Hutchings resigned from the University Council in response to the motionNoella Chye

Who has a say in how the University is run? A motion passed last week by Regent House, Cambridge’s central governing body, will exclude an estimated half to three-quarters of the University’s research associates – its largest staff group – from its democratic decision-making. The sudden resignation of a member of University Council, Cambridge’s executive decision-making body, has brought this question to the fore.  

“When I saw the result, it was like Brexit all over again… It’s very similar in that you have people voting on other people’s rights who do not necessarily have a vote themselves,” said Dr Alice Hutchings, a lecturer specialising in cyber-crime at Cambridge’s computer science department, who resigned from Council on Monday.

The motion began as a movement to simplify voting rights criteria, but has culminated in the disenfranchisement of hundreds of postdoctoral staff (postdocs). Regent House membership grants individuals the right to directly influence University affairs, including the right to vote in University elections. Senior University and college staff are automatically eligible for membership, but the requirements for their more junior colleagues are less clear-cut.

Under previous membership criteria, research associate eligibility was entirely dependent on whether faculties chose to enrol its research associates, or if their department did not fall under a faculty. A Grace was proposed in June to remove these arbitrary distinctions by extending membership inclusively to all research associates across the University.

However, University Council amended the Grace to impose a qualifying period of “at least three years continuously” for research associates, criticised by many as discriminatory against the particular staff group.

Research staff are the most international, they’re the most diverse... 

The amended Grace passed in a closely contested ballot last week, with 402 of 783 votes cast in its favour.

The original motion would have steered the University towards giving all postdocs a say in the Cambridge’s direction through the makeup of its Regent House membership. Had this Grace passed, approximately 2,000 postdocs would have gained eligibility, significantly increasing their representation – in effect, expanding the postdoctoral voice in the University.

In Hutchings’ department, all senior research associates are included. “That’s ... why I was able to become a member of the Regent House, and later [was] voted into Council”. If she had arrived after this November, following the amendment’s passing, she said, “I would not have been able to stand for Council and other colleagues, other researchers, who have been able to contribute in a really positive way, would no longer be able to do so.

“I think [the result] is symptomatic of how researchers are perceived in the University.” Research associates are in a unique position within Cambridge. In trying to build their careers, many take on additional responsibilities. Hutchings said, “research staff in this university do a lot more than just research. They teach, they supervise, they run programmes; they do many things that an academic would do… but of course they’re only employed to do research.

“Many people do this because they want the experience, or they see there’s a need that the department wants to fill, so they’re trying to be good citizens within the department.”

The Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms, which advocated against the amendment, characterised the pushback to the original motion: “The forces of conservatism have struck back, in the form of an amendment promoted by the University Council which will impose a waiting period of 3-4 years before a postdoc can vote.” The amendment, campaigners have argued, would “disenfranchise junior research staff, and in a way that discriminates against women.”

Hutchings agreed. She said, “... research staff are the most international, they’re the most diverse ... compared to academic staff there’s a high proportion of women.”

The issue is amplified by a disconnect between the lives of research associates and pockets of the University where people may believe that postdocs are not actively engaged in the University; since Regent House membership is limited to those who do, the argument goes, postdocs should not qualify. To Hutchings, the idea that postdocs do not engage just isn’t true, and at odds with the people around her.

The outcome was a damning indication of how researchers in this University are perceived: as second class citizens

It doesn’t help that the precarity postdocs find themselves in has not been dealt with urgently. Hutchings remarked: “There’s almost like a failure to want to engage with this issue, to want to have to take responsibility for it in a way. It’s easy just to blame research funders than to say this is a systemic issue that we should be addressing, because they go: it’s come down to where the money goes, we can’t provide more stability because we can’t necessarily fund that.”

For Hutchings, the issue isn’t just in how Regent House voted, but also that Council called for the amendment, and that it allowed it to be put to a ballot.

In a Council meeting in July, Hutchings told the room that she believed the amendment was unlawful – a sentiment echoed in her statement of resignation. Yet, “I don’t think this received the amount of time that it should have,” she said.

In her statement of resignation, Hutchings wrote: “The Grace that was recently balloted intended to enfranchise the University’s research staff. Instead the outcome was a damning indication of how researchers in this University are perceived: as second class citizens.”

After finding out about the ballot result last Friday, she consolidated her thoughts on the issue,  looking into her duties as a trustee of the University under the Charity Commission guidance. “... reading that I felt that the best thing I could do was to resign,” she said.


Mountain View

Behind the latest effort to transform Cambridge access

“One of the really great things about the University is that it’s really democratic, and this makes it a really great place to work. It’s one of the things that I believe has really contributed to the success of the University for the many centuries that it’s been around,” said Hutchings.

Later, she added: “Researchers – because they come from so many different backgrounds – they have so many insights in how we can be better... by not allowing them to participate, I think the University loses out as a result.”