issue 40

12 June 2008


'Truth: lies open to all'


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CONTENTS: editorial, news in brief, businesses (still) on campus, podcasting lectures, expelling plagiarists, campus catering, entrance exams, working at Lancaster again, corrections, letters.



The national media have been quite literally ecstatic (i.e. beside themselves) with self-righteous derision. Anglia Ruskin University has asked its students not to throw their mortar boards in the air on health and safety grounds, suggesting that this practice 'not only causes damage to the hats but can also cause injury if the corner of the hat hits the graduand or others who may be nearby.'

Now, far be it from subtext to join in with indignant cries of 'whatever next?' Instead, we felt that this news raised (or is it 'begged' - see Letters) far more interesting questions. When exactly does a graduand turn into a graduate anyway? Is it, as is reportedly set down in ancient lore, when the Chancellor (or his or her deputy) says 'I confer upon these members of X College the degrees for which they have been presented'? Is it at some other specific ceremonial moment, such as when their name is read out, or when they receive their certificate, or when they get their hand shaken by the right person? Are their doctrinal differences about how we answer such difficult questions - is this, as Father Jack would say, 'an ecumenical matter'? Nevertheless, whenever it is that a graduand actually becomes a graduate, surely it must be well before the mortar board hits them in the eye.

Of course, as we all know, the term 'graduand' derives from graduandus, the gerundive of the Latin graduare, 'to graduate', and refers to a university student who occupies the liminal space between the moment they completed the requirements for a particular degree and the moment they are technically awarded it. Surely the gerundive - a word that indicates that a noun needs something doing to it - is an even more precious institution than mortar-board-tossing (and far safer), and deserves reviving. Gerundives have that delicious sense of tension and anticipation in them, capturing the way that present conditions can have future events somehow latent within them. Apart from students being graduands (in need of having a degree conferred on them), there are really not enough English words deriving from gerundives - agenda (things that need doing) and addenda (things that need adding) spring to mind, but not much else. (OK, there's also corrigenda, but we'll get to them at the end of the issue - after all, they would cease to be gerundive if we did them now.)

Ought we not do something about this state of affairs, and coin some more gerundival words? Here are a few suggestions:

* purchand - something you've put in your shopping basket but not yet paid for

* fagendum - a cigarette that has nearly burned down to the filter and needs stubbing out

* divorcand - a married person who has committed adultery but has not yet got their just desserts

We invite readers to send in their own. We do so savour anticipation.



Department of Continuing Education (DCE)

The date of the special meeting of University Court to discuss recent developments in DCE has now been fixed and circulated to Court members. It's the 25th of June at 6pm in the Faraday Lecture Theatre. Yes that's correct, Wednesday of week ten when many students are likely to have gone home, others will be occupied with 'Extravs', and staff will be involved with exam boards. Moreover, external members from the region and elsewhere are likely to have difficulties travelling to campus for an early evening meeting. It goes without saying that quoracy (96 members) will be difficult to achieve. Deliberate? subtext wouldn't suggest such a thing. One or two members have also commented that their invitation contained no pre-paid reply envelope in which to return their reply slip. A simple oversight, perhaps, but one likely to further deter attendance The petition to the University Chancellor, Sir Christian Bonington, requesting amongst other things the withdrawal of the threat of compulsory redundancies and disclosure to staff and campus trade unions of a full rationale for the decision, now contains well over 1300 names. It is hoped to find a suitable opportunity to present the petition to the Chancellor. A second message from the Vice-Chancellor has now been received by staff in DCE. It informs them that the group reviewing DCE activities is now expected to complete its work by early July. Conclusions and recommendations, including a timetable of actions, if relevant, will then be shared with staff. Those who remain - and it is understood that to date some 8 staff have left or will be leaving - will doubtless appreciate the thanks for their patience and continuing hard work with which the message ends! It's all about people skills.



The minutes for the meeting held on 2 June have now been issued. It is understood that there is a lot of tension about our low number of postgraduate students, especially research; this surfaced at the Academic Planning Committee meeting earlier in the year, but has been the subject of anxiety for years. It is not getting better, and the rather ponderous admission processes, which are not to be on-line until at least 2009-10 (and where there is some sparring between the centre and the faculties about who does what), means there is no smooth process. It is understood that Estates was also discussed - once in connection with the new Grizedale social facilities, where it would be interesting to have the view of college members, and at another point when reference was made to the exceptional level of staff turnover in Estates. Finally, there is clearly some growing concern about the extent to which Lancaster's researchers are interacting with industry and business, which is another area of consistent weakness for Lancaster. One might argue that there are positive as well as negative reasons for this, but still a growing problem about Lancaster getting left behind.


