If institutions display an inability to govern themselves, it would not be surprising if a government thought ‘we need a way of controlling universities’
A vice-chancellor suspended from her £330,000-a-year job; the chair of governors who suspended her facing sexual harassment claims and stepping down; and an embarrassing leak revealing that the university spent £95,000 on seven handcrafted chairs to be used at graduation ceremonies: Plymouth University has suffered a barrage of negative headlines in recent months.
One reading of events is that a falling-out between a chair and a vice-chancellor escalated into a full-blown crisis for the ninth largest university in the UK, creating months of damaging turmoil at an institution with a £218 million annual income – the bulk of it flowing via funding council grants and tuition fees – and a vital role in its regional economy.
Wendy Purcell is now back at Plymouth as vice-chancellor. She returned four months after she was suspended in July. However, significantly, she will no longer have responsibility for the running of the university and will not be its chief executive or accountable officer. Instead, her “strategic portfolio” will be focused on “external and sector relations, and the university’s wider enterprise agenda”, the university says.
Four months of legal wrangling between Purcell and Plymouth had resulted in a stand-off and a no-win situation for the university. If the university were to have sacked her, it could have faced the prospect of costly legal action – possibly on the grounds of sexual discrimination – and if it reinstated her it risked further internal disruption after a vote of no confidence in Purcell by University and College Union members.
One observer described the deal for her return with reduced powers as a “pragmatic fudge”, while several sources suggest that it may be the first stage of a negotiated exit (“V-c is back but is it a Devon fudge?”, 13 November).
But it leaves a lingering sourness, and many believe that events at Plymouth could have significant implications for the rest of the sector.
The problems at Plymouth follow a number of recent, albeit less high profile, governance flare-ups at other universities. Some have led to sudden exits for vice-chancellors or potential vice-chancellors (“This way out: why are v-cs heading for the door?” 24 July).
Some vice-chancellors have argued that recent departures and governance difficulties are linked to the uncertainty created by the emergence of a market in higher education. Speaking to Times Higher Education anonymously, one warned that “if a number of institutions display an inability to govern themselves, it would not be surprising if a future government thought that ‘really we need a way of controlling universities – the people that clearly can’t do it are universities’ ”.
Under such a scenario, a future government could legislate on university governance – potentially reducing the autonomy so prized by universities – under the guise of bringing in better protection for students and public funding.
Although ministers have declared in public that they would not involve themselves in the Plymouth situation, privately they are said to have been concerned.
Yet some see the current situation as an opportunity; a chance for English universities to start their own governance review, demonstrating to the government and public that they are committed to running themselves properly.
The towering walls of Plymouth’s 17th-century Royal Citadel, which rise above the waters of Plymouth Sound, show that this was a city founded on the business of repelling invaders. The Royal Navy base at Devonport, just along the coast, remains one of the region’s largest employers.
Walking inland across Plymouth’s 1950s concrete city centre – variously described as “heroic” and as possessing some of the ugliest buildings in Britain – brings you to another cornerstone of the local economy.
Rearing over the grey city centre is the university’s £35 million Roland Levinsky Building, its knife-edge prow reflecting Plymouth’s nautical heritage. The building, opened in 2007, stands as a symbol of the university’s confidence and its significance in the city.
Purcell became vice-chancellor after the sudden death of Levinsky, her predecessor, who was out walking near Plymouth on New Year’s Day 2007 when he was electrocuted by an 11,000-volt power line left hanging over a footpath. He had rapidly transformed the university during his five years in charge.
Purcell had studied at Plymouth as an undergraduate, graduating from the institution with a degree in biological sciences in 1985. After a swift rise, she was made a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Hertfordshire in 2005 before taking over at Plymouth in December 2007.
Under her leadership, Plymouth rebranded itself as “the enterprise university”, a move intended to make it “truly ‘business-engaging’ and delivering outstanding economic, social and cultural benefits from our intellectual capital”, according to the university’s website.
In the eyes of her supporters, Purcell was a major success in attracting business investment to the university. She became a non-executive board member at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and an expert adviser to the department’s Witty Review on universities and growth – the kind of career path that leads to ennoblement.
To her supporters, Purcell is a strong leader, and they believe that some men at the university had a problem with a strong female leader.
To her critics, Purcell’s management style and her treatment of colleagues was an issue.
