V-cs accuse select committee of ‘obsession’

Head says criticism is ‘not based on great substance’ as MPs unveil another academic's misgivings. Melanie Newman reports

April 7, 2009

Vice-chancellors have accused a committee of MPs investigating concerns about university degree standards of “obsession” and “scepticism”.

Rick Trainor, president of Universities UK, the representative body of university heads, complained that vice-chancellors had been “roasted” while giving evidence to the cross-party Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee. He said it was running “a sustained campaign of scepticism”.

During a debate at the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s annual conference last week, other university heads voiced their concerns about the inquiry.

Michael Brown, vice-chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University, said: “We need a consistent approach to try to head off the Parliamentarians’ obsession, which is not based on great substance.”

He said the MPs had to be “headed off at the pass before it gets too silly”.

Professor Brown is one of a number of vice-chancellors who have faced tough questioning from the committee. The committee’s members have accused some university heads of giving them the “runaround” and of painting a picture “where every university is wonderful”.

During a hearing in Liverpool on 23 March, Phil Willis, chairman of the committee, asked Professor Brown whether academics were “discouraged from complaining if… they see standards slipping within the university”.

The vice-chancellor denied the charge. “There are mechanisms for them to go through the university to [voice] their grievances if they wish to raise them,” he said.

But Mr Willis pressed Professor Brown, saying: “So you are quite convinced that in terms of this drive to improve the standing of [Liverpool] John Moores University, you do not trample on the academics who raise major questions about the integrity of [the] product you are offering?”

The vice-chancellor again issued a categorical denial.

The committee today published another dossier submitted to its investigation, from a former professor at Liverpool John Moores, who claims that it failed to adequately penalise students for plagiarism.

Mahmoud El-Sayed, a professor in the School of Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores, said he was suspended and then dismissed by the university in January 2007.

He said he had alleged on numerous occasions that students were getting away with plagiarism, and an email he sent in which he attacked a senior manager for allegedly failing to deal with the problem was widely circulated in his department.

The email was one of a number of issues that led to his suspension on charges of gross professional misconduct and subsequent dismissal. After an appeal against his dismissal failed, Professor El-Sayed sued for unfair dismissal. The university reached an out-of-court settlement with him before a tribunal case that was due to take place in January 2008.

A spokeswoman for Liverpool John Moores said: “We wouldn’t comment on the specific details relating to a former member of staff and we have received no formal notification that a ‘dossier’ has been compiled or distributed… to [the committee], so I can offer no comment.”

Speaking at the Hefce conference, Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, warned: “We don’t do ourselves any good by saying that this is not a substantive issue but is about educating ignorant Parliamentarians.”

Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of Hefce, also sounded a note of caution, pointing out that select committees tended to “catch the public mood” and that universities needed to meet public scepticism “head-on”.


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