Harassment by feedback

Departmental Equal Opportunities Representatives have received a memo from Rosemary Turner, the University's Student Equal Opportunities and Disabilities Coordinator, asking for examples of electronic bullying of staff by students. She reports that there is some evidence that staff have been targeted with personal verbal attacks through the anonymised online module feedback system. Apparently, students are warned not to make personal or offensive comments, but some, it seems, have ignored this; the system means that it is impossible to identify the offending students. She suggests that staff may be reluctant to complain because there is no clear, confidential system for doing so.



Council meets on Friday, where the most significant discussion is likely to be that concerning Phase 5 of the Residences Project, and the interaction between this and the grandiose new Sports Centre. The latter received planning consent on 2 June, and construction work is set to commence in July, with completion expected some eighteen months later. Funding, however, seems to be dependent upon Council's endorsement of Phase 5 of the student residences project, i.e. the selling off of much of our remaining residences. There are many who feel this is fraught with risk, especially in the current climate. However, without this, the Sports Centre project will not be able to proceed further until an alternative source of funding has been identified. We seem to have boxed ourselves into a corner.



Sometimes one starts to feel that the problem at our University is not so much that the management behave as if they are running a wholly commercial enterprise, but just that they just are not very good at it. At a time when the property market is slowing down and rental values are falling, the University seems to be engaging in a speculative and potentially risky venture to try to see how much extra rental it can extract from leaseholding businesses on campus.

In subtext 36 we reported on uncertainties being experienced by businesses operating on campus (see The University is trying to raise the rents significantly - in some cases to double the current level - even though the future location of many businesses, such as those currently in Alexandra Square and thus in the way of its impending redevelopment, is far from clear. The lease-holders insist that the rent rises are unfair, and would make their businesses unsustainable. Since January's stormy meeting with the Head of Estates that we reported in that issue, the lease-holders say they have not heard anything more from Mark Swindlehurst, or from John Marsden, the external valuer appointed by the University, and that matters are now proceeding to the courts.

Two businesses are already well beyond the term of their current leases, and have had extensions to allow them to remain while negotiations proceed. However, the University has said it will not allow any further extensions and so leaseholders will now have to proceed to the courts to resolve matters. This will be expensive for the leaseholders as well as for the University, since each case will have to be heard separately. In a related development we hear that the Spar supermarket, with their greater access to legal resources, is taking the University to court, arguing that even the current rent levels are too high. So things might start to get interesting. In the meantime, subtext hopes that the University's strategy (if we can call it that) does not backfire, driving many of the current leaseholders away (or worse still out of business), with no guarantee of replacements of equal or greater value to the University community.



Do any Lancaster lecturers fancy making their lectures available as podcasts on iTunes? Apparently, this is already being offered by University College London, with the Open University and Trinity College Dublin to follow suit soon. Although some UK universities have already been providing podcasts of lectures this is the first time that lectures will be available on iTunes. Apparently the idea is that students can listen to the lectures not once, not twice, but as many times as they want. Given that some lecturers have complained about falling attendance at their lectures, this development may not be too popular with those lecturers who already have bad attendance. It is understood that some departments already make attendance at lectures compulsory. There are no sanctions in place to make this a meaningful regulation within the University . Will this mean that a student can miss the actual lecture, download the podcasted lecture and claim that they were 'virtually' there? Does this mean that lecturers can give 'virtual' lectures, from their kitchen whilst still in their slippers and pyjamas via web cam? Scary thought. We could even have podcasted staff meetings so we could have the joy of living through them again (some people feel that this happens already). Any budding podcasters out there?



subtext readers may have seen the latest report from the Higher Education Academy and Joint Systems Committee which found that only 143 students caught cheating were expelled out of 9,200 cases. Apparently, either more postgraduates plagiarise or the detections systems are better as the research found that there was a higher rate of plagiarism among postgraduate students. More than 98% of students caught cheating were not expelled. The software that Lancaster uses to detect plagiarism can never detect custom written essays and many lecturers are concerned about students who buy 'bespoke' essays from online essay-writing services. What was worrisome about the report's findings was that nearly one in five students see copying as an acceptable part of academic study. subtext would like to hear of your experiences. Some lecturers have argued that knowing the name of the student work can help detect plagiarised work, as having seen a student perform badly in seminars and then brilliantly in their coursework can set the alarm bells ringing - and you thought that the question of anonymised coursework has been settled by Senate? Ha!



