David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

It’s a little like a late Samuel Beckett piece. Once every week, at just after 9.30am on a Tuesday or Thursday morning, the Chairman of Ways and Means responds to a question from the Speaker of the House of Commons with a date for the following week – when the cycle will repeat. Sometimes, just for variation’s sake, they do it in a silly voice. And all the while Christopher Chope waits for the chance to shout “object!”.

Such is the state of the debate around changes to the statutes of governance for the University of London. The University of London Bill is a Private Bill – a little-used parliamentary process for passing Bills developed by those outside of parliament. First brought on 29 November 2016 (during the last parliament, before being revived in the current one), and starting in the House of Lords – the University of London Bill faces the unusual ordeal of a debate at Second Reading in the House of Commons. A debate that no-one seems willing to grant time for, and one MP seems determined to block.

For many, what this comes down to is the ability of constituents of the federal University of London to gain university title. Little known providers like King’s College London, University College London, and the London School of Economics and Political Science could finally take their place in the accepted mainstream of Level 4 UK providers.

A University of London spokesperson told me: “The private bill promoted by the University of London is a technical device to correct a historical anomaly and allow federal member institutions to apply for university title. At present, despite their size, global reach and reputations, they are technically colleges of the federal university. It will level the playing field in this regard with new entrants to the market who are to apply directly for university status. It will also help to reduce some brand confusion, especially internationally where the current anomaly can occasionally impact on league tables and access to funding, and create confusion for students and staff in recruitment. The new bill would repeal the University of London Act 1994 and will also bring up-to-date the means by which the university makes its statutes.”

Fun times for federal governance

The Bill as deposited includes a useful summary of its aims. It redefines University of London statutes so a “Member Institution” can also be a university in its own right. It confers a power on the Board of the University to alter, revoke, or make new statutes, and on the Collegiate Council to bring forward its own proposals to the Board. Statues would still need to be approved by the Privy Council, but it also provides for the Privy Council to repeal this requirement. The Bill would repeal the 1994 Act, but would not affect the provisions of the Royal Charter.

How it got said Charter is a wonderful story in itself. Emerging blinking from the Dark Ages, England gained a number of provincial universities over the back end of the 18th century. The University of London as an examining board – then serving Imperial and King’s College as the Non-Comformist and Anglican constituents – was established with a Royal Charter in 1836. It gained university status in 1900

The only time the Bill has seen serious scrutiny is during the Lords Unopposed Bill Committee stage. The Committee held two hearings with the legal team that proposed the Bill. And it is here that we get to the nub of the matter, the removal of the requirement that changes to the statutes need to be consulted on.

“Not the local golf club”

Currently changes to University of London statutes need to be consulted on with:

  • The University of London Convocation
  • Each constituent college governing body
  • Any trade union recognised by the member institutions.

The issue here is that the University of London Convocation no longer exists – it was closed in 2003 and replaced with a Development Office that deals with the needs of alumni. In comparison, the University of Oxford still has a convocation – broadly a body theoretically composed of all university alumni, in practice managed by a smaller, elected, standing committee – whose sole remaining role is to elect the Chancellor.

The University of London Bill proposes that instead – of the convocation, governing bodies and trade union – the Collegiate Council be consulted. This is a body comprised of senior academic managers (vice chancellors and such) from each constituent college. The Board can choose to consult others, but this is not prescriptive. As the University of London has no financial control over the colleges, who are seen as subscribers to the federation rather than integrated into the University as in Oxford or Cambridge, you may feel that this might be fair enough

But the first Committee hearing sees Richard Bull (the parliamentary agent for the Bill) suggest that:

“In all likelihood, the university will wish to consult the trade unions, although the subject matter of the statutes is rarely of any practical interest to them. This is underlined by the fact that they have not made representations either on the possible repeal of their statutory right to be consulted or, indeed, on the amendments made to the statutes in recent times.”

Which seems, knowing trade unions, fairly unusual.

This is followed by a wonderfully lawyerly exchange in which Maureen Boylan (the acting University of London Secretary at the time) argues that this reduced consultation requirement wouldn’t be an issue as decisions made by the Board of Trustees cannot directly affect member institutions – being merely “major investment decisions and decisions on estates, budgeting, audit, risk”. So – hardly at all.

The committee picked away at the Bill throughout this session, challenging plans that a two-thirds majority requirement for the Board would be changed to a bare majority – questioned because “this is not the local golf club”. The Counsel to the committee chairman, James Cooper, put it thus:

“At every stage you are relaxing all the requirements. Fewer people have to be consulted, fewer trustees have to agree, and, ultimately… you can repeal the provision requiring the Order in Council, so there may not in future be an Order in Council. I understand that, because this is the latest Act, but at each level you are liberalising the requirements, meaning that there will be less process involved in these important decision-making processes.”

Proposals to bring back some of these safeguards in an ordinance of the University did not convince the committee of the need for their relaxation in law.

King’s University?

King’s College London is one of twelve constituent colleges that wants to seek university title, but – like the others – it does not want to change its name. As it already has (and uses) degree awarding powers, what else does it want?

Maureen Boylan explained: “There are jurisdictions in the world where even institutions as mighty as UCL and King’s College do not appear on league tables because they are not universities. It creates confusion in the recruitment of students and of staff.”

Now I’m no fan of league tables, but – for completeness sake – I checked the usual ones. It will come as no surprise to anyone for me to note that King’s College London is in joint 23rd place on the 2018 QS rankings, 36th in the 2018 THE World University Rankings, and 46th in the 2017 ARWU table.

And there is, of course, nothing to stop King’s leaving the University of London – as Imperial College did – and becoming a university in its own right.

So the latter part of the hearing dwelt on the purpose of the University of London, a federal body that the Acting University Secretary characterised constituent college governance as being “basically not interested” in.

There and back again

The first hearing closed with requests for further information – to provide proof that member institutions and the trade unions agreed to lose their right to be consulted – and that they agreed to the change in the size of the quorum, and to provide details of the kinds of decisions that the University of London board might make under the new powers.

On the quorum, the university admitted that it had not drawn attention to the effect of the Bill in reducing it – and offered to amend the Bill to re-institute the two-thirds quorum requirement. Other amendments included the return of the requirement to consult trade unions where proposed changes to statutes would affect employment.

So the Bill made its way through the rest of the Lords process, before transferring to the Commons with a first reading held on 3 May 2018. With a Private Bill such as this, a debate would not occur at second reading unless a member objects to it – something that Christopher Chope, of “upskirting” fame, seems imponderably determined to do. Should the Second Reading eventually take place (eternal deferment not being entirely off the cards), he intends to “object” to the Bill (demand a full debate) by moving that “the Bill be read a second time upon this day six months” taking us to late December, another Parliamentary recess and the likely loss of the Bill.

This could be another of his famed parliamentary procedure issues but, as always, it is difficult to say. The Second Reading, therefore, continues to be attempted once a week and then moved to the following week – an oddly touching effort made between the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Speaker to keep the Bill alive.

The saga continues on Tuesday 5th September.

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