Vice Chancellor elections: where next after student consultations?

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As reported in the previous issue of the Palatinate, the university has consulted students in its search for a new Vice-Chancellor. The 9 student feedback sessions held on both campuses demonstrate a new willingness by the university to be open to student opinion, and those who participated were able to speak their minds on the image and governance of their university.

Nevertheless, student consultations are a common aspect of Durham University governance. The extent to which they concretely inform and impact university policy is another question. With a year to go before the new Vice-Chancellor is in place, the importance of student opinion in the final choice remains and open question.

Of primary concern to students should be the fact that the consultations were confined to the first half of October, while the recruitment process will take an entire year. Student participation should be solicited at every stage in the process. Fortunately, the fact that so much time remains before a candidate is selected means that the university has plenty of time to remedy initial shortcomings of meetings which nevertheless were a promising first step in rebuilding dialogue with students.

These shortcomings and their possible remedies are worth summarising: firstly, the scope of the discussions could be enlarged to address questions of university policy, facilities and governance. These questions are not separate from the Vice-Chancellor recruitment process, since the early retirement of the previous Vice-Chancellor coincided with growing disgruntlement from students in all these areas. If the university fails to use the change in Vice-Chancellor to open a wider discussion on these issues, it would be an opportunity missed.

Of primary concern to students should be the fact that the consultations were confined to the first half of October, while the recruitment process will take an entire year

Secondly, the meetings were undersubscribed, with fewer than 50% of places filled in some sessions. This is not surprising given how brief the period was in which they were advertised, but future sessions would enlarge the number of students consulted. In addition, dialogue with student societies would be productive, since many such groups campaign regularly around proposed reforms in the university. They are therefore more prepared and informed on certain topics than the cross-section that participated in the meetings.

In addition to consultation, students should be able to formally influence the recruitment process in the event of their interests clashing with the objectives of the university. The DSU president will sit on the recruitment panel, but he and the panel are obliged to keep secret the list of names on the long- and short-list of candidates, his ability to solicit student opinion will be severely limited.

The reason given for this is the desire of confidentiality typical of any company. But as a university, Durham must operate differently to a company, with student democracy a fundamental principle. The University of Liège in Belgium recently elected its rector, an example Durham could follow.

A further disappointment is the fact that the local community will not be consulted in the form of city councillors and resident associations. The reason given in the meetings was that those exterior to the university should not have a say in its choice of Vice-Chancellor. But nor do students have a say, they are merely being consulted to inform the recruiting panel that will have a say! In the same spirit, residents should be considered as stakeholders with an interest in how the university controls student numbers and building developments in Durham City. An alienated relationship between town and gown, as is currently the case, is of no benefit to students, so this refusal to open dialogue is unfortunate.

For all the productive discussion that occurred in the feedback sessions, their final aim was extraordinarily modest: answers to a closed list of questions set by recruitment company Perrett Laver (who were themselves absent from the meeting) will inform a job description ad to be sent out in November. After that, all parts of the recruitment process will be kept secret from the wider student body. Students should want and demand more than that, which is why some clubs have banded together to publish a list of proposals for wider reform of Durham University in the Palatinate. These first feedback sessions must be a stepping stone to wider engagement of students in decision-making at their university.

 

Illustration – Mariam Hayat 

One thought on “Vice Chancellor elections: where next after student consultations?

  • “An alienated relationship between town and gown, as is currently the case, is of no benefit to students…”

    I remember hearing the same comment fifty years ago – not much changed there then!

    Reply

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