Also in the national news recently is a proposal by Imperial College to establish a university wide entrance exam as they claim it is now too difficult to tell A-level students apart when many of them are getting A's. Given that many of us at Lancaster are experiencing similar problems, despite some departments using interviews as an additional 'filter', is it time for a debate about what Lancaster should do, if anything, in relation to this issue? Regardless of what combinations of A levels departments ask for, the issue of 'grade inflation' affects all departments at Lancaster. The editors are sure that subtext readers have an opinion on this one.



When you go into campus cafes run by the University, what do you expect? Of course, we at the subtext warehouse have our own club space equipped with a Gaggia and a fully-trained barista, so we have high standards - but what about our poor readers who have to find sustenance from eateries on campus? We thought it was our duty to stimulate a bit of a debate about such things. Of course, the diversity of campus catering has come a long way over the last decade or so, seeing greater diversity in both the range of leaseholding businesses and the outlets run by the University's Hospitality Division (of which Catering is now part - do keep up). But campus catering remains a topic that excites strong opinions, ranging from fond reminiscences of establishments that have come and gone, through queuing problems when you're trying to have a lunchtime meeting, to issues about employment practices, and so on.

We will be exploring these and other campus catering matters in future issues. But we thought we'd kick off proceedings with some thoughts about customer satisfaction in University-run outlets. A subtext reader used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the information held by the University about customer satisfaction in relation to University catering, and forwarded us the relevant files. Amongst these were the findings of a survey carried out into the customer experience in the various catering outlets run by the University (Bowland Deli Bar, Barkers House Farm, the Venue, Café 21, Fylde Coffee Shop, the Hub Café, Food for Thought (IAS), and the Atrium (LEC)), which reports an average 90.7% satisfaction rate across the outlets.

Respondents were handed questionnaires in each of these outlets, and asked about their levels of satisfaction in relation to different aspects of their customer experience in the outlet. They recorded their satisfaction levels on a five-point scale: very unsatisfied, quite unsatisfied, neither satisfied nor unsatisfied, quite satisfied, or very satisfied. Catering then computed overall satisfaction by awarding themselves 1 point for a 'very unsatisfied', 2 for 'quite unsatisfied', and so on up to 5. They then added these up to give themselves a 'satisfaction score' calculated as a percentage of the maximum they could possibly have achieved (i.e. if everyone had put 5 - 'very satisfied').

Taking a well-earned break from arduous exam marking, we took the spreadsheets down to Café Republic and pored over the raw data and formulae while enjoying a delicious vegetarian meze and an Americano. subtext is pleased to confirm that on average over 90% of the respondents did indeed report themselves to be either quite satisfied or very satisfied with the catering service provided at University-run outlets (though this did vary amongst outlets).

However, we weren't sure about certain aspects of the research, so we checked the research design and statistical reasoning with a sample (is that the right collective noun?) of statisticians. Apart from raising the traditional cautionary note about assigning numerical values to a Likert scale item (well, yeah, obviously), they expressed concerns about the enormous selection bias involved in collecting data within the outlets themselves. Such respondents are by definition far more likely to be satisfied with the service than those not using the outlets; put another way, any people who are unsatisfied by university catering are far less likely to be using it, and therefore to fill in the survey in the first place. Our friendly statisticians (no, they were really very nice) were also unimpressed by the sample size - 82 respondents out of a University population of around 12,000 is not a satisfactory sample size. They suggested that a far more robust research strategy would have been to interview respondents on the campus at random and ask their views about the various catering outlets, aiming for an achieved sample of around 400.

We had been particularly unconvinced by the suggestion in a memo from May 2007 in which David Peeks, the University's Commercial Director, claimed that the research confirmed that the Hospitality Division had achieved the target listed in its Mission Statement of 'exceeding customer expectations on nine out of every ten occasions'. We felt that there was something fishy about this interpretation. We know that the British are prone to understatement, but since when did 'quite satisfied', or even 'very satisfied', really mean 'exceeded my expectations'? Surely if 5 is 'very satisfied', shouldn't 'exceeded my expectations' be somewhere about 6 - i.e. 'more than satisfied'?

The boffins confirmed our intuition that David Peeks' interpretation is a little hard to sustain, since it really depends on what customer expectations are in the first place. The claim would certainly be true if customers consistently expect not to be satisfied by University catering. And one may think that this is a reasonable assumption (though not something to trumpet quite so proudly). But customer expectations were not researched in the survey.

