "well, they do make a big impact." We get the impression they were quite tenacious. This is something I've heard from a former student representative on Council, who said that they often were very well prepared. They were on Council when University finances were a massive issue. They made actually valuable contributions that weren't always what the Vice-Chancellor wanted to hear.

There's one very good example of that which I can offer you when Liam Danby was President, and we were discussing the major reshaping of the residences. We had a schedule which required us to do things in a certain order, and that order was unstoppable. Liam argued very strongly for us to have a break, a phased approach so that we could regroup and reconsider partway through. The result of that is the original building of County College still stands because that would have been demolished as part of the schedule. Because we reconsidered, we had another discussion about it and did not demolish that building. So, in a single afternoon, he made a significant contribution that materially altered the progress of a major project within the University.

One of the criticisms we've heard of the current student representatives, on these committees, is that they don't make contributions, they often seem to approve things that they subsequently regret approving, such as the Protest Code, and it's absolutely crucial at this point because we've got this huge capital expenditure programme with vast sums of money. There's really been very little public scrutiny of these loan deals. It's harder to revise these things once they've been passed, so there's a question about the adequacy of the student representation nowadays.

That's obviously not something I'm directly involved in anymore and can't really comment on. My wish would be that students should, as you said, be well prepared, understand the interests of their constituents, take their responsibilities very seriously, and come forward with well-reasoned arguments that command respect and therefore get discussed because they obviously have merit and evidence behind them.

Should the student representatives be expected to report the non-confidential business of these committees to the student body?

We've oscillated in Lancaster's history between being very restricted in the information we release and being very open about it. Our third Vice-Chancellor, when he came into post, said he wasn't going to use restricted labels anymore. After ten years, the restricted labels had begun to creep back. Vice-Chancellors do find that for all sorts of reasons it's helpful to have them. We now use commercially sensitive a great deal, but actually, when you think about our funders, why are we doing that? When you think about the purpose of our buildings, why are we doing that? For example, that 400-seater lecture theatre, there should have been no reason, from beginning to end, why anything about that should be confidential.

One thing that stands out from looking at University Council minutes is that they are very brief and refer to papers that aren't in the public domain. To get an understanding of what decisions are made, there needs to be a lot more public information.

I hope that's something that the incoming Vice-Chancellor may address.

You may be more optimistic than us. Turning to University House itself, we were presented with a statistic recently which was quite impressive. An analysis of the Annual Accounts showed that in the last four or five years there has been a 250% increase in staff earning over £100,000. It's now almost 60. The likely explanation is that more high-paid managers hired. How different do you see the culture of University House now to how it used to be?

There's one major difference, and that is that previously we used to grow our own. People used to come up through the ranks, become senior academics, then a small proportion of them would spend the last ten or more years of their career as senior managers. Now we appoint from outside, quite deliberately, and people come in and may serve five, seven years, then they move on to posts at other universities. That makes an enormous difference in the way the place operates, partly because they don't have the institutional memory, but also because they don't have the connections. People pay a lot of outward respect to the Lancaster ethos, and we want to have our special, distinctive characteristics, but one way of doing so is making sure we have that continuity. The way in which we currently appoint seems to me to play against that.

Before moving on to the Students' Union in its present form, there have been legislative changes in the ways Students' Unions can be run...

Yes, we've had the 1988 Education Act and the requirement that they become independent charities. They have been distanced from their parent bodies, if you like, by external legislation, and that will inevitably have an impact on the way they operate. We can't point at the distance between Union and University and say, "it's all bad and it's all our fault," because actually there are other influences. Obviously, operationally we can make choices about how we manage and how we interact with each other.

You'll probably be aware of the LUSU constitutional reforms that were passed four or five years ago, that among other things abolished Union Council, abolished cross-campus officer positions, made the student trustees on the Trustee Board, which is now quite important, appointed rather than elected. It introduced in their place two things - Scrutiny Panels, which are massively flawed with conflict of interest issues, and Student Juries, which are randomly selected to decide policy. The AGM in October called for a Constitutional Convention, but in particular calling for the University Council rep to be elected again, and calling for Union Council to be re-established, calling for the Trustee Board to be elected, and these things have yet to be implemented. The question for you is, what value was lost when Union Council was abolished?

I have half-answered that already, but I think it meant the core officers are a tiny group, with a lot of responsibility, who are under a lot of pressure. And I think that, although they are defined as students, they become more like managers, and I think that it's extraordinarily difficult for them to have a real relationship with students as they walk in off the floor, as it were. The Union Council, to me, was an intermediate state, where you could test issues. It was big enough to have a variety of opinion and diverse enough in the bodies it represented, but not so big that it couldn't meet and have really good discussions. It seemed to me an admirable body, and particularly if its minutes got published so that all students could share in what was being talked about and come back with responses.

As we understand it, Union Council membership, of about 50 students, also made up the student representation on University Court. There was a three-line whip, students had to go...

That was awful, students sat together in a big clump.

Others have said that was brilliant.

Yes, but symbolically it was bad because it was used as an argument: “The students are not acting as individuals, they're acting as a mandated body, and we don't have mandated bodies in universities, we have free-thinking individuals.” You had the same in Senate, where unfortunately students began to sit in a row, and you could see them talking to each other during the meeting, about what each of them was going to say. It actually diminished the impact of what they did. If they'd sat around, thought for themselves, stood up bravely, it would have been much more impressive.

What we have heard is that after Union Council was abolished, it was the death knell for University Court, as there was no serious student representation anymore.

No. Maybe they weren't interested but I am told that the Vice-Chancellor, Mark Smith, didn't want the Court.

One of the proposals under discussion is having a Union Council made up of directly elected representatives. The previous council had directly elected officers with specific portfolios and a block of six, elected without portfolio.

It seems to me that provided you have an electoral activity along the way, there's no point in having a double election.

One of the other manifestos doesn't mention democratic reform in any sense at all, instead, it talks about establishing focus groups to decide how to run Students' Union affairs. We don't see it having much of a departure from Scrutiny Panels and Student Juries.

Exactly, they are so ignorable.

They are ineffectual systems. There's no way for a determined student to make a proper proposal and get people to vote on it.

By definition, there isn't. It's just a brainstorm, then you all go away and nothing's happened. There's no consensus at the end, no action arising that's identified to be carried forward. As a part of democracy, they are not effective.

To finish up, we wanted to ask you whether you think democracy in the University, if it's been lost, can ever be retrieved?

It hasn't completely gone, it's faltering. As long as we live in a country which itself is a democratic country, ostensibly, we can continue to shape our institutions, and we can reinstate what we lose if we have the will to do so. So no, it isn't lost, it is in abeyance and it can be revived with effort and will. That's my challenge back to the student body.