England’s funding council has received “allegations about the conduct” of the Plymouth University chairman who placed its vice-chancellor Wendy Purcell on leave, and warns that a “breakdown in the personal relationship” between the senior figures must be resolved quickly.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has recommended that Plymouth carry out an independent, external review of its governance, as previously reported.
Hefce’s report, which has not been published but has been seen by Times Higher Education, finds “insufficient evidence” to investigate the allegations about the chairman. Hefce’s recommendation in the report, dated July, is that “the university should commission an independent external review of its governance arrangements to include the lessons learnt from the recent governance events”.
The university released a statement this week that criticises the “inaccurate and misleading discussion in the public domain” and says that governors are “unanimous” in their support of “the ongoing review process involving the vice-chancellor”.
Plymouth announced on 1 July that Professor Purcell had been “placed on leave” by the board of governors – whose chairman is William Taylor, a judge – “as part of an ongoing review process”.
Hefce’s report, written by head of assurance Ian Parry, says that the funding council was notified by the university on 29 May “of an internal investigation into the conduct of the vice-chancellor and separately in early June received allegations about the conduct of the chairman and the governance processes operating at the university”.
Hefce says that the reasons it conducted enquiries included “[understanding] the circumstances leading to the investigation into the conduct of the vice-chancellor as a potential material adverse event under the financial memorandum”. The memorandum is the contract between the funding council and universities.
The funding council says that “the longer the internal investigation continues and the position of the vice-chancellor remains unresolved the greater the risk to the university”, adding that it will “continue to monitor the situation”.
Hefce also notes that “matters appear to have been exacerbated by a breakdown in the personal relationship between the vice-chancellor and the chairman to the detriment of the university. It is in the interest of all parties that this is resolved swiftly.”
The report says that the discloser “alleges that the behaviour and conduct of the chairman has at times been inappropriate and ill-tempered. That governance practice at the university is not appropriate, including involvement by the chairman in executive matters, conflicts of interest, and being overly controlling of governing body committees.”
When asked to comment on the Hefce report, a Plymouth spokesman said: “Hefce received an external complaint, and as would be the normal procedure in such cases, undertook a preliminary enquiry which concluded there was no case for further action on their part, but recommended the university itself undertake an independent review of its governance arrangements. As previously indicated, the university had existing plans for a governance review in 2014-15 and as such it would be clearly premature to comment until that review is concluded.”