What do readers think? Should the Hospitality Division revise its Mission Statement so that it is a little more realistic? Any suggestions? Do write.



Noting that we haven't run a subtext quiz for a while, we thought we'd put one together, so here goes. Readers get one point for every question they can answer correctly. For those who can't wait, the answers are below (we did try to put them upside down at the bottom of the page, but couldn't work out how to get that past the Majordomo mailing server).

1. What is the remit of the Portfolios Steering Committee? (PSC) 2. Where does PSC report to?
3. Does it have a formally defined place in the University's committee structure?
4. How were the committee members appointed?
5. Where can the minutes be found?

How many did you get right? Well, apparently, it is a small collection of people, including Fiona Aiken and Andrew Neal, who consider and approve projects by the Change Manager, for example the current review of postgraduate admissions. It reports to UMAG (and thus in governance terms to the Vice-Chancellor) and has the ability to command resources of finance and people for projects that it has determined should take place. It does not have formal terms of reference that have ever been published, although UMAG discussed it on several occasions, and the Finance Committee also took notice of its existence.

subtext is not aware of any reports from the committee mentioned in UMAG minutes all this year. subtext has heard whispers that the Change Manager has been sidelined, and his staff dispersed, subtext is not sure how this operation is currently working. In principle one might expect it to be involved in the review of the central administration, but the working party as set up didn't refer to it.

We checked the last ever Staff Handbook, and have found its close cousin, the Process Review Programme Board (PRPB), approved by the Senate early in 2006. Andrew Neal is listed as being in the chair, with other members being Fiona Aiken, Jacqueline Whiteside, Gordon Hands, David Otley and Mary Smyth. Its terms of reference are all about reviewing, documenting and improving the university's processes. The Staff Handbook states that the PRPB will 'liaise with the Portfolio Steering Group to ensure an effective link to Information Systems projects', but in practice the PSC seems to have taken over and became dominant.

All of this causes subtext to again regret the demise of the Staff Handbook.



Issue 39 of subtext included a contribution on 'Working at Lancaster', which has prompted the following response.

Yvonne Fox (Research Support Manager) writes:

I would like to respond to the criticisms levied at the Research Support Office by the anonymous contributor to Subtext 39 issued on 29 May 2008. I am somewhat surprised by this as the frequent feedback we receive from both academic and departmental support staff is always very positive and the support we provide is appreciated and acknowledged. I am disappointed that this person feels they have to attack the office in an anonymous way rather than direct their concerns to me so that I can address them. The RSO is currently recruiting extra staff which will address the under-staffing issue; however, this has not had a noticeable detrimental effect on the service we have provided in recent months. I refute the statement that we are lacking continuity in staff. I have been in the RSO for 10 years; two of my staff have been in the office for more than 5 years and three for more than 3 years. Recently, two members of staff have taken periods of maternity leave and I have been extremely lucky in that maternity cover has been provided by two very competent individuals. I feel that there has been no impact from this unavoidable 'discontinuity'. In fact, I'm surprised that someone would single this out for criticism in today's climate of equality and diversity.

We provide support for principal investigators at the pre-award stage with help and advice about the funders, full economic costs and the internal approval process. We offer one-to-one training on the use of pFACT and on full economic costs. We endeavour to meet all deadlines even when given unacceptably short notice. The RSO has never knowingly failed to meet a funder's deadline. Assuming, of course, that we have been given the necessary cooperation from the academic involved to ensure we could get documentation to those who require it in order for approvals to be obtained prior to submission. Awarded grant budgets are set up and the department and principal investigator are both notified when this has happened and how to receive the budget information from Agresso. Statements on income and expenditure are also available from Agresso and it is the departmental officer's role to provide these to all principal investigators on at least a monthly basis. The RSO has a help guide on our website and telephones are never left to ring unanswered whilst there is someone in the office available to answer them. For goodness sake, the help is there for the asking.

The comments on full economic cost leave me to wonder whether the anonymous writer understands that this is a sector wide issue and that the University has obligations to HEFCE and our auditors to monitor and report on research activity under the regime of full economic costs. The approval of research proposals for submission is linked to this obligation. The internal approval structure has been designed to ensure that all relevant parties have the opportunity to review and question a research proposal. This approval structure ensures a proposal meets the research strategy of departments, faculties and the University and that consideration has been given to space requirements; university matched funding; recovery of costs; overlaps and competition with other university bids; ethical issues and the requirements of the funder. In fact, the chance of success of a proposal can be significantly increased if the right checks have been carried out at the approval stage.

