Nolan report tale contains a sting

June 7, 1996

"Nothing in this report points to any fundamental malaise in any of the sectors we have examined. But there is, and will continue to be, a tension between the management-driven and output-related approach which is central to many recent changes, and the need for organisations providing public services to involve, respond to and reflect the concerns of the communities which they serve."

That quote comes not from the Labour party manifesto, not from one of the teacher's unions or the liberal wing of the university vice chancellors but from a letter to the prime minister written by Lord Nolan accompanying his second report on standards in public life.

At first blush the conclusions and recommendations made by the Nolan committee are neither dramatic nor alarming. The report abhors "sweeping changes", believes misconduct cases are isolated and sees, already, the sufficient development of good practice to warrant the publication of exemplars in a series of appendices.

But, with the incisive logic for which Lord Nolan and his committee have become well known, there are several stings in this statesmanlike tail. First, there is the surprising proposal that automatic representation of Technical Education Councils on governing bodies should be abandoned. Second, restrictions on appointments of local councillors (and all other restrictions) should be removed. Third, is the proposed removal of vice chancellors from the Higher Education Funding Council.

Nolan leaves a lot for further work by the sector itself and pointedly says that this should be undertaken by the representative associations working jointly with the funding councils. It sounds jejeune, perhaps, to say that there should be codes of practice on whistle-blowing, that staff should be encouraged to speak freely without fear of retribution, that there should be an ombudsman for students and that there should be an independent system for the review of disputes.

In fact, all of these things challenge the notion that universities and colleges are just businesses requiring only the regulation appropriate to companies. It challenges the notion that students are just customers and it revives the arguments about academic freedom and related arguments about tenure. It suggests that education workers should have rights over and above those regulated by employment law.

One might have thought that Lord Nolan's findings would only be about the nuts and bolts of governance. If one digs deep enough, there are some nuggets - allowances to cover child care costs, improved protection from personal liability, the reduction of overburdensome monitoring and a stricter limit on the length of office-holding.

But it is mostly about saying that in all sorts of ways education is special - so special that there must even be limits on the defence of commercial confidentiality, so special that its management and governance must, like justice, not only be good but be seen to be good.

This is a victory for those who have said for some time that management should be leadership, that professionals should be respected, that entrepreneurialism should be full of probity.

And the final sting is buried quite deep. Having remitted a great deal to the funding councils and the representative bodies, Lord Nolan promises to review progress in a year's time. For those of us, in and out of government, who did not realise that the Nolan committee was a standing one, that might be the biggest shock of all.

Keith Scribbins is chair of the Colleges Employers' Forum and of the governors of South Bristol College.

I wear my new tie with the elephants on to dinner at Helen Suzman's new home; she insists in spite of worsening bronchitis on driving us back to our hotel, but is too poorly to come tomorrow. At 76, she is "seriously thinking of retiring".

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