Amateurs lose £10m

November 30, 2001

Cambridge needs to shake up its outdated committees and get down to business, says Gill Evans.

Cambridge let £10 million slip through its hands in the process of trying to create an accountancy system that would enable it to explain how much money it has and what it is doing with it. The report on the Capsa disaster is damning. One of the things it points to is the lack of professionalism and incompetence of the committees that were in charge.

I know. I was on the most important of them. I was a member of the council (the elected committee with oversight of the whole university) throughout the period when all this was happening. Year after year I tried to raise questions about the conduct of our affairs and disquieting aspects of the annual accounts. I was hushed and overruled time and again.

The council, confirms the report, needs "training". "This is not a job to give to someone who is unprepared for the responsibility and unable to give sufficient time and energy to it." Nor to those who will arrogantly not even see the need to learn the job.

There was a general faith around that table that the committees below had done the necessary work and we did not need to discuss anything much. But they had had no training either. No one expected them to have their hands on the tiller. Not really. You did not have to be able to read a balance sheet to be on the finance committee; you just had to be in favour with those who could put you there.

Other committees similarly go with the flow when it comes to the student and academic staff affairs over which they are supposed to have effective control. None of their members has to undergo any training. They see no urgency in creating a student complaints procedure, for example. Theyget through a huge agenda with a minute or two per item, just as the council did in my time.

I want to see appointment to those committees reformed. The word "Byzantine" appears in the inquiry report. There is (yes, really) a committee on committees before which names appear by processes opaque even to the committee on committees itself. Their deliberations are brief, for they result in the same few names appearing on committee after committee, as many as 30 for one "safe pair of hands". They even appoint themselves. I repeatedly saw the council nod its choices through before rushing off to lunch. I served for four years on the nominations committee, and nominate to other committees is exactly what it did. We had a long list to get through in a meeting of less than half an hour. "Why him?" was not a question that went down well and awkward questions were nearly always voted down.

No one should be allowed to take decisions affecting people's lives and careers, or the huge wealth of the university when they have no professional knowledge of the matters in hand and often do not turn up to meetings or read the papers if they do. The vice-chancellor promised change last year, but so far nothing much has been done to implement it.

This is the Achilles' heel of the academic-led university and if we want to preserve academic autonomy, and with it freedom from a type of managerial control inimical to academic freedom, we have to begin to take seriously the need to develop some professionalism of our own.

The Capsa inquiry (and its publication) were brought about only because the academic democracy was able to insist that it should be. But that democracy must, after centuries of apathy, take active charge of appointments to committees and insist that they do their jobs properly.

Cambridge has got to end the old games of patronage and compliance and get down to business. Otherwise this disastrous breach in our structure, through which public money and benefactions alike are still flooding out, will widen and the university will bleed to death from complacency and idleness. As things are, no one should give us money. We shall just waste it.

Gill Evans is a lecturer in history at Cambridge University and public policy secretary for the Council for Academic Freedom and Standards.

* Are academic-led universities a threat to academic freedom?
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