Students At The Heart Of… Rem Com?!

Liz Bromley, Deputy Vice Chancellor at University of Central Lancashire, and former Registrar and Secretary at Goldsmiths, University of London, considers the role that students play in university governance, particularly with regards to staff pay and benefits.

Students are “at the heart of the system”, we are “student-focussed”, we work to improve “student engagement”, hearing the “student voice”, ensuring “student satisfaction”. Yet when it comes to having students on Senior Executive Teams, or – yet more radical – Remuneration Committees, our first (natural?) response is to shy away and refuse to entertain such an idea. Only a few universities currently have such representation.

At Goldsmiths, University of London, sometime during 2014/2015, the student voice began to rise in volume as requests for representation on Remuneration Committee – the only committee where students were not members – turned into demands – turned into ‘The Campaign’ of the year.

The premise was a simple one. Students made an annual, vocal complaint about Vice Chancellors’ pay in general and our Warden’s pay specifically. During the five years that the Warden had been in post, he had never taken a pay rise; nonetheless his pay was a matter of unhappy principle. The Students’ Union felt that student representation on the Remuneration Committee would let them make their views on the matter clear, and their voice would be heard by the Chair of the Council, and the members of Rem Com.

The arguments supporting the campaign were also relatively simple. Why could students be trusted on the Council (Board), Academic Board, every committee within the Constitution, but not trusted to abide by the rules and protocols when it came to Rem Com? If there were student representation on Rem Com, the SU themselves would be able to better control the chatter about our Warden’s pay. They could claim Union victory in persuading Goldsmiths Council to be as radical in their corporate governance as Goldsmiths students are in general. Goldsmiths would be at the forefront of the changes in representation in corporate governance that were already blowing in on the back of the Davies Report on gender balance (Women on Boards, Davies Review, Five Year Summary Oct 2015) and the discussions which were just beginning around worker representation on Boards.

Lobbying took place on a number of levels – to the members of the Senior Team (like myself) who had responsibilities for formal engagement with the SU, and with students generally. Papers came to SMT; Board members were approached for general explanations as the purpose and intent of the campaign. One thing which our Chair of the Council was clear on – she herself would not be lobbied in private – so that when the matter was discussed formally and openly in a Council meeting, she would be neutral and able to take a fair view when all perspectives were aired.

And so it came to Council. The campaign was familiar to us all; the arguments had been well rehearsed and were presented with the style, confidence and depth of thought that Goldsmiths students at their best can display. Discussion was robust. Council members aired concerns about confidentiality, bias, maturity of thinking; the students gave clear and respectful answers. Unusually at Council meetings, members were asked to vote on the matter. The proposal was carried unanimously. The President of the SU was made an ex-officio member of the Remuneration Committee. The Chair of Rem Com and the Director of HR gave a robust and thorough induction in which the protocols and expected standards of behaviour were reiterated again. All this was accepted with good grace. The irony was that at the next Rem Com meeting, the Warden was offered a pay rise (he did not accept) but there was no option for the SU but to recognise that they had been part of the discussion and thus a shared owner of the decision.

Lord Adonis is currently calling for an investigation into the high salaries being paid to some VCs, amid accusations that tuition fees are being used to award pay rises above the agreed pay cap for staff. Reading recently the recommendations from the Corporate Governance Report from BEIS (30 March 2017) about staff representation in governance structures, I reflected again on my experience at Goldsmiths.

“The best way of ensuring that the voices of the workforce are heard in pay discussions is to have an employee representative on the remuneration committee”…”the beneficial effects of challenging debate, and more widely, on the culture of the company and its Board” … “Workers can bring both challenge and a long term perspective” (Corporate Governance Report from BEIS)

In the current context of student engagement, transparency in decision making, alongside concerns about accumulated student debt, the growth of real alternatives to university study, and VCs’ pay, it seems to me that transposing ‘student’ for ‘worker’ and then testing out our institution’s cultural integrity against those ideas might be timely, advisable and forward thinking.