Old problems in new bodies

July 4, 1997

Southampton Institute's troubles are symptomatic of a wider accountability failure. Alan Whitehead suggests answers the Nolan report did not

Recent events at Southampton Institute seem to have a horribly familiar ring about them. Haven't we been here before? Readers with long memories will recall a Public Accounts Committee inquiry into Swansea Institute, the deposing of the vice chancellor of Bournemouth University, the scandal over the expenses of the vice chancellor of Portsmouth University and the severance pay debacle at Huddersfield University. Yet the recent report of the inquiry by Lord Nolan into standards in public life seem to give universities a "clean bill of health".

Looking at matters from the vantage point of a close involvement in the affairs of Southampton Institute, and placing events alongside what is now known about various other institutions, it is apparent that Nolan has not got it right. His conclusions arise from aggregating evidence throughout the sector, and although mention is made in the text of the report of the specific character of new universities none of the 11 recommendations he makes draws any distinction between the very different constitutional origins of the new and the old universities. Herein lies the problem.

All the recent headline-grabbing governance disputes have concerned different specifics - but all boil down to a central similarity. This is that a strong chief executive is eventually removed after a dispute with other elements of the institution, or as a result of an apparent lack of accountability within the institution.

The appearance to the outside world is that each dispute has taken an inordinately long time to resolve when the central issues seemed to be sufficiently clear cut for swift action. Of course, that is not the way these disputes have been perceived internally, as the PAC has demonstrated in detailed reports on the Huddersfield and Swansea disputes.

The central thread relates to the circumstances under which the new universities and the "near universities" were set up under the 1988 Education Act and the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. The arrangements under which they were set up were very different from those of the existing universities they were supposed to stand alongside.

Instead of the polycentric structure of checks and balances familiar to the old university sector, there is instead a streamlined system consisting of a board of between 12 and 24 members, up to 13 of whom will be drawn from people with experience in industry or commerce. This group must constitute a majority of the board. This insistence that businessmen and industrialists should take the majority of seats partly determines the process of governance that results.

It is assumed that such bodies are essentially businesses and require crisp decision making by seasoned decision-makers. There is therefore a tendency for boards to appoint and support like-minded chief executives, and results thus tend to be appraised by the board on the basis of how good they are for the business they are there to enhance.

The accountability assumed by this model is in essence that of the market. If students are not recruited or funds are not secured, the business will fail; if the students and the funds turn up, then the business succeeds.

Since market accountability already exists, all that is left to do is to regulate the activities of such bodies. What is missing is any genuine sense of structural accountability within the institutions to their staff, students, their academic purpose or their local community.

Nothing in the rules guarantees such accountability. The governors, after initial appointment by the secretary of state, are subsequently largely self-replicating. The powers accorded to the chief executive are enormous. These factors create a power nexus that can become highly centralised, even where business and senior employees believe they are acting in the best interests of everybody. Where individuals consciously use the machinery to their own end the results can be devastating.

Southampton Institute is a case in point. Most of the governors were concerned as much about financial as academic success. Not everyone was kept adequately informed. Staff were strongly discouraged either from finding out what was happening at governors' meetings or from putting alternative views to governors.

Meanwhile, the traditional model of the competence of various spheres of influence within a higher education institution tended to be overshadowed by management doctrine. The establishment and operation of courses therefore became a management decision and not one for the academic board, since it was predominately about the balance sheet. In the case of Southampton Institute, a parallel management-dominated "programme planning committee" was set up to second-guess any academic board decisions.

Similarly, research, on this argument, is about the management of project income. The activity of research centres then becomes the province of a management "administrative notice" which supersedes any recommendations of research committees. Foreign campuses and courses become an exercise in income generation and are not judged by their objective academic validity. All this is driven by a chief executive who, providing he retains the confidence of a board of governors dependent on the information he supplies, can do what he likes.

In the light of these structural considerations, the wonder is not that so many management accidents have occurred, but that so few institutions in the new university sector have become impaled on accountability disputes. Where Nolan was being kind was perhaps in reflecting on the underlying self restraint and innate sense of fair play of most academics. In other words, the system generally works in spite of itself rather than because of itself, but when it falls down it does so in spectacular fashion.

Perhaps to complain in this way is to tilt at windmills. Colleagues from across the sector will rejoin that the whole of higher education is effectively marketed and that the new university sector is simply more marketed than the rest. At least, however, the structure of the older universities provides some institutional defence against excess: new university structures provide only the hope that those placed in charge exercise their duties of governance in a democratic fashion. The fault lies in the new arrangements.

One of the tasks of a new government committed to the principle of democratic accountability through participation and democratic debate must therefore be to review the thinking behind the flawed launch of the 1992 entrants into the world of self-governing institutions of higher education and take steps to put matters right.

Alan Whitehead, a former member of staff at Southampton Institute, is now Labour MP for Southampton Test.

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