I acknowledge that the writer doesn't intend for this to be a personal attack but unfounded criticism of this sort has a totally negative affect on the morale of staff that are doing their best everyday to provide an excellent support service in a friendly and approachable manner. The evidence of feedback that we regularly receive leaves me to conclude that the RSO does a very good job at both the pre-award and post-award stage of the research process. I am proud to work with a group of individuals who are helpful, efficient and committed to working in the wider university 'team'.



In the Senate Report in subtext 39 we mistakenly attributed a statement to Jane O'Brien, Centre Director of CETAD, when in fact she was away on holiday at the time. We would also like to clarify that in the senate meeting Catherine Fritz spoke in her capacity as representative of Fylde College Syndicate, not, as we implied, as a representative of Educational Studies. subtext apologises for both mistakes, has identified the textdrone who was to blame, and issued them with a final warning.



Corporate citizenship

Dear subtext,

I undertake work on behalf of the University Management School on the issue of social enterprise. Social enterprises are organisations with a social or other mission, earning income from providing services, from trading and/or from public funds, and outside private ownership or the control of shareholders and therefore not profit-distributing. It is a moot point whether the University itself is a social enterprise, and therefore might have things to learn from its social enterprise peers about good governance, accountability and corporate citizenship - all themes commonly raised within subtext

One interesting test of whether we are indeed a social enterprise might be to ask who owns the University. Is it the Vice-Chancellor? Is it Senate? Is it the Government? Is it the citizens of the UK and beyond, that pay for us through taxation? Heaven forbid, is it our students who ultimately bring us so much income through their tuition fees? (After all they are our customers, and the customer is king, they say.) Having worked here for 18 months under the so called Third Mission, and about to be jettisoned as my short term contract expires, I know it's not me that owns it.

The point is that it is less important which is the right answer than that we might share a common understanding on this rather basic issue. Cohesive and purposeful organisations generally have clarity over ownership and accountability.

This university, like many other in the public and third sector, probably doesn't enjoy that clear sense of collective purpose. This may explain some of the apparently contradictory answers within the staff survey. For example, staff may understand and value the concept of a 'university' in a generalised sense, but, when their work experiences and levels of stress are in conflict with their hopes and their expectations of their employer, maybe not this University in particular.

I feel another thing we may need to learn from good social enterprise is that corporate social responsibility goes deeper than reputation management, and is linked with an open and independent audit not only of financial and academic performance, but also wider social and environmental impact. So the University is happy to pronounce what a great academic institution we are, how good we are at managing our resources and so forth. But it might be less happy to be so open about our social benefit in terms of our impact on the local economy and our environmental performance. And of course having good employment practices, the valuing of unions and junior staff, empowerment and equality, transparency, accountability for decision-making and so forth are important aspects of social performance.

So my call is ... let's extend the range of independent auditing, as we have perhaps started with the staff survey, to other areas of our impact, and bring in outside verification of our broader corporate citizenship. For without that verifiable knowledge, and in the absence of also enjoying short term contracts for example, are not our leaders simply isolated from the realities of our daily grind? Unless they know the truth, how can we blame them for not leading us better?

I for one would be happier knowing if it's a cock-up or a conspiracy that I and others are losing our jobs. Verified social audit may tell me.

Jez Hall, Social Enterprise Associate, Institute for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development, Lancaster University Management School



Dear subtext,

I feel duty bound to point out that the 53% response rate to the recent staff survey is not 'better ... than most recent UK general elections' as you state. The smallest general election turnout since 1918 was 59.4% in 2001.

I hope you don't mind if I also point out that your use of the phrase 'begs the question' in your editorial is wrong (as this is something about which I have a bee in my bonnet). The phrase does not mean 'raises the question' - if that is what was wanted we would just say 'raises'. It means to assume as true something which is actually controversial or debateable. Thus: 'Scots write better English than the English because of the education system introduced by John Knox in the 16th century'.

Prof. D. Denver, Dept of Politics and International Relations

[subtext writes: we're happy to be corrected on both counts. The textdrone has been hit over the head with a copy of the subtext Style Guide, taken out into the yard and flogged (to a local free paper, if you were wondering).]


The editorial collective of subtext currently consists (in alphabetical order) of: Sarah Beresford, George Green, Gavin Hyman, Bronislaw Szerszynski and Alan Whitaker.