The Nolan roadshow

December 15, 1995

This week The THES is opening a debate on the issues being explored by Lord Nolan's committee on standards in public life. Apart from hearings in Edinburgh and Cardiff in the New Year, the committee has now finished taking evidence (the editor of The THES was among the last witnesses).

Below Tony Tysome sums up the balance of that evidence. On pages 10 and 11 Michael Shattock discusses the challenge facing college governors and John Hall examines legal responsibilities. In the next few weeks, before the committee drafts its report, The THES would like to hear your views.

Do you, for example, share the view that not much needs doing in higher education? If the Chairmen of University Councils' admirable guide for governors represented existing practice across all institutions all might indeed be well. But not all the good things they commend - remuneration committees, nominations committees for governors, registers of governors' interests, fixed terms of service of three to four years with a maximum of eight or nine years' service, open availablity of papers - are everywhere in place.

How might the committee speed their introduction without tangling institutions in procedures which hamper their ability to respond quickly to changing demands? It is already difficult, particularly for old universities with their larger governing committees, to grasp new opportunities as, for example, the new University of East London has done with its plans for the Royal Docks development (page 3) or the University of Greenwich with its bid for the Royal Naval College.

How can the committee ensure that the kind of public pressure which it represents and which has been so productive of self-improvement, persists once they have furled their tent and moved on? Visitors and ombudsmen, meeting as they do in private, may not operate sufficiently in the sunshine for this purpose. Might the solution lie for example with provision for the protection of whistle-blowers? If so, would this need to go beyond the existing protection under the 1988 Education Reform Act for academic freedom and, if so, how might distinctions be drawn between whistle-blowing and the requirements for commercial confidentiality necessary in today's increasingly competitive climate?

Do you share Michael Shattock's concern at the load now being placed on further education college governors? Is it reasonable to expect to be able to find an adequate number of people locally willing to take it on? The Committee of Vice Chancellors in its evidence this week said there was a large supply of eager people, often those who had retired early, willing to become involved in university governance. It seems improbable that this willingness is confined to universities but John Hall provides a sobering warning.

Are staff and student representatives willing to abide by the guidance of both CUC and the Further Education Funding Council that governors nominated by particular constituencies should not act as delegates and that they should respect majority decisions and rules of confidentiality? Comfort is being taken from the speed with which recent improprieties have become public knowledge but that has been because governors did not respect such rules.

Is the use of gagging clauses in severance packages or contracts ever acceptable? Severance deals are often struck to avoid the hassle and bad publicity of going to a tribunal, as Baroness Perry pointed out in her evidence this week. Both managers and recipients have a motive to agree a more generous deal in exchange for silence. Is this effective management or conducive to a climate of corruption?

Looking more broadly, are there over-arching recommendations that could and should be made for conduct in all the bodies which the committee is investigating - housing associations, Training and Enterprise Councils, grant-maintained schools as well as colleges and universities - or are they too disparate? There will be readers who have professional expertise in matters of governance and regulation as well has those with personal views.

These are among the many questions with which the committee must grapple. Do please contribute by writing to us.

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