Bringing academia to book

As Nolan turns his attention to universities, Greg Parston and David Albury examine the vexed subject of accountability
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The Independent Online
In the first, high-profile stage of its work the Nolan committee - the Committee on Standards in Public Life - examined politically controversial issues concerning ministers, MPs, civil servants and quangos. In its second stage it is turning its attention to "local public spending bodies", including universities.

A number of critical incidents and growing anxiety have stimulated this concern about higher education. The vice-chancellor at the University of Huddersfield, who had lost the confidence of staff was offered a severance package of more than pounds 400,000 which was reduced only after the intervention of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The vice-chancellor of Portsmouth University, who held a post as chairman of an NHS trust alongside his university duties, resigned following allegations concerning improper expenses, the report on which is available only to members of the university under draconian conditions.

"Gagging clauses" have been used to prevent senior managers and other staff from discussing criticisms and shortcomings in the running of higher education institutions. Staff and students have been excluded from governing bodies, leaving small, self-perpetuating and unrepresentative groups of governors to make key decisions. And in many universities and colleges, an increasing gulf has opened up between academic staff and senior managers.

Although higher education has not been exposed to the sweeping reforms that have characterised the health service and local government, it has faced significant challenges and changes. Most apparent is the transformation in the student population: more than 30 per cent of 18- to 21-year-olds are in higher education, compared with fewer than 10 per cent in the Sixties, and there are now more women, mature, part-time and ethnic minority students.

Vice-chancellors, deans and academic staff have had to cope with this expansion and diversification against a background of decreasing funding, pressure to increase research and to contribute to regional development, and questioning of the standards (and relevance) of both entry requirements and the qualifications awarded.

The Nolan committee's study of universities is guided by the "seven principles of public life" identified in the first stage of its work: selflessness, objectivity, integrity, honesty, accountability, openness and leadership. In its invitation for submissions to the study, three issues are raised: the appointment and accountability of governors; the role of governing bodies in relation to managers and staff; and safeguards in respect of conflict of interest.

This political agenda, however important codes of practice and due process in management are, sits uneasily within a wider view of public service accountability. Managers in higher education, like those throughout the public sector, are accountable to a number of different, and often equally demanding, stakeholders, including students, staff, communities, companies, politicians and taxpayers, each with their own perceptions and priorities. Academic managers need to strike a balance between claims for more cost- effective delivery and better educational outcomes; between insistence on strong performance relative to political directives and the provision of learning and research opportunities tailored to local or individual conditions.

Their strategies have to include not just improving efficiency and value for money, or planning and investment in new patterns of teaching and learning, but also evaluating existing practices and eliminating treasured but outdated procedures, and working in partnership with other organisations and the public to achieve common goals. All of this must be done while making organisational changes and objectives explicit and adherent to accepted codes and standards.

At different times managers may find themselves being driven towards one set of responses or one type of demand to the exclusion of others. And that is what Nolan could do. But in the long run, educational gain for society and the individual can be achieved only by an integrated and balanced approach to all of the demands of all of higher education's stakeholders. That is the bottom line of public service accountability.

Brought up in an era when universities and the staff within them were insulated from the demands of the polity and the public by the mantle of academic freedom, current calls for greater accountability are seen by some as hindering the processes of research, teaching and learning.

But in a knowledge-based society, universities and colleges can no longer claim a private monopoly on knowledge generation, transmission and use. Educational gain takes place in a variety of forms, locations and organisations. To render higher education institutions accountable requires, as with other public services, not just representation of stakeholders in their governance but also the formation of partnerships with all those concerned with the intellectual and vocational development of individuals, enterprises and society.

The paradox of the past decade may be that through the privatisation of parts of the public sector, the hitherto private may be made more public - from the salaries and interests of vice-chancellors and senior executives to the arcane mysteries of selection criteria and assessment boards.

"Academic freedom" and "institutional autonomy", for so long the private defences against encroaching governments or religions, are in need of redefinition to render knowledge and learning more publicly accessible. The Nolan committee's work may help. But the challenge for higher education leadership from managers and professionals is to recognise a broader field of public accountability and to deliver on a more complex bottom line.

Greg Parston is chief executive and David Albury is a Fellow in Organisational Development at the Office Of Public Management.

The 'Independent' and the 'Times Higher Education Supplement' are sponsoring a conference organised by the Office for Public Management to explore some of the questions raised in this article. It will be held on 30 November at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster. Details from Debra Cartledge on 0171-833 1973.