Brought low by high ambitions

November 20, 1998

Under Mike Fitzgerald, staff relations and quality at Thames Valley University deteriorated. Phil Baty and Alan Thomson look at how his laudable goals led to a damning QAA report and his resignation.

Staff at Thames Valley University were "dancing in the corridors" when vice-chancellor Mike Fitzgerald announced his resignation last Thursday. One lecturer, who did not want to be named, said: "I'll bet the local publicans will be happy today with the amount of celebrating going on."

Dr Fitzgerald resigned after the publication of a highly critical report from the Quality Assurance Agency earlier in the week. Thames Valley governors called in the QAA at the end of last year after press reports of dumbing down at the university.

When Dr Fitzgerald was appointed in 1991 at the age of 41 he was seen as a popular and dynamic appointment. What went wrong?

The breakdown of relations between lecturers union Natfhe and management was criticised by the QAA inspection team. The report said: "We did not find there to be a self-critical academic community, but instead found a culture in which blame is cast on others."

It continued: "It was evident to us that those disaffected with management and its style could not be dismissed simply as a small hard-core of troublemakers." But, "it was also evident that some staff are wholly disaffected and are overtly hostile, certainly to the style, and perhaps also to the aims of the vice-chancellor and his management team."

The report said that staff goodwill was a prerequisite to implementing Dr Fitzgerald's vision of widening participation through radical restructuring to create a new learning environment. That goodwill was not always forthcoming, the QAA found. The state of staff relations, its report said, "are generally thought to be very poor".

In the crucial area of student assessment, "the limitations of the automated information system were exacerbated by the consequences of industrial action by some staff". The hurdles for students were thought so great that in September 1997 senior staff, in Dr Fitzgerald's absence, decided to "allow students to progress despite failure in resit examinations, and to instruct assessment boards that in such circumstances a pass mark should be recorded".

Dr Fitzgerald immediately overrode the decision and the policy was not implemented. But the damage was done. The ensuing press interest and accusations of dumbing down led the governors to invite in QAA inspectors.

The QAA said that TVU's mission to widen participation was "laudable" but - with its rapid development - "ambitious, given the remarkable variety of the student body".

The report said that the institution became a polytechnic - from the merger of Ealing College, Thames Valley College and Queen Charlotte's College of Health Care - only in 1991, just in time to apply for university status. Dr Fitzgerald's predecessor was Neil Merritt, who became vice-chancellor of Portsmouth University and was sacked in 1994 for fiddling expenses. TVU now has more than 30,000 students. Of them, 65 per cent are part-time, 64 per cent female, and 59 per cent aged over 25.

"The university has set itself a very demanding objective in seeking to provide higher and further educational opportunities that are comparable in standard of outcome, as well as quality of experience, with the generality of higher education institutions," the report said.

In words that will worry those leading the government's access drive, the QAA said: "The university has a long 'tail' of students in some areas, whose ability to benefit from higher education is seriously called into questionI" It wondered if the admissions policy was encouraging unreasonable expectations among students who were unlikely to achieve that standard, however much support they were given.

In 1995, Dr Fitzgerald introduced the new learning environment, which was to "emphasise learning rather than teaching". The rebranding of students as "independent learners" and the switch to "resource-based learning" meant a move to fewer teaching contact hours. The QAA report said that this move had been prompted by "external circumstances that appeared to threaten the university's medium-term financial stability". The exercise involved academic and cultural reorganisation "at its most basic level". And it was rushed. "We do not believe that the university took adequate account of the complexity in its planning for the introduction of the NLE."

The institution had "major problems" with almost all elements of provision. External examiners were "disgruntled and disbelieving", and their reports were "serious indictments of the university as a degree-awarding body".

The QAA noted "considerable turnover in senior staff during the past five years", and regular changes in job titles and responsibilities left staff "anxious and confused".

There was no one in management to fulfil "an impartial civil-service role as head of administration", the QAA said. Quality assurance arrangements were "improvised", and managers had "lost sight of some basic principles of quality assurance that should be commonplace in an institution with degree-awarding powers".

The QAA report concluded that management had to bear the brunt of the blame for a badly managed restructuring. Last week, Dr Fitzgerald took that message on board.

WERE YOU SAD TO SEE VICE-CHANCELLOR MIKE FITZGERALD GO ?

NO

Andy Dunnett, economics lecturer and former staff representative on the Thames Valley University board of governors "I was pleased because I think the university could not have moved forward with Dr Fitzgerald as vice-chancellor.

"His policies have been very destructive to the student experience at the university in general. There was always a gulf between the rhetoric and the reality. He did have vision, and there is no reason to think that he was not well meaning, but he was simply not able to operationalise that vision."

Rachel Carr, lecturer in English literature and former academic board member "It is best for the university that the vice-chancellor has resigned. Perhaps we can now reverse some of his policies. I already detect a climate of hope instead of a climate of fear. We need some kind of openness in decision-making in this institution."

Nina Scott, principal lecturer in law, who has been with TVU and its predecessors, the Polytechnic of West London and the Ealing College of Higher Education, for 25 years "On sober reflection I am sorry that it happened because I do not think that the university needs or deserves any more adverse publicity. My concern is for the students.

"I did not agree with Mike Fitzgerald's management style. I felt that it was rather too prescriptive and that there was little room for dialogue. You have to consult those at the coal-face or you cannot implement the plan.

"I hope that this is a turning point. And most, if not all, the staff are committed to turning the institution round."

Tom Wilson, Natfhe's university sector chief "I think TVU's Natfhe branch took the view, rightly, that the worst thing to do was nothing. They worked very, very hard to get Mike Fitzgerald to listen and what else could they do?

"In the end, they were right to take industrial action. They had no alternative."

YES

Peter Klein, head of multimedia computing "My initial reaction was one of great disappointment. I feel that Mike Fitzgerald has done a lot for the university. A year ago this centre did not exist. Now students from around the world fight to get in."

Peter Hoornaert, lecturer in multimedia computing "I was quite shocked, and I don't know if he made the right decision. He clearly had a vision, and there are a lot of good things going on here.

"I really do not know why it started to unravel. Presumably some of it came down to people with different ideas. There were tensions in the university over the changes he was making with the management versus the unions. It cannot have helped."

Richard Adams, head of digital arts "I cannot say that I'm 100 per cent surprised that he resigned. My feeling is that there had to be something visible done after the QAA report. But I do think Mike is a visionary with forward-looking ideas. It was these ideas that brought me from industry into higher education. We are losing students after their first year to employers, and that is a direct result of Mike's vision and the support he gave."

John Bjergfelt, second-year student in multimedia computing "Last year was a nightmare, but I was a bit surprised that he resigned because this year has been fine. They tried to get everything on to the one timetable, and with this many students it just ground to a halt.

"As for the course and the creative technology centre, what we are asked to do here is better than other universities. Lots of people come from abroad to study here."

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