Some question the “enterprise university” tag, asking whether the institution should have been prioritising its basic role in providing teaching and research to Devon and Cornwall – deprived counties in many parts – rather than chasing a distinctive brand identity designed for national and international impact. Purcell’s mission created a dislocation between her and the staff body, leading to a loss of faith in her leadership, these critics argue.
Most immediately, it was the clash between her and William Taylor, the chair of governors who suspended her, that brought matters to a head.
A special committee of the governors was set up to investigate Purcell. While the university has never disclosed the charges against her, THE understands that the case included a complaint by a senior member of staff about her management style and claims about allegedly excessive spending.
After her suspension, allegations emerged in the media that Taylor, a retired judge, had sexually harassed female staff and students. Taylor, who denies the claims, resigned from his post in September after he initiated an independent inquiry into the allegations.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has recommended that Plymouth undertake an external, independent review of its governance following the events surrounding Purcell.
Mike Sheaff, an associate professor in sociology at Plymouth, is the academic staff representative on the board of governors. Staff “will expect a say in the coming review of governance”, he says. As for the impact on the university’s reputation, he points out that “none of the adverse publicity concerned our core activities of teaching and research. Nearly all focused on decisions by the executive.”
In his view, Plymouth’s academic board needs to be strengthened because at present the balance of the board is too much tilted towards students rather than academics, which “contributes to dominance by the executive”.
Sheaff says that in all universities there should be “challenge to the executive from a strong and representative senate or academic board, focusing on the quality of teaching and research. Together, these can reduce the risk of the executive becoming isolated and out of touch, which I have seen in Plymouth.”
He also cautions: “A greater role for markets creates volatility and uncertainty, but responses [to the market] must reflect the character and strengths of individual institutions. Too much focus on marketing, branding and ‘distinctiveness’ can be a distraction.”
Barbara Bond, a former chair of governors at Plymouth, outlined a series of criticisms of what she claims was Taylor’s “poor governance practice” in a public statement, released in August after she exited as the institution’s pro-chancellor.
Taylor, who is also a school governor, the president, patron and chairman of a number of local charities and a former Council of Legal Education lecturer, “has had no previous experience of such a demanding non-executive role and appears to me to be unable to grasp the nature of his role as opposed to the vice-chancellor’s”, Bond claims in the statement.
It adds: “What is happening at Plymouth is, in my opinion, symptomatic of an issue which may well be happening elsewhere in the HE community, of a chair and a board which are in charge of the profile and development of an ambitious and very successful young university without any understanding of what is involved in the transformational challenge faced by a chief executive seeking to deliver an ambitious and far-reaching vision.”
At the time, Plymouth responded by saying that it was “a matter of some concern” that Bond’s statement, “which contains a number of factual inaccuracies, might be used to deflect the attention of the governing body away from the investigation currently underway into the alleged conduct of the vice-chancellor”.
A crisis in one university, or even in a small number of universities, is never a good reason for legislating for the whole sector
According to Mike Shattock, visiting professor in higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, the governance arrangement at post-92 universities can contribute to problems when they arise. “Bust-ups between vice-chancellors and chairs of governing bodies need to be buffered by other senior members of the governing body and by senior academics. The post-92 constitution lends itself to this kind of situation because it provides no countervailing authority at the academic level as would be present in a senate,” he says.
Shattock warns of “the danger of a unicameral board which is not answerable to anyone but itself”.
So does the Plymouth situation suggest that universities need better or firmer guidance on governance? And what does Hefce want to see covered by the independent review of governance at Plymouth?
A funding council spokesman’s only comment was: “The terms of reference for the governance review have been seen by Hefce but the scope of the work is being rightly determined by the Plymouth board, not Hefce.”
Asked whether the Plymouth situation has governance implications for the rest of the sector and might attract the attention of the government, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, says: “UK universities are well governed” and that “rare occasions where individual disputes occur between executives and governing bodies” are “usually a sign of independent governance checks and balances operating effectively”.
She adds: “The autonomy of universities and their independent governing bodies is critical to the sector’s success.”
The Committee of University Chairs is the body that represents chairs of UK university governing bodies and “develops and promotes governance standards for higher education in the UK”. “By and large” UK universities are governed properly, says Sir Nick Montagu, CUC chair and chair of governors at Queen Mary University of London.
Montagu is sceptical about the idea that the emerging market in higher education is creating fractures between vice-chancellors and governing bodies by ramping up the competitive pressures on universities and the people who run them. Asked about this, he says this is “not obviously [the case] from what I’ve seen. I don’t think there is a common theme”. On the contrary, he argues that “in a more competitive world” senior figures at universities “will be more aware, actually, of reputational risk, even more than they were before”.
