Can-do culture gone bad

December 29, 1995

I refer to your editorial concerning the Nolan committee's inquiry (THES, December 15). The internal and external accountability of university managers have become dangerously attenuated, with the result that British universities are losing their reputation for high standards.

The root cause is the preoccupation with executive, "can-do" management which has become common throughout public institutions over the past 16 years. One consequence has been the reduced power of bodies such as academic boards and faculty boards to enable scholars to protect standards. Their size has been cut in the interest of speedy decision-making, but this has reduced their representativeness of the academic community. Among the regrettable consequences of these changes has been the appointment of persons in managerial posts to professorships without reference to their academic achievements, and the reduction in the role of internal and external examiners under modularisation schemes.

The result of the first is the devaluation of a major academic title, of the second, grade inflation as managers pressure the new progression and assessment boards to provide better results and pass students because the university needs their fees income. Because these boards no longer involve all examiners, their ability to resist such pressure is reduced.

More fundamental is the erosion of external accountability which has resulted in the abuses of office at Huddersfield and Portsmouth. There should be a structure of formal accountability which ensures that complaints are investigated and the abusers brought to book. Executive managements and their boards of governors are in danger of becoming self-perpetuating oligarchies which lose touch with the realities of teaching and learning and hence make decisions which are at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous.

Howard Elcock

Professor of government

University of Northumbria at Newcastle

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