Hefce recommends review of governance at Plymouth University

Intervention follows governors’ sudden decision to place vice-chancellor on leave

August 7, 2014

England’s funding council has advised Plymouth University to undertake an external review of its governance after its sudden move to “place on leave” its vice-chancellor, Wendy Purcell.

Meanwhile, one of Plymouth’s deputy vice-chancellors, Ray Playford, has taken “extended leave” from the university following the developments over Professor Purcell’s position, it is claimed.

And the other deputy vice-chancellor, David Coslett, who has led the university in Professor Purcell’s absence, is taking a fortnight’s planned leave, a Plymouth source said. The source added that this had left the university “without any senior academic leadership at this most crucial time”.

Plymouth announced last month that Professor Purcell, who had a pay and pension package of £330,000 in 2012-13, had been “placed on leave” by the university’s board of governors “as part of an ongoing review process”.

The board of governors is chaired by Judge William Taylor, the senior circuit judge for Plymouth.

The Plymouth source said that the decision on Professor Purcell had been taken “without unanimous approval from the board”. The degree of senior management turbulence seen at Plymouth, which has about 28,000 students and is a big player in its regional economy, is unusual for a major university.

The university has never given any reason for the action taken against Professor Purcell, instead requesting in its original statement that “the confidentiality of the situation be respected”.

Plymouth has been interviewing senior staff as part of its review, which is said to be being conducted by a “special committee” representing the board.

But the situation has attracted the attention of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which is thought to have visited Plymouth after the decision to stand down Professor Purcell.

A spokesman for the funding council said: “We can confirm that Hefce has written to the university recommending that an independent external review of its governance arrangements should be undertaken. We understand that the university is planning to undertake such a review in the coming academic year.”

It is thought that Hefce has recommended that the review cover the governance process behind the decision to stand down Professor Purcell.

A Plymouth spokesman said that the university was “fully committed to commissioning a review of governance arrangements once current internal matters are satisfactorily resolved”.

The university did not offer any comment when asked whether Professor Playford and Professor Coslett would both be on leave.

The Plymouth source said that a number of governors “have grave concerns about the reputation and standing of the university in the eyes of Hefce”. The board is “fractured and dysfunctional” and has “never been provided with any…basis or justification for why the vice-chancellor has been placed on leave”, the source claimed.

Sir Richard Ibbotson, a retired vice-admiral, recently resigned from the Plymouth board.

The board also went through several chairs in rapid succession while Professor Purcell was in post. Rodney Bennion was chairman between April 2012 and August 2012, with Mike Leece then serving as acting chairman until October 2012, when he was succeeded by Judge Taylor.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

Update

In a statement issued after Times Higher Education went to press, a Plymouth spokeman said:
“Whilst Professors Playford and Coslett are currently on leave for a short period, this is not related to any ongoing internal matters. Senior academic leadership is being provided by pro vice-chancellor Richard Stephenson and the university’s executive leadership team.”

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