Constitutions are fine, Nolan told

November 10, 1995

Additional safeguards against impropriety in the running of universities are not necessary, the Nolan Committee was told by university chairmen this week.

In recent cases where allegations of improper conduct have been aimed at governors or chief executives, only one, involving Huddersfield University, found mechanisms of institutional governance wanting, according to the Committee of University Chairmen.

In its submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the CUC said universities are already making amendments to their governance in line with advice issued in December last year and June this year to ensure mistakes made at Huddersfield are not repeated elsewhere.

The advice, which has been incorporated into a guide for members of governing bodies, covers many of the areas under investigation by the Nolan Committee, including membership, openness and accountability and the role of governing bodies.

The CUC said that although it shared concerns raised by the Public Accounts Committee about "gagging" clauses being attached to severance payments, it is "unwise" to argue from the one case of Huddersfield that universities do not have adequate systems to bring matters of improper behaviour to light.

"Universities have extensive committee structures which provide unusually comprehensive constitutional safeguards and the establishment of any new machinery would tend to weaken the role of audit committees which need to be seen as the official route for concerns about improper behaviour where other routes, formal or informal, fail," the committee adds.

Though the CUC's guide is purely advisory, its existence gives staff, students and governors the incentive to raise issues of governance where they believe the advice is not being followed, the committee says.

But it warns that university autonomy should not be threatened by a more prescriptive regime.

"What is important is that universities exercise their own autonomy and powers of self-governance, as legally independent corporate institutions, to decide such matters for themselves rather than that they should be prescribed from above. Universities will more readily comply if they have reached their own decisions rather than having them imposed upon them," it says.

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