Board games

June 19, 2008

The articles by Lee Harvey and Higher Education Academy chief executive Paul Ramsden (Opinion, 12 June) are contrasting and instructive.

Ramsden persists in claiming that the new "academic council" has broadened and strengthened the academic input to the board of directors. Council is half the size of its predecessor, with an increased proportion of vice-chancellors, pro vice-chancellors and directors of subject centres, all of whom could have stood for election previously. Elected representatives of fellows are reduced from 16 to four. Council's former powers of determination are abolished and its chair is chosen by the board.

The chairman of the board intimated at council's first meeting that discussion of governance matters was outwith the remit of academic council. This was reinforced in a letter to me by the company secretary when I sought to reserve my right to table a motion of no confidence in the HEA leadership before the last council meeting.

It therefore appears that the only people who can question the governance of the HEA are - er - the governors. Not much chance of any slip-up there then.

At council meetings this year, I have tried to add the following items to future agendas:

1) a survey of fellows to ascertain what factors they believe to be detracting from the student learning experience

2) the report in Times Higher Education ( March) showing that academics have the worst perceptions of their "managers" of any employment sector

3) the article in Times Higher Education (7 February) in which the vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester argued that teaching standards in Russell Group institutions had deteriorated

4) the Oakleigh report and the HEA's action plan to address the criticisms therein

5) academic freedom

6) the validity of the National Student Survey.

All were rejected.

At council on 5 June, I tabled the following motion: "The members of academic council regard the treatment of Professor Lee Harvey as unacceptable in an academic institution such as the HEA. We note that the HEA's treatment of Professor Harvey has done serious damage to the reputation of the HEA, as illustrated by the comments from academics published in the Times Higher Education thread (see related article).

The chair ruled that the motion was inappropriate for council. No council member dissented except for Angela Roger, another elected fellow.

So much for the breadth and strength of council.

In contrast, the article by Harvey submits the NSS methodology to a critical analysis, makes a crucial distinction between reliability and validity, and Harvey supports his case with argument and evidence. His knowledge is broad and his convictions are strong.

Clearly, the HEA is not big enough to contain the likes of both Ramsden and Harvey. Which is the better exemplar of academic values? Who sets the better example to students?

Philip Burgess, Elected representative of fellows, HEA academic council.

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