Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Senate meeting

I attended my first meeting of Senate at Liverpool University - at the beginning I was introduced by the vice-chancellor, along with about 5 other new members, and this was obviously the main highlight of the meeting.

At Liverpool, Senate is described on the web pages as "a governing body of the university". I was also a member of Senate back at Warwick University - there it is "the supreme academic authority" of the university - and how could anyone possibly refuse the chance to join such an august body? In practice, university senates spend most of their time noting and receiving reports from various academic subcommittees. It's as boring as hell, quite frankly.

Warwick and Liverpool senates differ in the physical format of the meetings. At Warwick, there were about 40 of us sitting around a table, and the vice-chancellor (who chairs the meeting) is flanked by the registrar, the deputy VC and a couple of secretaries. Over here, the format seems to put the VC on the spot - he stands in front of an audience with only a single assistant off to one side, to count the votes. Also, at Liverpool every prof is automatically a member of Senate, so a well-attended meeting can attract 200 people. I am reliably informed that most meetings are less well-attended than this one was.

The most memorable Senate meeting at Warwick that I attended, took place about 10 years ago, and was interrupted by a student demo against tuition fees. The then VC, Sir Brian Follett, had just left so that we could come to some agreement on who would be acting VC when he retired, and while he was out, about 300 students occupied the building. They let it be known that no-one would be allowed to enter or leave until we passed some form of resolution condemning tuition fees, which was the Government's big idea of the time. (Pretty quicky, someone spotted a technical obstacle to complying with this demand, namely the meeting's chairman being unavoidably detained outside.) When we found out what was going on, I remember catching the eye of another young lecturer (this was about 10 years ago remember), and our common reaction was dismay that we were now so old as to be on the receiving end of a student protest - the horror!

These days of course, I accept the onset of middle age with all its associated inconveniences. There were about 300 students outside the Victoria building protesting against the proposal to discontinue 8 of our RAE "units of assessment", up for discussion at Senate. The idea is that we should concentrate on things we are good at, one of which is Computer Science, so I am biased in that regard. This was not the only item of business (it was item 16 on the agenda) but definitely a crowd-puller. The Jack Leggate theatre is a grand surroundings for making impassioned speeches about the ideals of universities, although the accoustics are not great, and also not helped by the demo and nearby road works.

The resulting discussion was interesting, touching on basic issues of the nature and objectives of universities, and the obligations that a university has to its academic staff to insulate them from the real world. Many speeches were made, some of them passionate. I did not speak at the meeting; the following is my thoughts on a few of the points raised.

Point raised: "A Russell group university cannot do without a philosophy department" (one of the "units of assessment" threatened with closure), and related: "A civic university needs to have a philosophy department" ["civic" seems to mean: attracts local students who can't afford to live further afield, so if they want to study philosophy, where are they supposed to go?]. My answer to this is: the worst attitude you can have in an organisation is "my employer can't fire me, I'm indispensable". And w.r.t. civic universities in particular, it is most important that Liverpool University should have higher ambitions that this - it is essential for the regional economy that it continue to have an international scope and outlook.

Point raised: "The RAE results are inaccurate and do not reflect quality of research." My answer: Everyone, at some point, has to accept external scrutiny of the quality of their work. The alternative, allowing someone to always certify the quality of his own work, is patently absurd. And while RAE scores are inaccurate, they are not off by more than about 20%. If your score is terrible you are not great, you are at best mediocre.

Point raised: "All this controversy will deter prospective students". My answer: In the short term, perhaps. In the long term it will be worse if we give the impression we just do not care about research quality, and are afraid to deal with problems.

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