Heavy industry, my learned friends

The Law of Higher Education
March 3, 1995

The Law of Higher Education is the first book-length monograph in its field. D. J. Farrington is admirably qualified to write it, both in university experience and by legal training. He was a contributor to, and co-editor of, Universities and the Law (1990), which the present work supersedes through both its fuller scope and the inclusion of essential matter from the past four fast-moving years.

Obviously, a book of this kind cannot cover in complete detail the many areas of law (employment, contract, property, to name just a few) that also govern other institutions and businesses of all sorts. In these areas Farrington gives a sufficient overview for the reader to understand the general scope and effect of the law, with fuller explanations of those points that are most important to universities and other institutions of further education.

The book deals comprehensively with aspects of law that are peculiar to universities, or nearly so, notably the status and powers of chartered institutions, and universities' relationships with their students.

It also deals fully with the great burgeoning of higher education legislation and law-based regulation that has been such a marked feature of the past few years. Since this authoritarian legal framework has been created not to deal with issues of "right and wrong", but as an instrument for effecting policy about whose future course the law's creators are evidently as much in the dark as the rest of us, it is certain that there will be an early and continuing need for The Law of Higher Education to be updated.

This book, if kept up to date, will remain invaluable to senior university administrators. It might be used as a guide for an informal audit of procedures, documentation and so on, where there is not already a more formal audit process in force. The book certainly ought to be on all administrators' shelves, and be read as quickly as possible, preferably before facing too many of the distressing contretemps at the prospect of which the author no doubt inadvertently alarms the more nervous of his colleagues.

There is discussion and historical exposition, which is helpful in understanding such recondite topics as academic employment, students' unions and student discipline. Clearly, there cannot be space for everything in a book of this kind, but overall the balance is about right.

Any future edition would benefit from a fuller, systematic treatment of superannuation and insurance. The current reference to Kent's collapsed railway tunnel (which "simply gave way under the weight of the academic activity above it") are entertaining and also instructive. The fact that the university had subsidence insurance was an essential factor in retaining the initiative in various relationships, notably with the University Grants Committee.

Widespread university mythology surfaces at one point: following common practice, the original seven "new English universities" (chronologically from Sussex to Lancaster, including Kent) are referred to as "the Robbins universities". In fact, the establishment of these universities was approved between July 1958 and November 1961, long before the Robbins committee, which was set up only in February 1961 and reported in October 1963. It did recommend the establishment of six further universities, but only Stirling (approved July 1964) and the short-lived Ulster resulted.

This is an excellent book that bears testimony at once to the author's wide academic experience and to the dark Celtic humour that he has surely imbibed during his Caledonian sojourn. Dealing with employment aspects of mental health problems, he writes: "Examples of such behaviour might include frequent unexplained absences, insistence on doing work other than that required or making accusations against colleagues without any reasonable ground for doing so." Who should 'scape whipping, indeed?

Denis Linfoot was registrar at the University of Kent at Canterbury from 1981-91.

The Law of Higher Education

Author - D. J. Farrington
ISBN - 0 406 02678 5
Publisher - Butterworths
Price - £26.95
Pages - 531pp

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