Pre-emptive strikes avert a hoo-ha

December 15, 1995

Lord Nolan must have felt a sense of relief when his committee on standards in public life opened its study of universities and colleges last month. After the hoo-ha that followed the committee's call for disclosure of MPs' outside earnings, a probe into the workings of academe was hardly a daunting prospect.

The media went through the motions on the first day. National press photographers did their best to imbue committee members with a sense of urgency and occasion, as they jostled to wring an interesting shot out of unpromising material. But it was no use. The hearings seemed to have reached an unsensational conclusion even before they started.

The problem with this stage of Lord Nolan's review, which is looking at the governance of grant-maintained schools, housing associations and training and enterprise councils, as well as universities and colleges, is that everyone saw it coming - including vice chancellors and principals.

Submissions made to the committee before the hearings from the Committee of University Chairmen, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the Association for Colleges and the Colleges Employers Forum, all seemed to convey the message: "We've got you covered." Though that might have seemed all too smug, they had a point. The publication of codes and guides for university and college governors has sprung up as a mini-industry. Monitoring of the financial and academic activities of institutions is now so intensive that members of Lord Nolan's team were asking by the second week of inquiry whether there was too much of it, rather than too little.

The first witness, Sir Geoffrey Holland, Exeter University vice chancellor and former permanent secretary at the Employment Department and the Department for Education, was quick to warn against the introduction of still more layers of audit, assessment and "detailed mechanisms" designed to safeguard taxpayers' money.

Sir Geoffrey, regarded as one of the key witnesses on further and higher education, was quite adamant about this. Even when Lord Nolan and his colleagues sought to prise out weaknesses in the system by making frequent references to the highly publicised problems at Huddersfield and Portsmouth universities, Sir Geoffrey made it clear he felt such incidents were not only rare, but also unlikely to recur. He pointed out that in the case of Huddersfield the sector had responded promptly so that "the path to the secretary of state's desk was very fast indeed". The universities' answer to the Huddersfield incident, the Committee of University Chairmen's code on governance, seems to cover most of Nolan's concerns about accountability, though it is not enforceable. The good timing of the CUC in publishing its code made it hard to argue that another Huddersfield was about to happen.

The evidence given by Sir Geoffrey characterised much of what was to follow from university and college employers' representatives and funding council chiefs. Though in all this there was unavoidably an element of "they would say that, wouldn't they?" (how many vice chancellors would be prepared to stand up and say "yes, we are running a corrupt system"?), the best efforts of Lord Nolan and his crew failed to unearth any serious signs of maladministration or complacency.

Contributions from the lecturers' unions were predictably more critical. But even these were unable to produce anything to warrant the time being devoted to them. The Association of University Teachers and Natfhe, the university and college lecturers' union, called for "gagging" clauses in staff contracts to be outlawed. But they appeared to be pushing at an imaginary door, with employers' bodies calling for the same. They tried suggesting that governing bodies needed to be made more representative, with staff and student members playing a fuller role - only to find employers echoing their plea. The unions could not agree on whether "new" universities ought to be made to adopt "old" university-style charter arrangements to ensure openness and accountability. What they did agree on amounted to some useful but basically uncontroversial proposals, such as writing ethical standards into institutions' mission statements - unlikely to raise objections from any quarter.

So far, so good, Lord Nolan might have thought. Yet at times he and his committee members must also have wondered: "So what are we doing here?" As the evidence unfurled, the impression grew that the study had already made its mark on further and higher education. Its principles had been institutionalised, even to the point of being described by one witness as "Nolanness". Lord Nolan was quickly discovering how thorough universities and colleges were prepared to be in order to protect themselves from outside interference. He may have concluded from this that the level of autonomy and academic freedom enjoyed by institutions is more likely to encourage public accountability than erode it. To vice chancellors and principals at least, such a conclusion would be the biggest relief of all.

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