University and College Union Challenges the new University protest policy

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By Domenica Giorgianni and Olivia Kenny – News Editors

The University and College Union (UCU) in Lancaster has challenged the new “Code of Conduct on Protests” advanced by the University Management. Introduced in 2006, Lancaster University has had a code of conduct for protests for the past thirteen years; recently, this has been rejuvenated. In their statement, the UCU have said that the policy needs to be “revisited and opened for wide consultation across the University,” suggesting that it is “unnecessary, regressive and impractical.” 

In the new Code, the University considered freedom of expression as a “fundamental” part of the institution’s values, and that they do not intend to hinder staff or students who wish to be a part of peaceful protests. Contradictory, the advanced policy encloses a series of principles and procedures which must be followed when a protest takes place, including providing notice prior to the event taking place. Furthermore, the principles further go onto suggest that all protests which are due to take place should show a “respect” for the University’s own regulatory framework. 

In their statement, the UCU advanced nine particular concerns in regards to the Code. This includes the fact that UK universities do not have Codes of Conducts on Protest and that Lancaster is one of only a small minority of academic institutions which have adopted such a policy. They also argue that there is no clear reason for the recent amendments as the 2006 Code was developed with the insights of experts and a number of University members. Other notable points against the Code include the “unnecessary” referencing of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015 and the proposed idea that al protests should have a “Principal Organiser” and the expectation that a risk assessment is needed for a peaceful protest. 

The UCU further noted that the founding Vice-Chancellor of the University, Charles Carter, was active in a number of protests including those against wars such as WWII and Iraq and his belief in ethical foreign policy and prison reform. They said, “Charles Carter set up a charter at the university against any ‘discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, politics or any other thing.’ All of these beliefs entailed dissent of different kinds and, in some cases, active protest. This mirrors the work that many of Lancaster University members, across their research, teaching, personal and professional lives. This new policy, for its clear potential to impinge upon the peaceful performance of dissent, goes against the history and values of Lancaster University.” 

The ambiguity of what activities are called “protest” was also highlighted. The UCU noted that the proposed Code labels all types of dissent as a protest which they deem unnecessary and careless. “This proposed policy includes specific provisions that are onerous and are likely—indeed, seem intended—to create barriers for those who wish to peacefully voice their dissent. It appears designed to deliver chilling effects in a number of different ways, discouraging individuals from voicing dissent. For example, the ambiguity around what is considered ‘protest’ causes people to be more cautious about how their actions could be interpreted. Moreover, the new policy demonstrates a weak and ahistorical understanding of how dissent and protest operate, as well as of Lancaster University’s history and values.” 

Speaking against the university’s recent Code, Jacob Phelps stated, “Some Lancaster University managers seem to view dissent and hard conversations as an inconvenience. In fact, they are the very things that makes as a university a university. Steps like this Code deprive students and staff of learning and personal development opportunities while depriving the university itself of vitality and new insights. This Code fundamentally alters the character of our campus” 

A representative of the University said, “The updated Code of Conduct on Protests was approved by Senate and Council in January. It has been operational since 1st February. In keeping with the policy’s clear articulation of support for lawful protest and a proportionate approach by the University a number of protests have occurred on campus since that date, without any issues about arrangements being raised. 

The University was surprised and disappointed by the written submission it received from UCU about the updated code in mid-March 2019. This came after the circulation of a draft of the code to representatives of all three recognised staff unions on 12th December 2018 and discussed at the formal Consultation and Communications Meeting on 19th December 2018. This was despite no formal requirement to consult on this topic. None of the issues identified in UCU’s March letter were raised, nor hinted at in that meeting. 

As is the case with any policy, we are open to feedback and will periodically review policies in light of our experience in putting them into operation. In this instance the University’s Director of Strategic Planning & Governance has already arranged to meet with students representatives and has offered to have further discussion with UCU members in order to discuss the issues raised.”