Cambridge officers under fire for Capsa fiasco

November 30, 2001

Two of Cambridge University's most senior managers should be sacked unless they can explain their role in the disastrous implementation of a £9 million financial system, the university's internal standards watchdog has said.

The Cambridge board of scrutiny said the university must be able to satisfy itself that treasurer Joanna Womack and registrary Tim Mead "are competent to do the jobs they hold". If it is found that they are not, the council should take "appropriate action", the board said in a report into the failed implementation of the Capsa financial system.

The attack forced the officers into unprecedented public apologies at a Senate House debate on the affair this week. They defended themselves and blamed the problems on the university's system of governance. Vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers, who also apologised for the fiasco, agreed with his officers and promised a modernisation drive. This has prompted fears that democratic structures may be swept away.

An inquiry by Michael Shattock, former registrar at Warwick University, found that Capsa's implementation was an "unmitigated disaster", characterised by moments of "high farce", "hard-to-credit naivete" and "fallacious" financial reports. The report said Cambridge's structures meant it was "impossible" to identify who was responsible for the mess.

But the board of scrutiny's official response singled out individuals. It said: "The report shows that the Capsa fiasco consists in part of a series of failures that seemI to derive from errors and omissions by one or more of the university's senior managers." Senior officers failed to heed clear warnings of looming disaster, it said.

Dr Mead, making an unprecedented Senate House speech, said: "It is clear to me that there were things I could and perhaps should have done differently. I regret that, and I am sorry it should be so." But he said Cambridge's culture was not one in which individual officers were encouraged to take much personal authority.

Dr Womack said: "I accept responsibility for myI contribution to the mismanagement of the design and implementation of the financial system." But she blamed the system, particularly her confusing responsibilities, which had made her job "almost impossible".

A statement from the university's governing council, read by Sir Alec, defended the officers. It said the council was ultimately responsible. "The university should recognise that the failures identified in the Capsa reports are failures of the system as a whole."

The Shattock report noted "tortuous decision-making processes", grossly under-resourced administration and inequality between excluded administrators and academics. It said: "The university needs to find a way to retain its all-important tradition of academic self-government while preventing it from lapsing into cosiness and injecting into its governance more rigorous and self-critical attitudes. The university needs to adopt a more accountable culture where individuals can be held responsible for their actions (or inactions) and where committees are more questioning because they may be held responsible."

Reforms are already under way to strengthen and professionalise administrators, and cut out some of the more archaic and unwieldy academic committee structures. Several new pro vice-chancellors will be appointed.

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