Former dean spills the beans on TVU's fall from grace

August 13, 2004

The dean at the heart of the management meltdown that led to the naming and shaming of Thames Valley University six years ago as Britain's first failing university, has bounced back with a "best-practice" guide to good university management, writes Phil Baty.

Peter McCaffery was dean of TVU's European, international and social sciences faculty, where allegations of "dumbing down" were first made.

A leaked memo detailing plans to turn student fails into passes led to a special investigation by the Quality Assurance Agency, which found in November 1998 that the university's degree standards were not safe.

Professor McCaffery is now a pro vice-chancellor at London South Bank University. He has turned his nightmare experience into words of positive advice, with a management handbook published next month giving his account of the TVU debacle.

The book, The Higher Education Manager's Handbook - subtitled: "Effective Leadership and Management in Universities and Colleges" - draws on his experiences studying university innovators in the US and Australia, and is backed by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. It is the warts-and-all section on TVU that is likely to arouse most interest.

Professor McCaffery says in the book's introduction: "The study originated following a visit to TVU by Tony Blair and David Blunkett, when the then leader of the opposition formally opened the state-of-the-art Paul Hamlyn Learning Resource Centre on the Slough campus with the rejoinder: 'Why, I wonder, can't every university be like TVU?'."

He explains that the vision lauded by the future Prime Minister - to create a self-styled "new learning environment" with the student, not the teacher, at the centre - was in itself sound. But the collapse of the university came as a result of the mismanagement of the process of change.

Professor McCaffery identifies several reasons for TVU's fall from grace: inadequate consultation; a failure to anticipate the full effect of reforms; and opting for a "big-bang" approach to implementing changes instead of phasing them in. He reserves serious criticism for former TVU vice-chancellor, Mike Fitzgerald - who had an "overtly 'top-down' approach to the reforms.

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