A conflict of interest

July 9, 1999

Graham Zellick explains why v-cs should not accept a Labour peer as their chief executive Earlier this week I gave notice of resigning from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. I took that decision because I believe that the continuation in office of the committee's chief executive, Diana Warwick, now that she has accepted an invitation to become a working Labour peer, not only compromises and weakens the CVCP, but also violates a fundamental principle.

That principle is that organisations such as the CVCP have to be strictly non-political in all their manifestations and activities.

This is nothing to do with the government's attitude to universities, nor does it have anything to do with the government's performance to date. But it is a principle that underpins practice, because the CVCP is in constant dialogue with government.

There is a tension between vice-chancellors and the government, and if there is not, there should be. Vice-chancellors want to achieve particular goals, as does the government. Sometimes these goals coincide, but it would be astonishing if that were always the case. To take just one example, the government and universities are divided over the funding of increased salaries for academic staff, as recommended by the Bett committee.

How can Ms Warwick be seen to be impartially representing our case to a Labour government if she represents that government in the House of Lords?

To those who cannot see the problem, I would put two questions. Would the CVCP ever have appointed a chief executive who was a voting peer taking a party whip? Would they still think there was no problem if Ms Warwick had been nominated by the Leader of the Opposition and was taking the Conservative whip?

There is another question. If Ms Warwick continues to draw a full salary from the CVCP - a registered charity - while pursuing political activities as a Labour peer, does this constitute an appropriate use of charitable funds?

The full membership of the CVCP has not been consulted about whether our chief executive should remain in post. The only course of action open to me to indicate my strength of feeling and to dissociate myself and my university from the council's decision was to resign from the committee.

This week, I sent a letter to the CVCP setting out detailed proposals for the course of action I think should now be pursued. My view is that Ms Warwick should publicly announce her resignation to take effect at a date in the future - say in six months' time. That would enable the committee to start the search for a new chief executive. She does not have to leave tomorrow. But her resignation does need to be made public. That is a formula we could accept.

Many other vice-chancellors feel as I do. There is widespread anger at how the membership has been treated. We were not consulted and senior people such as vice-chancellors do not take kindly to such treatment, especially given the enormous sums of money their universities give to sustain the CVCP.

Over the next few weeks vice-chancellors will be debating this matter among themselves and deciding what action to take. It would be sad if this disagreement precipitated the demise or decline of the CVCP. I do not think it will, but it is a distraction from the efforts the CVCP should be making. It would be surprising if the chief executive of any organisation could contemplate staying on in circumstances in which there was so much opposition.

Graham Zellick is the vice-chancellor of the University of London.

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