Morality play for our times

March 27, 1998

THE nannying tendencies of our times are becoming ever more apparent. Education and employment secretary David Blunkett has been pursing his lips over the naughty language in the Royal Court Theatre's acclaimed play, Shopping and Fucking. The West Midlands police may be about to haul Peter Knight, the vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, up in court for having homoerotic books in his library (page 20).

Meanwhile Mr Blunkett's department has been using its power to control everything within its reach. There is to be absurdly detailed prescription of how and when young children should be taught to read. His key adviser, Michael Barber, has been lecturing headteachers on their obligation to inculcate correct moral attitudes in their pupils.

In higher education, vice-chancellors, under threat of government intervention unless approved systems are set up, are supporting the Quality Assurance Agency (on which the government has "observers") in its plans to establish threshold standards for all qualifications and recruit a cadre of inspectors (still called external examiners) who will report to the agency.

And, under cover of the budget, plans have been announced that amount to nationalisation of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge (back page). The colleges may have only themselves to blame for becoming overly dependent on government money, but for them, unlike benefits claimants, the cure for dependency is not to be help to regain independence, but loss of independence.

These things may seem unconnected but they are not. They are all about the state stepping in to protect people from things - rude pictures, top-up fees, bad language, dubious degrees - and, in the process, second-guessing professional people and de-skilling the institutions in which they work.

This centralising and bossy tendency needs to be resisted but it is impossible to do so effectively when institutions that claim to be responsible do not have their own houses in order. Peter Knight has excellent ground on which to stand. Universities are about academic freedom and pushing frontiers forward. But in other respects things have been less clear cut. The onward march of the quality controllers (letter, page 17) has been helped by evidence of inadequately controlled franchise deals. Oxford and Cambridge colleges damaged their case by obfuscation over their use of fee money.

In this context, the vice-chancellors' latest initiative in the setting-houses-in-order department looks overly tentative. Their paper, published this week, on complaints and appeals procedures for students rightly stresses the importance of protecting the integrity of academic judgements. The idea it puts forward for using arbitration law to provide a reasonably quick and inexpensive means of resolving disputes looks useful.

But it is insufficiently trenchant about shortcomings in procedures in chartered universities where there is recourse to the Visitor. Appealing to the Visitor can be too slow and is too susceptible to the charge of favouring the university authorities. And it is too gentle about the need for universities that do not have Visitors to set up alternative systems.

Guidelines and procedures need regular revision to take account of changed social assumptions. There need, for example, to be clear rules about hiring or promoting spouses, partners or children. Should a subject specialist be able to sit on a selection panel if their partner is a candidate? At what point in a relationship does declaration of interest become appropriate? Do holiday jobs for children count as nepotism?

In today's increasingly moralistic and controlling atmosphere, institutions that wish to retain control of their own policies need to make sure that everything they do will bear inspection. On complaints and appeals that is not yet the case.

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