Academics and diversity in short supply on task forces

Criticism grows of composition of Whitehall and industry 'expert' groups. Hannah Fearn reports

October 16, 2008

When Universities Secretary John Denham announced last month that he had asked senior industry figures to produce a series of reports on the long-term future of higher education, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), was perplexed.

And just a week later, when the Confederation of British Industry announced that it had set up a higher education task force of business leaders to "set out" what business "needs" from the sector, her confusion grew into outright irritation.

"When formulating any sort of strategy in any field it makes sense to listen to the experts," she said. "We are seeing fewer academics on universities' boards or these 'user groups', whereas we should be making the most of their vast and invaluable experience."

Those selected to help plan the future of the sector, the UCU has said, are largely white, middle class, male and Oxbridge educated - not particularly representative of today's diverse higher education sector. And it is unclear why they were chosen for the crucial task.

"What was the rationale behind these appointments and why so secretive?" she asked. "We believe in transparency."

Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), has noted that one of the figures on Mr Denham's "user group", John Griffith-Jones of accountancy giant KPMG, also sits on the CBI's higher education task force - which Mr Streeting calls a "conflict of interest".

But it is not only the UCU and the NUS that are concerned about who is setting the terms of the debate ahead of next year's review of student tuition fees.

Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, said: "In the 'old days' there would have been, if not a Royal Commission, then at least a committee with a secretariat, terms of reference, an address for submissions of evidence."

In the case of Mr Denham's reviews, he said, "a group of trusted individuals have been sent out to make their own inquiries in their own way. It is rather like a western where a group of bounty hunters is hired to catch a villain and then left to go their own way until one of them reappears with the body to claim their award."

In an era of the "knowledge economy", few in the sector reject the notion that universities must engage business. The CBI group has been quick to point out that it in no way seeks to dictate the terms of the relationship.

But even the Council for Industry and Higher Education has warned of the dangers of an unequal partnership. As its chief executive Richard Brown has said: "Employers and higher education providers need to develop the trust and understanding that comes from building relationships."

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

ETON, CAMBRIDGE, OXFORD, HARVARD: Are the executives reviewing higher education sufficiently representative?

Business members of John Denham's User Consultation Group on the future of higher education

John Griffith-Jones

Senior partner at KPMG

Educated at Eton and the University of Cambridge, he was formerly a major in the Territorial Army.

Sir John Chisholm

Executive chairman of QinetiQ

Educated at Cambridge, he has worked for General Motors and BP's computer consultancy firm Scicon. Helped to form the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency on behalf of the Ministry of Defence in 1991, which eventually became QinetiQ.

Other members of the group are:

Nick Hytner, director of the National Theatre

Dame Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson

Tom Russell, head of the London Development Agency's Olympic Legacy Directorate

Anthony Lilley, chief executive of Magic Lantern Productions

Dr T. Ramasami, Secretary to the Indian Department for Science and Technology

The CBI's Higher Education Task Force

Sam Laidlaw

(chair of the task force)

Chief executive of Centrica

Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he was previously executive vice-president of the Chevron Corporation and chief executive of Enterprise Oil.

Chris Brinsmead

Chair of AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals

He was formerly with ICI and Zeneca.

Melfort Campbell

Chief executive of Imes Group

He established Imes Group in 1985 and developed it into a major business working with the defence, marine, oil and gas, construction and process industries.

Johnny Cameron

Chair of global markets at RBS

Educated at the University of Oxford, he joined RBS from Dresdner Kleinwort Benson.

Ian Cheshire

Group chief executive of Kingfisher

Educated at Cambridge, he was previously chief executive of B&Q UK. He is a non-executive director of Bradford and Bingley.

Iain Coucher

Chief executive of Network Rail

Educated at Imperial College London, he was formerly chief executive of TubeLines.

Steve Easterbrook

President and chief executive of McDonald's Restaurants

Educated at Durham University, he joined McDonald's UK in 1993 from Price Waterhouse.

Gordon Frazer

UK managing director of Microsoft

Educated at Rhodes University, he was previously technical director of SX Software Engineering.

Graham Love

Chief executive of QinetiQ

Educated at Cambridge, he joined the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency in 2001, playing a key role in its formation as QinetiQ, through a public-private partnership with US-based Carlyle Group.

Trevor Mann

Senior vice-president of Nissan

Educated at Durham Technical College, he joined BBH Coil & Transformer as a management trainee in 1980. Moved to Nissan in 1985.

Jamie Mitchell

Managing director of Innocent

Educated at Oxford and Harvard Business School, he was co-founder of Vesta Group. He is also a lecturer in entrepreneurship at London Business School.

Paul Skinner

Chair of Rio Tinto

Educated at Cambridge, he joined the Royal Dutch/Shell group as a student in 1963 and worked in all of the company's major businesses. He was appointed CEO of the group's oil products business in 1999 and was later its managing director.

Susan Taylor-Martin

UK and Ireland managing director of Thomson Reuters

Educated at Cambridge and Harvard Business School, she specialised in corporate finance.

Ian Tyler

Chief executive of Balfour Beatty

Educated at Birmingham University, he joined Balfour Beatty in 1996 from the Hanson Group where he was finance director of subsidiary ARC.

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