Alan Ryan - 'No governance device will work ..

November 30, 2007

'No governance device will work when people don't pay sufficient attention and when they defer to the executive'. The sentiment that Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring reportedly expressed whenever questions of culture were raised - "when I hear the world 'culture', I reach for my revolver" - was no doubt wicked, though I'm not clear whether what he was going to do was shoot the person who had raised the issue or blow his own brains out rather than endure high-flown and pointless discussions.

I know how the Reichsmarschall felt; whenever I hear the word "governance", the desire to shoot someone overtakes me. Quite whom to shoot I do not know; we live not only in an audit culture but in a buck- passing culture, and a culture with an absurd faith in the possibility of eliminating error by multiplying committees and an equally absurd faith that persons who have flourished in business are qualified to tell academics how to run their own universities.

Many perfectly nice and decent people serve on university councils, and some perfectly nice and decent people work for the Higher Education Funding Council for England and its offspring, the Quality Assurance Agency, so I should say, as Marx did long ago, that to my eye they are victims of a system as much as the people whose lives they mess up. Just as Marx's capitalists were driven by the capitalist system to work their employees to death, however much they disliked doing so, so many Hefce bureaucrats dislike - for instance - dumbing down undergraduate education by way of the QAA, fostering the production of makeweight research by way of the research assessment exercise and wasting everyone's time with endless initiatives; but what choice do they have? Some of them might have made something or written something if they hadn't got sidetracked, but like everything else in life, once you're on the slippery slope to success it's hard to turn around.

Consider, since it's in the news, Oxford University's problems with Hefce - or Hefce's problems with Oxford. A few years ago, Oxford disgraced itself by being unable to produce its annual accounts on time. The reasons were familiar: new accounting software nobody could get to work properly; adopting a new system without running the old one alongside it as a backup until everyone was happy with the change; and a finance division that was not up to speed in all sorts of ways. Hefce, quite rightly, regarded this as pretty bad.

But it wasn't in any sense a failure of governance: nobody tried to bamboozle the auditors; nobody had their hands in the till. It was a boring, old-fashioned management failure. Hefce says, not unreasonably, that it isn't confident that the university can assure it that Hefce money has been spent properly. But it also says, quite unreasonably, that this is an issue of governance and says, completely foolishly, that it doesn't see how anything other than the sort of system typical of post-1992 universities can do the trick.

Would it have helped if Oxford had had an orthodox "Committee of University Chairmen"-certified council full of businessmen with no connection to the university? Not in the least. There were a couple of tough cookies from the business world on Oxford's existing council and it didn't help. It didn't help because no institutional device will work when people don't pay sufficient attention and when they defer - as members of Committee of University Chairmen-compliant councils invariably do defer - to the university's executive. Hefce knows as well as anyone that the CUC model is in essence the business model that showed its merits in such cases as Enron in the US and Marconi in the UK. A board that lets the chief executive run amok is no use; and a council that doesn't ask the vice-chancellor and his or her sidekicks the right questions is equally useless.

So what does work? Only systems that are sufficiently open to the insights that the academics, junior administrators, librarians and whomever can uniquely provide. Cambridge University's Board of Scrutiny is what every university should have - Hefce, too. Although I was mildly unkind about the proposals that Oxford threw out last year, I did not mind the proposed council - the outsiders would have been voted on to the council by ourselves and could be voted off if we thought they were no good. Of course any self-respecting institution should be able to explain where its money comes from and what it has been spent on.

But the more important accountability is to the real and actual custodians of the institution's values; and those aren't the bureaucrats of Hefce but the people who teach, research and make it possible to teach and research. Morally, if not legally, they are the true owners of the enterprise; the disgrace is not that Oxford and Cambridge are not like everywhere else, but that everywhere else is not like Oxford and Cambridge.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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