Education: As one university fails, are there others to follow?

A damning report on Thames Valley University has raised questions into the way that higher education is run. Are there other universities in a similar shambles?
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Until now it has been schools which have been named and shamed, not higher education institutions. Which is why last week's devastating report on Thames Valley University is such a shock to the university system. Not only has a flamboyant, yet respected, Vice-chancellor, Mike Fitzgerald, been forced to resign, but a university has been shown to be failing in graphic detail, and a "hit squad" has been parachuted in to safeguard standards.

The failings uncovered in the 20-page report from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for higher education make grim reading: disgruntled and disbelieving external examiners, wholly inadequate information systems, a seriously disaffected workforce, poor management, weak communications, and serious questions about standards as a result of the way degrees are validated. Inevitably it raises questions in people's minds about whether other universities, particularly the former polytechnics, which were traditionally less well funded and have more difficulty attracting students than old universities, are in a similar shambles.

"As the university system has expanded, some institutions have made a rapid transition from being colleges of higher education to being universities with the power suddenly to award their own qualifications," says Alan Smithers, Sydney Jones professor of education at the University of Liverpool. "Some institutions, which very rapidly became universities, perhaps haven't had long enough to acquire the value systems that enable them to make the essentially subjective judgments as to what is a degree."

Such talk makes the new universities see red. However, John Randall, chief executive of the QAA, is at pains to point out that the circumstances at Thames Valley are unique. The university had a mixture of poor management, over-ambitious plans and long-running industrial disputes, he argues. "Put those three together and you get the unravelling of the systems that the university suffered from. I hope it has been caught. The university is now doing the right thing in acting on the recommendations we have put forward."

The fact that a university could be found so seriously wanting is a cause for great concern. Large sums of taxpayers' money go into higher education. Thames Valley is thought to be in desperate financial difficulty, largely because it failed to recruit enough students this year. It is 38 per cent (836 students) short of target. Income is said to be one-third below budget.

Students suffer when a university gets into such a mess. Thames Valley's 28,000 students must be wondering whether their degrees are going to be tarnished by what has gone on. The hope must be that Sir William Taylor, the university troubleshooter, former Vice-chancellor at Hull, and the man who sorted out Huddersfield when its boss ran into trouble, will do what is necessary to restore confidence and balance the books.

Sir William has a tough job on his hands. Fitzgerald took over a university with bad industrial relations, but was unable to sort them out. QAA insiders think he should have sacked the troublemakers. Clearly, this will be one of Sir William's first tasks. He will also have to decide what to do about Fitzgerald's reforms. For years, Thames Valley has been in a constant state of flux - what one external examiner referred to as "permanent administrative revolution". The most ambitious reform, known as the New Learning Environment, which emphasised students' learning rather than lecturers' teaching, and which involved elaborate restructuring of the whole university, was never effectively implemented.

Introduced without proper planning, at the same time as other big changes were being made (for example, the academic administration was being restructured and a new management information system was being introduced), it put the institution under intolerable stress, says the report. Sir William will need to decide whether to continue the New Learning Environment, modify it, or return to a more conventional structure.

The first public sign that Thames Valley was cracking up came last autumn when the QAA were called in to investigate allegations that the university was deliberately "dumbing down" standards to pass more students. It decided it was not, but at the same time pointed to deep-seated problems with standards and quality in some subject areas. That led to further inquiry and last week's report.

One question which arises is whether the university's governors were doing the job of keeping tabs on the university's management. One can only conclude they were not. QAA sources suggest the governors were pretty ignorant of what was going on. They were not asking the right questions and they were not picking up on weaknesses. The report must have come as a terrible shock to them.

As everyone was endeavouring to digest the scale of what had gone wrong, concern was voiced that the criticism of this pioneering institution may have a deadening effect on higher education as a whole, deterring Vice- chancellors from innovating for fear of falling out with the powers that be. "I feel there's a conservative backlash against institutions like Thames Valley," said one expert. "It would be a great shame if, as a result, universities stopped taking any risks."

Coventry's Vice-chancellor, Dr Mike Goldstein, endorses this view. He is particularly worried that the report may set back the kind of ideas that Mike Fitzgerald was promoting, particularly his ideas embodied in the New Learning Environment. "It would be awful if we all retreated back to the safe and the conventional. The idea of empowering students to take more responsiblity for their own development and their own learning, in a creative way, and to harness new technology, we're all trying to do that."

Another seasoned observer thought the university sector - either the Committee of Vice-chancellors and Principals (CVCP), acting for all universities, or the Coalition of Modern Universities (CMU), representing the former polytechnics - should have stepped in to offer a helping hand to Thames Valley. There were clear warning signs that not all was well at the university, he said, notably the horror stories from external examiners. "It's not a great credit to higher education that it should have been left to this agency to come in with its hobnail boots and kick Mike Fitzgerald out."

The problem was that most Vice-chancellors had no idea about what was going on at Thames Valley. Moreover, universities are autonomous institutions, so it is not easy for peers to intervene. "Both CVCP and the CMU think it's not their role to intervene in individual institutions," says Roderick Floud, provost of London Guildhall University. "If a Vice-chancellor asks for assistance, we would try to give it. That's different from saying the sector should intervene."

Meanwhile, the report will serve as an object lesson in how not to run a university, just as previous reports on Glasgow Caledonian, Huddersfield, and Southampton Institute did - though on a less comprehensive scale. Any university boss who introduces an ambitious reform programme knows that it cannot be done without careful planning, effective leadership, the right infrastructure, good communications, fail-safe contingency plans, fully tested information systems, a realistic timetable, and goodwill from the staff. None of those was in place at Thames Valley.