Lessons after the cavalry's dust has settled

November 20, 1998

What lessons are to be drawn from the debacle at Thames Valley University?

First, is to note that honourable and regrettably rare event: the prompt resignation of vice-chancellor, Mike Fitzgerald. This has spared the university messy wrangling and gives the action team a clear run.

Second, is the lesson that should not be drawn. Failure at Thames Valley should not be taken as evidence that too many unsuitable people are being encouraged to continue learning; that wide-open access policies are undesirable; that new technologies cannot be used to assist students' learning; or that training cooks for Indian restaurants is a bad idea.

Third, is that introducing change is difficult and good management is indispensable. Mike Fitzgerald, most people agree, is good at the vision thing, not so good at the management. And, crucially, not good at appointing, supporting and retaining over a long period good managers who can implement new policies.

Generally, radical change cannot be imposed top-down in public or quasi public sector organisations. These are not commercial companies. Without the active involvement of a large part of the staff, those who dislike the changes being proposed (or any changes) will always be able to obstruct them. Hostility created by bad management is often used in such institutions to support the notion that universities should not really be managed at all, only administered for pay and rations.

Fourth is the linked matter of university governance. The governors at TVU were either unable or unwilling to sort out the university's difficulties themselves. They had to call for the cavalry in the form of the Quality Assurance Agency and the funding council. This is bad for university autonomy.

Both the Dearing and the Nolan reports contained some sensible recommendations for open selection of governors and for the conduct of governing bodies. These have been little discussed, perhaps because, in many places, they are followed anyway or because people dislike some of the recommendations, such as the suggested restriction on numbers. Revisiting this difficult issue may be one of the more important results of TVU's crisis.

It is too early yet to see what the consequences will be for Thames Valley itself or for higher education. It is obviously a possibility that rescuing the university as a whole on a reasonable timescale could prove difficult. The brand image is damaged and its recruitment is unlikely to be better next year than this. Whether or not the action team concludes that dismantling TVU is an option remains to be seen. It is not in a isolated part of the country. There are other universities and colleges in the region which might welcome the chance to expand.

There is good work in TVU that should not be lost, especially in health sciences, music and media arts, hospitality and nursing. There is much useful experience in encouraging non-traditional students to enrol. Much of TVU's strength is in the further and continuing education sides of its work that it inherited from its constituent colleges. More than a fifth of all students are on Further Education Funding Council courses. These do not seem to have given rise to nearly the same level of concern as the degree-level work. Local further education colleges are bound to be interested. If dismantling happened, it might be a case of dispersing sections of the university to raise the average all round.

There is, however, no ready means of closing a university nor (unlike the United States) of restricting it to specified levels of work. Removing any degree-awarding powers from an existing university is unprecedented and would certainly be cumbersome, probably requiring an act of Parliament. This, too, is perhaps something that might usefully be re-examined.

Admiral House 66-68JEast SmithfieldJLondon E1 9XY Fax 0171 782 3300JTel 0171 782 3000JEmail editor@thes.co.uk

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