What are they thinking? Outrage as Cambridge University ignores its own democratic process.

10 March 2011

Despite pressure from 140 academics to rethink bursary cuts, the University forges ahead – and ignores its own democratic process.

An attempt to force the University to ring fence bursaries was ruled “inadmissible” yesterday, effectively stalling efforts to protect them from cuts.

Undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds are currently offered a payment of up to £3,400 per year to help fund their studies, an amount linked to current UK tuition fee levels. A University Working Group has proposed slashing this amount to £1,625 – even though it hopes to increase fees to £9,000 in 2012.

The difference would be made up with a ‘fee waiver’ worth £3,000, writing off a third of students’ eventual debt. The plan has come under attack from those who feel that the disposable, up-front cash offered by a bursary, which is paid directly into the bank account of students who need it, is more valuable than a future promise to limit the amount owed.

The University’s proposals on fees are to be put to a vote of all academics (a ‘Grace’) on March 14th. Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) had hoped to put forward a vote amending this Grace to include a commitment that “the University continues to provide maintenance bursaries of at least the present levels,” ruling out the possibility of a cut.

However, a notice published yesterday by Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz stated, “I have decided that both amendments are inadmissible as being in substance and effect incompatible with the main purpose of the Grace.”

The amendment dealing with bursaries was dismissed because the University’s claims its current proposal calls for a vote only on fees, not on funding. It does, however, note that a University Working Group “proposed that the University offers a partial fee waiver and a maintenance bursary.”To get a vote on its amendment, CUSU only needed to gather 25 signatures from academics. It managed to get 140 to sign, nearly six times that number.

The University’s dismissal of CUSU’s amendment has been widely derided as an “administrative fudge.” A statement issued by the students’ union said, “The University have undemocratically and illegitimately REFUSED to allow a vote,” and JCR Presidents from across the University have lined up to condemn the decision. After collecting signatures from its members, protest group Cambridge Academic Campaign for Higher Education, is asking signatories to put their names to a statement saying: “As academic and academic-related staff at the University of Cambridge, we condemn the decision by Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz to reject on the unreasonable grounds that ‘incompatible with the main purpose’ of the original Grace.”

Ruth Watson, a lecturer in African History who signed CUSU’s amending Grace, said: “This unilateral action taken by the Vice-Chancellor is a shocking demonstration of his continuing refusal to respond in a constructive way to the genuine and sincere concern of both junior and senior members of the University of Cambridge about how the institution will cope with the intended changes to higher education funding.”

CUSU is organising an emergency demonstration today outside Great St Mary’s Church on King’s Parade at noon “in response to the fact that the University is ignoring its students, its fellows, and its own democratic procedures.”

Reaction as University rejects bursary grace:

Ultimate responsibility for setting tuition fee and bursary levels lies with the University Council, an elected body charged with safeguarding Cambridge’s financial position. Here, three members give their views:

“A substantial increase in the state school intake, which includes kids from grammar schools and expensive catchment areas, is largely irrelevant and has nothing to do with the real issue, which is how to find ways of admitting very bright people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The financial measures that will be proposed will address the needs of poor students in the best possible ways.”

Professor David Abulafia

“I support the decision. As I understand it, it would have been impossible to hold the ballot in time if time had been allowed for the *preparation* of flysheets as well as their publication. In any case, neither the amendments nor the additional graces are time-critical. The current Grace does not pre-empt anything — it is merely asking for *permission* to charge the higher fee — so they can be put to the Regent House separately in a considered fashion.”

Dr Rachel Padman

“I’m surprised the VC has made this decision. I do not think the grace as it stands offers a real choice which is why I supported one of the amendments. To use an analogy, the grace is asking the turkeys if they are for or against Christmas while everyone knows that Christmas is going to come anyway no matter what the outcome of the ballot. In the event of a non placet vote the administration will simply say that Ordinances require us to charge £9000 and there is no alternative proposal. By contrast the amendments would allow regents to send a clear message that high fees are not the way forward for HE and mandate the Council on the balance of fee waivers and bursaries.”

Professor Nick Gay

Student Reaction:

“Like the government, the Vice Chancellor has demonstrated how this whole process has been rushed, clumsy and not carefully considered. By having to deny academics their democratic rights, the Vice Chancellor has practically admitted how poorly considered the government’s proposals are.”

Dan Smith, Christ’s JCR President

“This plan was opposed by 140 academics, over six times the number required under University regulations to trigger a full referendum of the Regent House (all the academics) on the issue. However, the University is throwing democracy to the wind and refusing to let this take place.”

Stephen Joseph, Jesus College Students’ Union President

“Cambridge bursaries are incredibly important to a lot of people. A handful of people at the top of the university are trying to behave in a way which will irreparably damage a significant number of future students’ experiences at this university. And they are doing it in breach of their own democratic processes. We absolutely must not stand for it.”

Ben Gliniecki, Selwyn JCR President

“This depressing decision not only sends out a weak signal about Cambridge’s commitment to access, but also its commitment to any form of debate in The Regent House.

Liam Agate, Sidney Sussex JCR President

“Cambridge students and fellows alike have faith in the University administration to uphold democracy and justice. Today they have been disappointed.”

Ben Russell, Trinity Hall JCR President

“I think that this is reprehensible wherever you stand on the fees, cuts, bursaries debate. This represents a violation of the founding principles of the University, and flies in the face of its stated aim of promoting the interests and views of the academics and students that make this University great.”

Archy de Berker, Pembroke Junior Parlour President

“Avoiding a vote on the issue shows that the University is well aware of the depth of feeling from students and academics opposed to its plans, but is determined to slash the Maintenance Bursary regardless. I’m shocked and disturbed that this level of arrogance and contempt for the democratic process has been shown by the VC.”

Chad Allen, King’s College Student Union President

James Burton – News Editor

Photo: James Appleton