There but for the grace of God

November 4, 1994

In my last piece (THES, September 23) I suggested an end to the lottery of current early retirement practices in favour of an opportunity for all to retire at 55. Since then the nasty stuff has hit the fan at Huddersfield where, apparently, the first prize in the lottery had been won.

Those who have burrowed away to expose this expect the rest of us to be indignant. But what are we supposed to be indignant about? Is it the rumoured 50 per cent increase in salary at a time of pay restraint? Or is it the application of football managers' severance terms to a public sector job? Or is it the accountability of those who have made the decision?

The enduring issue involved is certainly accountability. It would be difficult to get banner headlines about this or even about the fact of the expulsion of student and staff representatives but this, combined with the "top hat" severance, is the stuff of scandal.

Hence we are now in for a root-and-branch review not just of how the board spent its, or our, half million, or of the apparent secrecy of the deal, but an older chestnut. Should trustees and governors of public corporations be subject to a higher degree of scrutiny than a board of directors? After all, directors have to account to shareholders. Trustees have to account to the Charity Commission. Even the National Trust has been going through twists and turns lately to account to its members. So, to whom are governing bodies accountable?

This question goes to the heart of this government's education reform. That reform is based on two foundations. The first is that selected "trustees" with business acumen will be better at running public corporations than elected representatives. The second is that public institutions are more effective and efficient the more they are run like firms in the private sector. While the Labour Party strains at the gnat of reforming these reforms, battle lines will be drawn up. How long will it be before the leaders of further and higher education form their own "no turning back group"?

Three considerations might inform this debate. First, there is the idea that all would be well if staff and student representatives and the odd councillor rejoined business persons on governing bodies.

In terms of increasing accountability this is a nonsense. Numerically they would make little difference. What they might do is blow the whistle earlier.

Second, the notion that accountability might be superimposed on corporations by some regional government is also absurd and would be highly resented by those who see their institutions as having a national, nay international, identity.

Finally, we need a common solution for all incorporated institutions, from the smallest further education college to the largest university. And there's the rub. For any solution will need to fit the older as well as the newer universities. For the "no turning back group" that might be the surest defence. Imposing solutions on Huddersfield is one thing but doing it for Oxford is another.

As those who govern our incorporated institutions mull over the Huddersfield farrago wondering if there but for the grace of God . . . they might contemplate that the role they have taken on is not just a thankless one but one which will put their errors of judgement centre stage in coming months.

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors at South Bristol College and deputy director of the Staff College.

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