The right time for a shake-up

December 13, 2002

Autocratic management is not the way to put an end to Cambridge's woes, argues Stephen Cowley

In recent discussion papers, education secretary Charles Clarke asks whether universities manage themselves effectively and whether the nation can be sure that the taxpayers' £5 billion is being well spent. In doing so, he notes that some universities have governance systems with elements that are medieval.

Cambridge, which when founded had a structure that was basically that of a democratic trade guild, needs to be able to answer Clarke's questions in the affirmative. With a projected annual deficit of more than £10 million, a well-publicised fiasco concerning its computerised accounting system and a high-profile dispute over intellectual property rights (IPR), the university would have problems answering "yes" even to one. Since change is clearly needed, why did the Regent House (Cambridge's "parliament" of academic and academic-related staff) this week reject reforms to the roles of two of its senior administrative officers?

Well, the council's proposals were deemed to have been designed to keep the officers in well-paid offices with new duties for which a convincing case had not been made, many of their traditional duties having passed in a less than transparent manner to new posts. Further, both officers are part of an administration that is associated with the above failures, for which none of the bigger heads has rolled and the vote was held at a time when, because of the deficit, almost all academic posts are frozen and soon after the uproar caused by proposals over IPR. This was more than many members of the Regent House could take. They were unwilling to provide retrospective legitimacy to what were seen as sticking-plaster proposals to correct, in the university council's words, "a crippling discrepancy between... the university's statutes and the operational position on the ground". In such circumstances one might expect the administration to stop digging. Instead, the retiring council recently proposed holding a crucial vote on the reform of university governance over a period that includes Christmas Day but only four term days. That might matter less if the proposals were not flawed.

For instance, the inquiry into the accounting system debacle recommended that there should be a clear hierarchy of accountability in the university. The governance proposals would give powers akin to those of a chief executive to the vice-chancellor, making the post-holder "responsible for the management of the university and its finances".

However, the council already has statutory responsibility for managing resources and a duty to exercise general supervision over finances. No clear hierarchy of accountability there, just a recipe for confusion.

But the most important point is this. There is nothing wrong with Cambridge's underlying self-governing structure. A vice-chancellor with vision and strong leadership who recognises this, and an administration that works within it, will make Cambridge successful, as our history illustrates.

What does not work is an autocratic top-down management structure within our bottom-up governance structure. In the past few years, the attempt to run the university as if it were a company ruled by a chief executive has been a disaster.

In a democracy, an unpopular administration can be voted out: it is in that spirit that the council's proposals were voted out this week. We shall shortly appoint a new vice-chancellor, whom the search committee believes has "the appropriate personal style for leading a democratic, self-governing university".

The Regent House should hope that Cambridge is now on course to answer yes to both Mr Clarke's questions.

Stephen Cowley is a democratically elected member of Cambridge University's Board of Scrutiny.

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