Openness is a must

May 23, 1997

YOU report (THES, May 9) that Brian Fender, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, "has urged universities and colleges to be more open about the way they distribute grants." This raises a policy issue which is not resolved by repeating that "it's really up to the institution to sort out any problems like this."

If a university's external reports are known to present information made available within it, the reports will command added confidence. That confidence will be stronger the more widely the information is used and checked within the university. In many universities, each department is given financial information, including charges for central services, which provides at least a model of the department's resource position.

Conversely, where financial information is kept from departments, effective public accountability is weakened. There are consequences for all public funding, including, for example, that from the European Social Fund. And the effect is not confined to the less transparent university, which, for example, could use HEFCE money to seek advantage in competing for health education contracts. In the limiting case, it seems, the university could keep two sets of books.

In the survey which you reported (THES, March 21), we found that about a third of universities kept from academic departments most relevant financial information. We concluded that, despite certain disadvantages to a university, some senior management wanted it this way.

A university should not be able to attenuate its accountability. The issue needs to be addressed by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and funding councils, if not government.

Robert Scapens, David Angluin, Centre for interdisciplinary research in accounting and finance, University of Manchester

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