Key issues for Nolan

June 23, 1995

Guidance on proper behaviour seems to be spilling out of every official organisation in further and higher education. The Higher Education Funding Council has published its rules for council members - strictures on taking presents, accepting hospitality and declaring interests. The Further Education Funding Council issued guidance for proper conduct to all members of its sector last year. The Committee of University Chairmen have this week formally published their draft guidance for university governing bodies, which has been circulating for some time (THES, January ).

To what do we owe this sudden enthusiasm for books of etiquette? Surely not simply to the impending arrival of Lord Nolan and his committee in the groves of academe, since Nolan's interest is but lately come. It seems a pity that Nolan should be diverted from examining the affairs of our national political establishment with the work barely half begun. No doubt there are fish to fry in universities, colleges and grant-maintained schools. There are plenty of conflicts of interest for governors and managers of universities and colleges, plenty of business opportunities, jobs for friends, chances for treats which ought to be avoided. The highest standards of probity are vital and clear rules of conduct useful to that end. But the scale of the problems is relatively trivial compared for example with the undeclared funding of political parties. And, as we have seen recently, mechanisms for flushing out cheats are not lacking in further and higher education. It looks, in short, as if Lord Nolan has allowed his committee to be shuffled out of harm's way.

But this is not to say that there is nothing to be done in the education sector. There have been enough rows, votes of no confidence, clashes between staff and governors and allegations of this and that to keep the committee busy. Further, there are important underlying issues which show no signs of being resolved.

Take the matter of college governance. Conflicts of interest go much deeper than matters of building contracts and jobs for the son-in-law. If governors are a board of directors, responsible for the financial health of an institution, they must be able to discuss all options. These will include matters like fees and staffing levels. Are governors who represent particular constituencies - students, staff - to be expected to keep such discussions confidential when their constitituents' interests are affected? Or are they always to be asked to withdraw from consideration of such vital matters? Or are they to be in a position where they can rush to mount a preventive campaign on any matter deleterious to their group? In short, how can effective management be reconciled with democratic governance?

Take membership of the controlling agencies for further and higher education. Is it right for vice chancellors to sit on the funding councils, even if they do declare an interest, when that interest quite obviously runs right across the councils' whole field of operations? Vice chancellors used not to sit on the old University Grants Committee for this reason. Even so, when the axe fell on university budgets differentially in 1981 it was easy to demonstrate a correlation between those universities most leniently handled and those with members of staff sitting on the UGC and its committees. It is obviously important to have people on these bodies who know the business. It is less obvious how they should conduct themselves responsibly: to whom they owe first loyalty.

Take university governance. The unions are particularly keen to see new universities and colleges managed more like old universities, with academic decisions in the hands of senates. The sad truth is, however, that newer institutions have proved more agile in difficult circumstances than some of the older ones precisely because their more streamlined management allows brisk decisions. There must be at least a suspicion that some of the pressure for more democratic structures comes from those who see their usefulness for obstructing change.

Lord Nolan could doubtless be better occupied with fatter prey, but since education is to have his attention, it will be helpful if his committee can face up to these dilemmas and propose some sensible rules for the conduct of further and higher education which do not subject people to impossible and conflicting demands.

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