Saturday, 8 May 2010

It's more important on the inside.

Last week I was provided an invaluable insight into the workings of the body which technically runs Cambridge University. I was asked to go to a Discussion in Senate House on behalf of the Disabled Students Liberation Campaign (DSLC), because part of this Discussion was about the rejection by Council of a 50-member Grace submitted by members of the Regent House regarding the installation of a lift in the University Combination Room. At this point I think it sensible to direct anyone reading this to the Glossary at the end of this post, since I didn't understand most of these words until halfway through the meeting.

It quickly became apparent that the meeting wasn't actually about the lift at all, but rather about that fact that Regent House was objecting to the way in which its installation had been gone about by Council. Access to to this room is required under the 2005 amendment to the Disability Discrimination Act, and given that the building dates back to 1347 finding a workable and affordable solution was bound to be difficult. Consequently the fact that Council found a way of doing it for about £240,000 which was fully reversible if necessary and only involved damage to the part of the building which dates from the 20th Century seems pretty impressive to me, but because it was done without proper consultation (and because, apparenlty, it looks like a tardis) various members of Regent House feel that work should be halted until they can make up their own minds about it.

There's a full account of the Discussion online, and a blog putting Regent House's case more fully. But I would just like to quote a couple of things said at the meeting, which I think give a good impression of the melodramatic flavour of the meeting as a whole.

"A building project bound to cause concern among all users of the Combination Room (and that is now pretty well anyone with any links to the University)"
[Please note that the Combination is purely for use by the Regent House. My parents have links to the university!]

"In years to come administrators who make a mess of things will be only too anxious to continue stumbling on into the Valley of Death on the grounds that the expense of doing otherwise would be even more damaging....Members of the Regent House will need to keep a close eye on the development of the present issue. Either that, or to resign themselves to waking up one fine day to find the University being ruled by emergency legislation of the Council’s own devising.

All that is needed is for enough good men to remain silent."
[I feel it is worth pointing out at this point that in a meeting of 36 attendees, just 3 were female.]

"Let the squandered funds be a lesson in humility to those who have done wrong in this matter."
[The "squandered funds" amount to nearly £1 million. This was shortly followed by another man complaining about administrators cutting funding to small but valuable departments.]

[with scorn]
"The Syndicate was required to draft an Oxford-style procedure"

I made a speech of my own which was badly delivered and under-planned, since I only really found out what I was doing there as I walked through the door, the text of which is in the Reporter linked to above (search on the page for "Myers", and I'm the one that's not a Dr.), but I left the room with a very sour taste in my mouth. I think this meeting asks a lot of questions of the way the University is run, and possible answers many more about the treatment of undergraduates.

(definitions come from the University of Cambridge website or from the statues and ordinances, the university's governing documents)

Council - the principal execitove and policy-making body of the University, having responsibility for the administration of the University, for the planning of its work, and for the management of its resources. Membership consists of the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, nineteen elected members, and four appointed members.

Grace - normally a motion for decision presented to the Regent House by the Council. In this instance it mostly refers to the procedure under which fifty or more members of the Regent House may initiate a Grace independently of the Council.

Regent House - the governing body of the university (since 1926), made up of all resident senior members of the University and the Colleges, together with the Chancellor, the High Steward, the Deputy High Steward, and the Commissary. As such it is unelected.

Reporter - the official journal of record of the University of Cambridge, carrying notices of all University business.

University Combination Room - a social facility for Regent House members.


  1. It says a lot, doens't it? And none of it particularly complimentary. :(

    I hope people pay attention to your speech though, because, unplanned though it may have been, you do seem to be the only one who hasn't lost sight of the real issue.

    Had I been in your shoes, I would almost certainly have been much, much ruder.

  2. This university is notoriously shit at dealing with disabled access. My father was (and I have a feeling may still be) on the joint committee for disability, and the impression I've got from him has been that the university is frequently reluctant to make any changes at all.

    I agree that you seemed to be one of the few people at that discussion who hadn't lost sight of the real issue, and I think it shows the total disregard of many people of the basic human rights of others that they are niggling over aesthetics and procedure when something so important is at stake. The fact that it's been 5 years since the disability act came into force and there is only now disabled access to the UCR is ridiculous.

    I was also pretty unimpressed that it took my college son's arrival to make many parts of Clare even vaguely accessible.

    Rant over. For now.

  3. Best sentence in the account of the discussion: "This matter is in some ways a storm in a tea cup"

  4. Looking back on my post of this morning, I think I was probably a little unfair; the university is, I think, in many ways very supportive of disabled employees and students, and Clare were very keen to sort everything out as quickly and efficiently as they could at the beginning of this year.

    However, I don't think it is reasonable for Regent House to expect to be consulted about every piece of minor building work that goes on in a university building, particularly if said piece of work is required by law, and if their only contribution is going to be moaning that it doesn't look very nice.