Don raises serious questions on tied Willetts no confidence vote

Serious questions have been raised about the University's conduct surrounding marginal ballots during the tied no confidence vote in Universities Minister David Willetts that took place in the University's Parliament over the summer. Enquiries by Dr Ben Etherington, a By-Fellow in English at Churchill, have been met by some determined resistance from some quarters in the University, and Etherington has faced "stonewalling and finally reprimand" from the administration.

In July this year, members of the Regent House, Cambridge University's Parliament comprising academics and staff, voted on the following Grace, submitted by 149 of its members in June: "That, in the light of sweeping cuts to the HE budget, the trebling of tuition fees, and incoherent access policies, all decided on without adequate consultation, the University shall communicate to HM Government, by June 24, 2011 or as soon as possible thereafter, that it has no confidence in the policies of the Minister of State for Universities and Science, and that this duty be delegated to the Council". Similar motions had already been passed by the equivalent academic bodies of the Universities of Oxford, Bradford, Leeds and Bath.

1362 votes were cast in total and the result was a dead heat – 681 for, and 681 against. Under the Statues and Ordinances of the University, an equality of votes results in the fall of a Grace, and thus the motion of no confidence was not carried. Given the statistical unlikeliness of a tied vote, suspicions were raised even at the time about the result, with several of the academics that had submitted the Grace in the first place calling for further scrutiny of the vote.

Following enquiries documented in his recent article for the donsspeakout! blog entitled "Demos, Democracy and Governance in Cambridge, 2011: a polemical report", Dr Ben Etherington, a By-Fellow in English at Churchill, has since learnt of the existence of four "marginal" ballots, whose acceptance or rejection would have therefore been key to the final, tied result. In evidence obtained by Dr. Etherington from the University Draftsman, who was the Presiding Officer for the no confidence ballot, it appears there were two spoiled votes that had been rejected and two 'doubtful' votes (quote marks are Presiding Officer's own) that had been accepted. Both of the accepted votes were cast against the no confidence motion.

Further attempts by Dr. Etherington to obtain "a detailed description of the two spoiled votes and the two doubtful votes, with a full account of the principles on which they were admitted or rejected" have since been ignored by the University administration. A Freedom of Information request submitted to the University by Isobel Urquhart, a Bye-Fellow at Homerton College, calling for the publication of the four marginal ballot papers, was also refused on the grounds that "individuals could be less likely to vote in future secret ballots in the knowledge that their papers, completed or spoilt, could be released into the public domain."

Ms Urquhart described this decision to The Cambridge Student as "rather weak, in that there was no request or requirement that anyone's individual identity should be revealed and therefore that there was no breach of the anonymity of the ballot procedure."

In his article, Dr. Etherington also documents how, following his "scrupulously polite inquiries", he was asked to attend a meeting (which was subsequently cancelled) with the University Registrary, Dr Jonathan Nicholls, "not intended to answer my questions about the vote, but rather, it would seem, to censure me for making inquiries in a forthright manner". The Registrary is described on the University website as "the University of Cambridge's senior administrative officer".

Speaking to TCS, Dr Etherington said he was "particularly disappointed" by this exchange with the Registrary. He went on: "His sly attempt to characterise my very polite and impersonal inquiries as potentially 'impugning' the 'integrity' of the Presiding Officer made it difficult to persist with my inquiries in an objective and neutral way.

"The fact that he could not actually point to a single moment in my correspondence that would make possible this interpretation, and could not follow through with his reprimand, could well indicate this was part of a strategy to block inquiries."

In the conclusion of his article, Dr Etherington attacked the University management, saying "to focus on governance in Cambridge in 2011 is to survey an arrogant administration". He also cited the University's conduct in the vote on introducing £9000 tuition fees, where the Vice Chancellor rejected an amendment proposed by CUSU and supported by 140 academics that would have guaranteed no cuts in bursaries for disadvantaged students.

Michael Yoganayagam – Associate News Editor

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