The CUC is developing a new code for governing bodies. Montagu says that while there was a need to update the existing code drawn up in 2004, this is not a response to any cases of governance fractures or to the emerging market. Although following the code is voluntary, the “underlying assumption” is “comply or explain”, he says. The revised code is expected to be published by mid December and will have the “support” of Hefce, although Montagu stresses that it is not the funding council’s code.
Asked about the CUC’s role, Montagu says it “isn’t a regulatory body” and its code is “not about processes” but “about principles” and “core values”.
Who holds a university board to account? “The board holds itself to account,” says Montagu. The CUC’s existing guidelines say that boards “should conduct an effectiveness review of their own operation and governance not less than every five years”, he adds.
Where there are differences between executives and governing bodies it is usually “over where the boundaries are”, he believes, before adding: “All of us have the occasional snapping match with our vice-chancellor.”
But the example of Plymouth suggests that it is possible for those snapping matches to grow into something more savage and to create dysfunction at the highest levels of a university.
To some, there is one clear lesson from Plymouth. According to one senior sector figure, who asked not to be identified, such situations should never be allowed to occur: universities should have agreements in place to ensure that if there is a dispute with a vice-chancellor, the vice-chancellor leaves. This would mean no mess, no legal wrangles, and no months of negative publicity – just a trapdoor opening up beneath the vice-chancellor.
Judging by their public comments, Hefce, UUK and the CUC do not see any need for change in governance guidelines for universities. But the governance review at Plymouth, recommended by Hefce, might offer some food for thought for the rest of the sector.
James Brent, the new chair of governors, says the aim is for Plymouth to be “an exemplar for the higher education sector” after “looking at how governance runs through the whole organisation”. Brent – a former investment banker who is also the chief executive of the Akkeron Group of hotel and retail companies, and chairman of Plymouth Argyle Football Club and the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust – says the review will provide “a real case study, not of what went wrong, but of how to get this entrepreneurial, supportive system of governance which unites the executive and governing body”.
David Coslett, the deputy vice-chancellor who led the university in Purcell’s absence and remains interim chief executive and chief accountable officer despite her return, says “external experts” have been interviewed to take on the tender for the governance review. The aim is for it to report by the spring.
Asked if the academic board could have a stronger role, Coslett says he wants to ensure that discussion with the academic board is “full and frank and it doesn’t become a presentational occasion for management”.
More generally, Coslett rejects the “perception of crisis at the university”, saying that “the reality on the ground is very, very different”. He adds that he would “resist the way that our situation has been reported”.
But it is made clear before any interviews with THE that only the governance review and the future steps Plymouth will take are open for discussion – there are clearly still sensitivities that make past events off-limits.
The university has refused to answer questions from THE about the total cost of legal fees in the case, whether it has paid any settlement to Purcell and whether the deal for her return envisages her leaving in the future. Plymouth has also refused to disclose the findings of the independent inquiry into the sexual harassment allegations against Taylor, led by barrister Simon Cheetham, saying that “all parties have agreed that the report is confidential information, so we are unable to offer comment”.
On the challenges for universities more generally, there has been one recent wide-ranging review of governance at UK universities offering clear recommendations for reform. It’s just that it was for universities in one part of the UK: Scotland.
The independent review, commissioned by the Scottish government, was led by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, and reported in 2012.
Among its recommendations were that remuneration committees setting principals’ and vice-chancellors’ pay “should include staff and student members”; that “meetings of governing bodies should normally be held in public”; that “the chair of the governing body should be elected”; and that “the academic board should be the final arbiter on academic matters”.
It recommended a code of good governance for universities, replacing the CUC code, but also suggested that the Scottish government “should enact a statute for Scotland’s higher education sector setting out the key principles of governance and management and serving as the legal basis for the continued establishment of all recognised higher education institutions”. Legislation is the ultimate bogeyman for some English vice-chancellors because it is seen as a threat to autonomy.
A consultation is now under way on the Scottish government’s proposed legislation, which includes creating a new statutory definition of academic freedom; setting out processes for the election of chairs; ensuring staff and student representation on governing bodies; and clarifying the role and composition of academic boards and senates.
“A crisis in one university, or even in a small number of universities, is never a good reason for legislating for the whole sector,” von Prondzynski tells THE. But he adds: “I don’t think legislation is bad per se; it just needs to be the right legislation.”
