Exclusive: Members of Court speak out over fears of accountability crisis at Bristol University

‘No business would try to get rid of its stakeholder or shareholder meetings’

The Tab can today reveal the deep concerns that exist over proposed reforms to Bristol University’s accountability structures. A number of alumni have spoken to The Tab about their fears that proposed reforms to Court- a senior body of representatives which meets annually to consider the accounts, strategy and direction of the University- will concentrate power and prevent the university management from being held truly accountable.

At present over 650 persons are eligible to attend Court including all members of Senate, Emeritus Professors, 100 members of the Alumni Association, 15 representatives from Bristol City Council and 42 representatives from eminent Bristol organisations, such as the Society of Merchant Venturers.

At the most recent annual meeting of Court in December 2017, it was proposed that the body be shrunk to a mere 60 members in order to “provide a forum for meaningful dialogue and engagement with its key stakeholders”. At present, Court is considered by many to be too big and unwieldy to be a truly effective body, with the University pointing out that on average, only 26% of Court members attended the annual meeting between 2011 and 2016.

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Wills Memorial Building, where Court meets once a year

Moreover, the University contends in its proposals that “the ‘accountability’ element of the original role of Court is increasingly less relevant in the modern age” with external bodies such as the Office for Students now fulfilling this role and the Board of Trustees acting “as a critical friend to the University, both supporting and simultaneously challenging the executive”.

It asserts that Court ought to be ‘re-imagined’ as merely a forum for dialogue, stripped of all formal powers other than the power to appoint the Chancellor and the Pro Chancellors of the University. The power to appoint lay members of the Board of Trustees, currently held by Court, would instead sit with the Board of Trustees itself, thus bringing the University into compliance with the Higher Education sector.

At present, under the existing Charter establishing the University, Court can block any reforms for up to two years. At the last meeting in December 2017, the aforementioned proposals were rejected but are set to return for another vote at the next general meeting in four months’ time. Five members of Court have expressed deep concerns to this publication that the current proposals will greatly reduce the accountability of senior University management if passed.

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List of members of Court under the new proposals

One past attendee, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The Tab that Court “is the only forum where people can turn up and say to the Vice Chancellor ‘Give us an answer’… It’s a meeting of stakeholders- that’s what Court is. No business would try to get rid of its stakeholder or shareholder meetings.” Bristol’s divestment from fossil fuels was cited as an example of where the intervention of Court made a crucial difference in changing university policy.

According to the source, if the planned reforms go ahead, “There will be no institutional checks on who he [Brady] is and what he does. There needs to be more… I don’t blame him for what he’s doing but I think he is missing what it [Court] does”. Accountability is a concern because “the Board is increasingly whipped” whilst “Senate is only academic matters, very much a rubber-stamping body, with matters done in the subcommittee”.

Dr Crossley-Evans, a veteran member of Court and the longest serving Warden in Bristol’s history, compared the current Board to a ‘chumocracy’- “Most of the members represent no body and no one, they are unaccountable, they command no confidence whatever among the staff, student or graduates of the University… [it] was once a body of representatives of the various bodies who founded and financed the University. No longer.”

Senate House, where the offices of Bristol's senior management are based

Christopher Didcote, an Alumni Association Representative to Court, echoed these concerns in an email to the Chancellor Paul Nurse: “I find it deeply concerning that in the proposed model the vast majority of Court’s members will essentially [in real terms] be appointed by the grace of the Vice-Chancellor and the Chair of the Board of Trustees… I do think it is reasonable to assume that given c. 67% of the proposed new composition will be either senior management or appointed on their behalf versus only 7% with the current composition does rather stack things in favour on those who we could reasonably assume to be ‘toeing the University’s line’.”

As well as concerns over accountability, there are fears that residents and local businesses will have far less of a voice if the number of representatives from various bodies is reduced. One member of Court said that Bristol University is the “only institution in Bristol which can generation a billion or more for the local economy, it is the centre of the economy. It operates at its best when it operates with the city, with local organisations in the city”. By reducing the number of local stakeholders, there are fears that the contribution of local businesses and councillors will be devalued or seen to be devalued- “they do have legitimate concerns and the university must listen to those concerns”.

Commenting on the story, a University of Bristol spokesperson said: “The University of Bristol is committed to reforming Court so that it better meets our needs and is fit for purpose in the current environment for higher education and for the University. Our current version of Court reflects a different era and this is illustrated by the fact that we are an outlier in the sector. The current multi-layered and iterative consultation process is designed to engage a wide range of stakeholders in determining the future of this body. We are hopeful that the views expressed to The Tab will be fed into the formal process so that we can take them into account as we progress into the next stage of the consultation.”