V-cs call for Sykes to be sacked from Hefce

April 2, 2004

Vice-chancellors are demanding that English funding council chiefs remove Sir Richard Sykes from their board after he branded some universities "third class".

A number of letters, including one written on behalf of the vice-chancellors of 33 universities, have been sent to David Young, chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, in relation to Sir Richard, rector of Imperial College London.

The letters refer to newspaper articles in which Sir Richard said that the government's "bums on seats" policy drained money from top-rated institutions such as his into third-class institutions with students who failed to learn enough at school.

Sir Richard singled out Luton University. He said that Imperial received less for each maths student than Luton did. He questioned the wisdom of this and was reported as saying that a penny spent at Imperial was a "hell of a lot better for the economy than a penny spent at Luton".

Vice-chancellors are questioning whether Sir Richard's public comments breach the funding council's code of best practice for board members. This requires members to observe the highest standards of impartiality and objectivity.

Their worry is that Sir Richard, who as a board member is in a powerful position to influence funding policy, may be biased in terms of university funding.

Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chairman of the Coalition of Mainstream Universities representing the post-92 institutions, wrote to Mr Young on behalf of CMU members soon after the articles appeared last month and has since received a reply.

But Professor Driscoll said the reply failed to meet the CMU's requirements and he has requested a meeting with Mr Young. Professor Driscoll was awaiting a reply as The Times Higher went to press.

He said: "Sir Richard should be given a chance to explain his remarks. But it would be difficult for the sector to understand how he could be a member of the board without withdrawing his remarks."

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, wrote separately to Mr Young saying he believed the board had no option but to ask Sir Richard to resign with immediate effect.

Dr Knight says: "As Sir Richard is intent on promoting these views, I do not see how staff and students, particularly from the new universities, can have confidence in the impartiality of the Hefce board as long as Sir Richard remains a member."

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Luton University and a member of the CMU, has not written individually to Hefce. But he believed Sir Richard's comments contradicted standing Hefce policy, which is to support further growth in student numbers and provide a financial premium for each student from a poorer background.

He said: "What kind of collective responsibility applies to Hefce board members? Clarification would be welcome."

Sir Richard this week told The Times Higher : "I am not opposed to a 50 per cent participation target per se . I simply maintain that any increased participation rate needs appropriate funding mechanisms to underpin it or it will not work, for either the students or the institutions that educate and train them.

"My recent remarks were reported in a selective and incomplete way. An unreported comment, and a key point of my argument, was that universities shouldn't all be treated the same. A few stand on the international stage and need to be funded differently."

A Hefce spokeswoman said: "Sir Richard's reported comments were made in a personal capacity and not on behalf of Hefce or as a member of the Hefce board. His comments, as reported, do not reflect the position or policies of the council."

alan.thomson@thes.co.uk

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