Tribunal highlights poor governance

August 28, 2008

The case of Paul Buckland ("Tribunal backs professor's stand", 21 August) has some profound implications for the management of universities. I believe that halting and reversing the slide in the standard of corporate governance in the higher education sector is long overdue.

I believe that there are too many senior managers in higher education who are willing to ride roughshod over the well-reasoned views of colleagues who have considerable knowledge and experience, and to ride roughshod over clearly defined policies and procedures.

Courts have always been extremely reluctant to allow any challenge to academic judgment. Of course, it is always possible to succeed by continuing to shop around for more examiners until a desired result is achieved.

Unless actual perversity is evident in a set of marks, once proper marking has taken place, the fact that others may take a marginally different view is irrelevant. Exactly the same principle applies in legal appeals - even if an appeal judge would himself have taken a different view, he will not overturn the original judge's decision in the absence of perversity (or error of law). That is long-established law.

Outside the matter of academic judgment, this case is important. Disregarding the views and position of a senior academic, constituting a fundamental breach of contract, has profound implications for university managers who fail to consult properly in all academic matters.

Of course, some of the problems in many post-92 universities arise precisely because of senior higher education managers seizing excessive executive powers as a result of the wholly inappropriate structures. That is almost the antithesis of collegiate conduct, with the very unfortunate consequence that many senior managers act with scant regard to proper academic principles and procedures.

I suspect the tribunal had little choice in its decision. It seems to me from reports of the case that what happened may well have been not only a serious challenge to academic judgment but, underneath that, also constituted a serious challenge to long-established principles concerned with the law relating to appeals.

Judges would be horrified at the prospect of litigants shopping around until they find a judge who agrees with them.

Geoffrey Darnton, Via website.

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