On the CUC code, von Prondzynski says: “A good test of whether such a code is working is whether people are actually aware of it.” He adds that in the Scottish review he asked those giving evidence, including university governors, “are you aware of the CUC code, can you tell me two or three things that are in it? Almost nobody was able to answer that question.”
Von Prondzynski argues that this showed that the CUC code “could not be having a satisfactory effect in improving governance”.
Would it make sense for English universities to hold a review of governance? “I think so,” von Prondzynski says. “What would not make sense at this point would be for English universities to say, ‘hang on folks, there’s no problem, we’ve got this code’. I think what they have to realise is that there is a significant groundswell of unease, even if it’s nothing more than that. And that one way of dealing with that is to have a very publicly visible process in which the principles of governance are reviewed and in which universities are asked, or indeed compelled, to look much more closely at what they are doing to see whether it complies with good practice.
“One thing that will surely increase the risk – if it is a risk – of legislation, is for universities to say, ‘well actually there’s no problem, just go away’.”
He adds: “A much more sensible approach for the university sector at this point would be to say, ‘we recognise there are some concerns, that those concerns have led to issues in certain places such as now, Plymouth; we recognise something ought to be done about this…We will initiate a process that will lead to the drafting of a new code’.”
Some are likely to scorn such a view, believing that the importance of university autonomy is paramount. For others, the lesson from recent events might be: reform yourself, before others do it for you.
Crisis timeline: key events at Plymouth
Plymouth announces that Wendy Purcell, its vice-chancellor, has been “placed on leave” by the governors, chaired by William Taylor. A special committee of the governors is set up to investigate her. It transpired that she had, in fact, been suspended – although her status was changed to paid leave at a later stage.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England recommends that Plymouth commission an independent, external review of its governance in light of events surrounding Purcell. The funding council notes in a leaked report that “matters appear to have been exacerbated by a breakdown in the personal relationship between the vice-chancellor and the chairman to the detriment of the university. It is in the interest of all parties that this is resolved swiftly.”
Barbara Bond, Plymouth’s outgoing pro-chancellor and former chair of governors, releases a public statement accusing Taylor of “poor governance practice” and risking “serious reputational damage” to the university.
Claims emerge that Taylor sexually harassed female students and staff. Taylor, who denies the claims, announces that he will step aside as chair of governors pending the outcome of an independent inquiry into the allegations.
Details are leaked of the university’s £95,000 project to commission seven handcrafted chairs to be used at graduation ceremonies. The university says in a statement that Purcell initiated the project, although it also received strong backing from David Coslett, the deputy vice-chancellor leading the university in her absence.
Taylor announces that he is resigning as chair of governors, stating that the “very public focus” on him “potentially distracts” from the investigation into Purcell.
News emerges that Plymouth has so far spent £170,000 on legal fees on the Purcell case.
Plymouth announces that Ray Playford, deputy vice-chancellor, is starting a six-month secondment at Healthcare UK.
Purcell presents a 150-page rebuttal of the case against her during a six-hour appearance before the special committee. But talks between the two sides and their legal teams continue. News emerges that Purcell is being represented by a law firm, McAllister Olivarius, that specialises in discrimination claims and in representing senior executive women who believe they have faced unfair treatment at work. Claims for sexual discrimination at employment tribunals carry unlimited damages if successful.
University and College Union members back a vote of no confidence in Purcell.
The special committee of the governors completes its investigation. Purcell returns to Plymouth as vice-chancellor, but will not be running the university. Coslett is announced as “interim chief executive and accountable officer”.
At the reins: university governance
The three key elements of universities’ governance are the vice-chancellor and executive, the council or board of governors, and the academic board or senate.
Post-92 universities have academic boards made up of teaching and research staff and sometimes students, their role usually defined as being to advise the vice-chancellor on academic matters. The equivalent in pre-92 universities is a senate or academic board – although some observers would think of this as a body carrying greater influence than an academic board in a post-92.
The Committee of University Chairs provides guidelines for governing bodies. It says that their membership “shall have a majority of independent members, defined as both external and independent of the institution”.
The CUC’s guidance offers a definition of the role of governing bodies, saying they should be “unambiguously and collectively responsible for overseeing the institution’s activities, determining its future direction and fostering an environment in which the institutional mission is achieved and the potential of all learners is maximised”.
Among the primary responsibilities of governing bodies are “appointing the head of the institution as chief executive of the institution and putting in place suitable arrangements for monitoring his/her performance”, the guidance adds.