Bath? Campus protest in Bath?Posted: 29 November, 2017
Later today, 30 November, there will be a protest on the University of Bath campus against the terms of departure of the current Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, demanding that she go now, and that she be accompanied out the door by the Chair of Council, the university’s governing body, by the Remuneration Committee, and by select individuals who would already have gone if they had any wit.
Bath has a well-deserved reputation for quiescence. It has never been one of the great rebel campuses; its disciplinary mix does not lend itself to political ferment; it’s in Bawth, for God’s sake. In less than ten days, a HEFCE report on governance has led to hundreds of staff raising their hands to vote no-confidence in the Vice-Chancellor and the Chair of Council, to a vote of no-confidence nearly being carried in the university’s Senate, and to the rushed resignation of the boss.
How did it come to this?
Campaigning on pay goes back nearly a decade at Bath. The first pamphlet on pay inequality was produced in 2012, and at that point it already focussed on the question of transparency. At Bath, as at other institutions, the Remuneration Committee does not publish detailed minutes and does not give reasons for its decisions. A few of us who have been on the university Council, to which the Remuneration Committee reports, have at various times proposed that the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) used to measure the Vice-Chancellor’s performance be reported to Council. This proposal was rejected, and this rejection can be seen as the root of management’s present woes.
The other principal element of the campaign has been the question of fairness. Current UCU policy, from a Congress motion proposed by Bath, is that the highest pay in an institution should be no more than ten times the lowest full time salary. University management at Bath have long refused to implement the Living Wage (the real one, not the rebranded minimum wage) as a consolidated, pensionable wage, but instead pay a “supplement” every year which brings the lowest hourly rate up to the Living Wage Foundation’s recommended value. This “supplement” is non-contractual and can be withdrawn at the discretion of the Vice-Chancellor: in effect, it is a tip.
At the same time as management refused to allow their lowest paid staff the recognized minimum for a dignified life, they were becoming notorious as the sector’s biggest users of zero-hours and other casualized contracts.
Bath then had a combination of opaque governance, pay inequity, and casualization which was hardly unusual in the sector. The pay of the Vice-Chancellor was high, but not the highest. What turned resentment into revolt was the local newspaper investigating the perks.
Starting about a year go, the Bath Chronicle’s Sam Petherick, working with a local Labour councillor, Joe Rayment, began using the Freedom of Information Act to extract details about the now-notorious grace-and-favour house and especially about the university’s expenditure on the Vice-Chancellor’s housekeeping. As this news began to emerge, Professor Breakwell began to appear a caricature of a corporate fat cat. Even then, management made no concessions to the changing mood.
Things came to a head at the February meeting of the university’s stakeholders’ body, Court, one of whose functions is to receive the accounts. It was proposed that the accounts be received “with concern” because of the lack of transparency in the remuneration of senior management. The chairing of the meeting was incompetent and openly biased (four of us were accused from the chair of knowing each other) but a revised proposal was eventually put to the meeting, that Court make a representation to Council expressing its “concern” at the lack of transparency. The motion was put to a vote and defeated by 33 votes to 30. There the matter should have ended, or so management might have thought.
Upon investigation, however, it was clear that a number of people who had voted at the meeting were members of the Remuneration Committee, or had their pay set by it. Court had, and has, no standing orders, a breach of the university’s statutes, but if it had used the standing orders of Council, those people would have been expected to leave the room rather than participate in a vote on a matter in which they had such an interest.
Over the summer, Lord Andrew Adonis began raising the issue of high executive pay in universities, and picked out Bath as the university with the highest paid Vice-Chancellor. As he began to receive information about the remuneration arrangements, including the vote at Court, he formulated a complaint to HEFCE, which investigated the governance of the University of Bath.
The report of that investigation was published on 20 November. It detailed continued, persistent failures of governance and two things in particular. First, HEFCE noted that, according to its own legal advice, university management knew that senior managers who voted on the motion at Court had not acted “in good faith”. Secondly, it noted “with disappointment” that the university did not respond “more proactively” to the representations made, in good faith, about the Remuneration Committee.
The university management published its proposals for some minor changes to governance, including having the Vice-Chancellor step down from the Remuneration Committee. The response on campus must have shocked them. Two days after the report, some 350 staff attended an open meeting and voted no-confidence in the Vice-Chancellor and in the Chair of Council. A protest was arranged for the meeting of Council which will take place today, calling for the resignation of both.
On Tuesday, 28 November, Professor Breakwell’s resignation was announced. After a brief pause for a satisfied smile, staff looked at the details of her departure package and decided that the Council protest was definitely going ahead. Two elements were especially insulting. The first was that Professor Breakwell, after ending her term of office and leaving the university house at the end of August, would be given a six month paid sabbatical until the end of February 2019. The second was the “car loan”.
The “sabbatical” is being interpreted as a pay-off. On any normal sabbatical, an academic is expected to return to their university with the research they have conducted elsewhere, and to contribute to the university’s research strategy. This is obviously not going to happen if someone ends their employment with sabbatical leave.
The “car loan” is an interest-free loan given to Professor Breakwell when she came to Bath sixteen years ago, with a current value of £31,849. According to the management statement, “Consistent with what was agreed on her appointment”, the loan is being written off. Clearly, this was never a loan in any meaningful sense.
The position now is that Bath staff and students have concluded that the governing body have learned nothing from the HEFCE report or from the publicity surrounding the Vice-Chancellor’s pay and perks. The campus, students and staff, is more politicized than it has been since the glory days of the 1970s. Questions of governance are being discussed as if they mattered. Staff have spoken openly about the “climate of fear” at the university and are beginning to throw it off.
Professor Breakwell may well have left the University of Bath a better place than she found it.