Life as we may know it after Nolan

October 20, 1995

The work of the Nolan committee on standards in public life marks a significant shift in the debate on accountability. The first stage of its activity, which identified the main principles of public life, struck a strong chord, coming at a time when the boundary between public interest and private gain was being placed at issue. The second stage, including a study of further and higher education bodies, is now under way, and offers an interesting contrast.

This is not surprising given the dilemmas that might be raised should its findings be transposed into the management and conduct of universities and colleges and into the behaviour of those in them. To give substance to notions of selflessness, objectivity, integrity and honesty - except at the level of rhetoric - is difficult. To do so now, when there is a shift from elite to mass higher education and yet firm control on that expansion, is especially problematic.

Questions surface that go to the heart of an unresolved tension in higher education - namely, that traditionally universities and colleges have acted, and been allowed to act, as if they were of and equally not of public life. The traditions of academic freedom and institutional autonomy have been invoked against governments that threaten to over-regulate or control.

At the same time, there are many academics and students who celebrate the exposure of vice chancellors' pay and welcome any investigation that promises to reinstate principles of openness and democracy. A new "us and them" has been created. Management is too often seen as impeding, not supporting, the real business of higher education - knowledge generation and educational gain.

The issue becomes one of legitimacy. Vice chancellors of older universities often dealt with incidents and allegations with a quiet word at the Athenaeum rather than in the full glare of the media. There are also those managers who at the time of expansion thought they could act with impunity - bypassing traditional collegial forums and fighting against their staff's so-called resistance to change. This was perceived by many as a legitimate managerial activity. All the same, the illusion that institutions comprised of bright professionals can be commanded and controlled is, fortunately, evaporating. More and more managers are learning that involvement and commitment to change depends upon participation and ownership, and on leadership that is built on education, integrity and openness.

But did it take such incidents as those at Huddersfield and Portsmouth to counter the hubris that began to creep in - to the detriment of students and staff? Or are there wider trends in social and public life, irrespective of the party in power, which are beginning to emerge?

We live in a time when opposition between notions of management and accountability is unsustainable. As confidence in all institutions has waivered, managers and governors need to be concerned with the following: * funding - universities and colleges face real reductions in the resources available and significant changes in the financing of student support.

* diversity - the need to develop services that are responsive to students who vary by age, ethnicity, qualification and motivation.

* quality - the varying demands of teaching and research assessment, audit, and professional accreditation.

* accountability - pressures for comparative performance and answerability to governors, students, staff, funding councils, employers, and local communities.

Each of these demands raises issues of management. The challenge is how to manage all of them simultaneously without losing the overall aim of educational gain, of managing for social results.

As the Nolan committee points out in its request for evidence, universities "operate at the boundary of the public and private sectors" with "considerable freedom to set their own priorities, yet their decisions are in many respects part of public policy. Their actions may have a significant impact upon their local communities, going beyond those who are directly involved in the organisation themselves".

The understanding of these complexities in a shifting age is underdeveloped. Universities must continue to be "of and not of " the political contexts within which they are located but not in ways which privilege any particular group. What that may mean in terms of establishing standards of public accountability and conduct requires reflective debate; a search for new meanings rather than a rush towards asserting old answers.

David Albury and Susan Weil are fellows in organisational development at the Office for Public Management. The office is organising a conference, sponsored by The Times Higher Education Supplement and The Independent, on these themes on November 30 at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London SW1. Details from Debra Cartledge on 0171 833 1973

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