Taking the HEA to task over accountability

May 8, 2008

I am writing as a member of the Higher Education Academy academic council. I was elected in October as a representative of the fellows. My platform was highly critical of the HEA leadership. I alleged, inter alia, that the HEA failed to defend academic freedom, values and standards because it listened to "managers" not practitioners. I came first of 92 candidates in the ballot.

Like other contributors to Times Higher Education (Letters, 24 April; 1 May), I am disgusted at the way in which the HEA has behaved towards Lee Harvey. Its leadership has steadily dismantled the democratic checks and balances without which institutional abuses become rife. Shame on it.

An evaluation of the HEA by management consultants Oakleigh Consulting (http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/rdreports/2008/rd02_08/) is an eye-opener. At the last meeting of council I submitted a paper recommending "that the board invite some suitably experienced fellows to investigate those aspects of the culture in (HEA) York which have given rise to the dissatisfaction among staff noted in the Oakleigh Report ... and to the critical comments ... which led Oakleigh to conclude that 'this is the sort of issue which gives organisations an unhelpful reputation'".

Council refused. It also refused to put the report or the HEA's "action plan" in response to it on any future agenda of council. This is what the HEA really thinks about "academic input" to the board. It has become an organisation of managers, by managers, for managers.

When the academy abolished its former council (30 members; 16 elected fellows; various powers to determine policy) and replaced it with the "academic council" (15 members; four elected fellows; no powers to determine anything), the CEO claimed that this would "increase the input of academic teachers". Such sophistry is risible, but what is happening to Lee Harvey is no laughing matter. As correspondents have said, what example does this set for universities in this country? What example does it set abroad? What is this supposed to teach students about how to treat colleagues decently in academic debate or in employment?

But colleagues threatening to resign their fellowships should think again. Since the HEA abolished the individual subscription (without consulting council), it has made itself financially unaccountable to fellows. Write letters of complaint to the board instead. Copy the THE thread to them. Force them to see how widely our disgust is shared.

The time has come for an independent inquiry into the way in which the HEA has been governed and managed since it swallowed the Institute for Learning and Teaching. The ILT was far from perfect, but it was collegial, democratic and had a culture of respect for academic freedom and individual academics. Academics and students need such an institution. The HEA is not it.

Philip Burgess, Perthshire

See http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comments.asp?storycode=401505.

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