Family ties on trial

March 27, 1998

Phil Baty looks at the thorny problem of employing family members

Universities are increasingly employing members of the same family - and running the risk of being accused of nepotism. But there are no clear guidelines on good practice.

When Stan Mason was sacked as Glasgow Caledonian's vice-chancellor last year for "gross misconduct" one of the accusations against him was nepotism. In particular, he was accused of employing his two sons at the university. The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has called on the university to investigate.

When Sir Stewart Sutherland moved north to take up his post as vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University his wife applied for and got a job as an academic at the university. Following an allegation of nepotism the university court set up a committee to examine the appointment. It concluded the allegations had no basis in fact.

The same issue raised its head a year later when Sir Graeme Davies also moved north to become vice-chancellor of Glasgow University. The university announced that a post was being specifically created for his wife so that she could continue the research she had been conducting at Bristol University making the appointment open and transparent.

More recently at Anglia Polytechnic University the business school has been hit by allegations of nepotism. Business school dean Hugh Jenkins has been accused of appointing and promoting his son Jonathon. The university insists there has been no impropriety.

According to the Association of University Teachers, nepotism is covered by guidelines on general harassment procedures, which, although drawn up to cover the issue of tutor/student relationships, can be extended to apply to spouses and family members who work together. Adrienne Aziz, AUT assistant general secretary responsible for equal opportunities, says that rules on open and transparent selection and on-the-job competence also help eradicate potential accusations of nepotism.

But she acknowledges that what happens on the ground is a different matter:

"What happens in the seat of power, which resides in the vice-chancellor's cloakroom, when two or three people get together? Who knows what will happen."

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals says nepotism is "entirely a local matter, for individual institutions' governing bodies".

It argues that there is no need for specific codes as a scholar's spouse could only ever get a job in the same institution as his or her partner after an open and transparent selection process.

"If a governing body wants to recruit an individual, it often will look towards making provision for a partner," said David Tupman, a policy adviser at the CVCP.

As far as the CVCP is concerned, it is up to the individual institution to make judgements about what is and is not acceptable, and it is up to aggrieved parties to make their case, says Mr Tupman.

Although it has not separately addressed the issue of nepotism, the Neill committee into standards in public life has given guidance.

"Two of our seven principles of public life make the stance on nepotism clear," says a spokesman. "One principle deals with selflessness for holders of public office, which rules out offering material or financial benefits to friends or family members. The other deals with objectivity. Public appointments must be made on merit."

But he says that there is a "much more difficult" dilemma, almost unique to higher education, where the guidance is vague. Universities can be desperate to attract a star researcher in time for the next research assessment. The governors and vice-chancellor have to offer an attractive job package to tempt a star. This may include finding a place for the star's spouse.

As far as the Neill committee is concerned: "If it is a question of a university governing board desperate to attract person A, and in order to attract person A a position has to be found for someone associated with person A, it is much more difficult. The board should be able to explain and defend the decision openly and accountably. That should be the touchstone."

Gill Evans, head of policy at the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, says "The problem is that there just are not any rules, except the ones in legislation which do not cover the grey areas specific to higher education."

"There are a number of problems," she says. "There are cases where there genuinely is a vacancy for the wife, as it is usually the wife, but that someone else better suited for the job might have got it otherwise. There is also the case where a totally spurious job is created for the wife. It's unfair and preferential treatment when there is not a basis of merit. This is serious in universities where money is tight."

For CAFAS, a solution could be to have an ombudsman. "We could consider a kind of Ofwat watchdog for universities, whose sole task would be to look at propriety and the misuse of public funds in higher education," says Dr Evans. "Or failing that," she says, "you can always resort to the press."

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