Cambridge mauled by its own watchdog

August 16, 2002

Cambridge University is run like a failing corporation, with "inadequate financial controls, management and planning", according to its standards watchdog.

Last week, the board of scrutiny published a stinging critique of the way Cambridge manages itself. It expressed alarm at a failure to adequately tackle a largely self-inflicted financial crisis, attempts to cover up its problems and moves to rush through important legislative changes without proper accountability and consultation.

In its seventh annual report, the board says: "The university is a self-governing community of academics: we are not beholden to shareholders, but we have an obligation to conduct ourselves in ways which are above reproach. It does not appear we are doing so."

There was strong criticism of the financial crisis - Cambridge faces a predicted deficit this year of £11.6 million, rising to more than £20 million within three years. "Over the past decade decisions have been taken or policies allowed to evolve that, with proper management accounts, forecasting and analysis, could have been predicted to have caused problems," the report says. These included a botched retirement programme and "the expansion of the estate, with insufficient investment analysis of individual projects or of the impact on the finances of the university as a whole".

A commitment to promoting people to professors and readers that increased the annual salary bill by £740,000 last year was misguided, it says. "The worsening of the deficit raises the question as to whether we can afford to promote ourselves without budgetary restriction."

The board says that it appreciates that promotions were important for retention and recruitment. "Yet if academics are prepared to leave Cambridge, might not poor working conditions, ill-equipped laboratories, underpaid and disaffected assistant staff, worsening staff-to-student ratios, increasing workloads and the erosion of our democratic structures be just as critical to that decision as the loss of status and a few extra pounds?"

Equal opportunities remain a problem. "At present, 47.3 per cent of Cambridge undergraduates and 44.19 per cent of Cambridge postgraduates are female, but this is true of only 6.25 per cent of our professors. All the members of the university governance committee are men."

The board warns that the governance reforms are being pushed through with "undue haste". Plans to give the vice-chancellor explicit executive powers would give too much power to one appointee. "There is no way which the (elected governing) council could sack the vice-chancellor should the situation arise in the supposedly democratic University of Cambridge."

The press and public relations department is accused of covering up problems. When the board tried to release a statement on the bungled implementation of the Capsa financial system last year, "the press office first tried to censor the statement and then to suppress it", the report says.

The university will respond to the board's report shortly.

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