Leader: Businesslike but far more than just businesses

July 4, 2003

Large and important though Manchester's merged university will be, the dispute over its governance (pages 2 and 14) would be of mainly local concern were it not for the government's interest. Ministers have made it clear that they have little regard for the quality of university management, adding it to Richard Lambert's brief in his otherwise unrelated inquiry into business links. And the institutions that the Manchester objectors are anxious to preserve are just the type Whitehall would like to see consigned to campus archives. Academics may see big councils and even bigger courts as a necessary defence against managerialism; to the "modernisers", they simply represent ivory tower inefficiency.

While the merger will no doubt survive the current row - critics of the proposed statutes have made it clear that they do not wish to derail the plans permanently - the eventual machinery of governance will be a test case for the sector. As Cambridge has discovered, changing existing statutes is far from easy, no matter how obvious the flaws may seem to outsiders. But if a new institution that is receiving large injections of public money to develop as a global player chooses not to adopt a leaner structure, it is easy to imagine the conclusions that will be drawn in the corridors of power.

Manchester cannot be expected to sacrifice a century-old collegial tradition on such grounds, but the old structure is not the only one that can offer the necessary checks and balances. In most universities that have a court, it performs a largely ceremonial function. Theoretically, it could provide a forum for the community to shape the direction of the university, but it seldom does so in practice. A membership in the hundreds with little accountability merely provides an opportunity to ambush the administration from time to time.

A more difficult question (that will no doubt feature in the Lambert Review) concerns the optimum size and make-up of the governing body - usually the council in pre-1992 universities. The Dearing Report, six years ago, suggested a guideline of 25, which most companies would still regard as excessive. The Manchester proposal is for a council of 22, with the balance of power shifting from academic to lay members. Those piloting the merger will have to show that a marginal increase in efficiency will not be at the cost of the kind of autocracy experienced in some new universities.

The new higher education market demands universities to be more businesslike, but they are more than mere businesses.

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