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2. This may be exemplified by more than one episode of unfinished business from the previous two years of the Board's existence. At the time of writing, the Board still await the Council's approval of the Ordinances defining their remit, first proposed in draft form in the Board's Second Report (§33 and Recommendation XI, Reporter, 1996-97, pp. 861-62). The Council had first heard of the Board's intention to ask for Ordinances in March 1997, and in July (Reporter, 1996-97, p. 1032) undertook to consider the proposal and report to the University. A draft Report on statutory provisions for the Board of Scrutiny was prepared by the Registry officers in August - a draft intended purely to limit and specify what had previously been unlimited and unspecified. By November 1997, however, a less cordial reaction had set in, and the draft set of regulations, marginally amended, was rejected and sent away for re-drafting. Not until March 1998 was a revised version considered and then further revisions were proposed; entirely new objections, relating to potential overlap with the future role of the Council's Audit Committee, now surfaced. At each stage, the Board of Scrutiny co-operated in the re-drafting and tried to accommodate the Council's concerns. In April 1998, agreement was reached on a third version of the draft Ordinances. The Board can only hope that, by early June, the Council will have given their official approval to what, six months previously, had seemed to us a matter for formal enactment of agreed principles.2
This delay has been particularly unfortunate: the proposals put to the Council also embodied a re-definition of the Board's relationship with the University Press (in terms which had meanwhile been agreed with the Press Syndicate, but which have now had to be re-submitted to it because of the Council's changes); and new rules of eligibility for re-election to the Board (Recommendations XII and XIII of the Board's Second Report, Reporter, 1996-97, p. 863).
3. To go back even further, Recommendation V of the Board's First Report (Reporter, 1995-96, pp. 798-99) was that a small committee be established 'to administer the scheme for awards to Professors for exceptional performance'. After some consultation over the next year, the Council announced their acceptance of the case for such a committee, 'in the interests of consistency and transparency' (Reporter, 1996-97, p. 724). Yet, in mid-March 1998, the Board learned that the formation of such a committee was still at the planning stage.
4. Also in their First Report, the Board had recommended that the provision of proper management accounting procedures be treated as a matter of urgency (Reporter, 1995-96, pp. 796-97 (§§9-11) and 799 (Recommendation II)). That view was accepted by the Council, subject to competition for limited resources. During the course of the academic year 1996-97, the central bodies approved a proposal for the introduction of a 'commitment accounting' system, which was to be developed and implemented throughout the University over a period of three years. In their Second Report (Reporter, 1996-97, pp. 859 (§§14-15) and 862 (Recommendation VII)), the Board warmly welcomed that initiative and expressed the hope that when it was operational the system would go a considerable way towards providing the management accounting information that the central bodies require. At the same time, the Board sounded a note of caution in relation to the implementation of the system by stressing that the scheme would be jeopardized if its adoption by the University's various Departments and other institutions were to be lukewarm and haphazard. Its uniform acceptance and use was essential to its success.
5. The Board understand that the first steps towards achieving a University-wide system of commitment accounting were taken during the first quarter of 1997. We are dismayed, therefore, to find, approximately halfway through the nominal development period of three years, that relatively little effective progress has been made. In particular, by April 1998 Departments, upon whose wholehearted support the project depends, had not yet received detailed information about the project or, indeed, been formally consulted. Some of those close to the project have expressed anxiety that security considerations had been either ignored or given minimal levels of priority. In an attempt to compensate for these startling omissions in project planning, it has been necessary to institute an independent review of the entire project at a point when prototyping was supposed to begin.
6. Undoubtedly the project is the largest and most complex one to have been undertaken in the context of the University's administrative computing. Unexpected difficulties will inevitably arise, not least in relation to the compliance with the HEFCE Audit Code of Practice requirements that come into effect on 1 August 1998. Nevertheless, the slow pace of progress to date arises almost certainly from an initial underestimate of both the complexity of the project and the number of staff required to support it, compounded by the worrying failure to consult the end-users from the outset. The Board recommend that the team be strengthened at the earliest possible moment.
8. The Board have met on nine occasions, and members of the Board have held a similar number of meetings with the Vice-Chancellor, one of the two Pro-Vice-Chancellors, the Registrary, the Secretary General, the Treasurer, the University Draftsman, the University Librarian, and the Chairman of the Board of Continuing Education. To all of these officers, who have been readily accessible and generous with their time, we extend our thanks.
10. The Allocations Report proposed expenditure from the Minor Works Fund of £661k for a new teaching laboratory in Anatomy and £500k for the refurbishment of Central Biomedical Services (ibid., §47). However, no explanation was given as to why such substantial disbursements should be charged to this Fund rather than, say, to the Special Fund for transfers from the University Press, on which other large claims ranging from £150k for the Fitzwilliam Museum to £5m for the University Library were made (§44). To cover such major projects out of the Minor Works Fund not only causes semantic indigestion, but must make consistent budgeting increasingly difficult. This problem receives a partial acknowledgement in §48 of the Allocations Report, which hints darkly at the serious consequences for Faculties and Departments.
12. We are surprised that the Report did not comment on several substantial variances between the estimates and the actuals. There was an increase of £1.6m (21 per cent) in Administration and Central Services; an increase of £2.9m (34 per cent) in Equipment and Furniture, and a doubling in Capital Expenditure from £5.5m to £11.4 m (ibid., p. 67). While we appreciate that some of these items were foreshadowed in the Allocations Report, it would be helpful if such variations were not overlooked in the laudable commitment to 'tight financial control and prudent budgeting' (Abstract of Accounts, p. 2).
14. The present policy of non-depreciation appears to be supported by a long-term maintenance provision based on a five-year survey of the buildings, last carried out in 1994. We recommend that such a survey be carried out not (as then) by a member of the staff of the Estate Management and Building Service but rather by an external surveyor.
22. A few conspicuous omissions from the Report, chosen from areas which have been brought to the attention of the Board of Scrutiny, may be mentioned here.
|(a)||Although the Report specifically addresses some of the issues raised by the Dearing Report, there is no reference to relations with the major funding bodies, including the Research Councils; nor is there any reference to Dearing's proposal for a Humanities Research Council, an issue of pressing concern to a substantial part of the University, whose outcome is still in the balance at the time of writing.|
|(b)||The Report offers no reasoned justification for the Council's projected retrenchment exercise (p. 4), which clearly still forms part of the University's forward planning. We trust that such an explanation will soon be forthcoming.|
|(c)||The section 'New building projects' (p. 7) seems selective, making for example no mention of the planning for the Faculty of Divinity building, for which the proposed starting date is 21 September 1998.|
|(d)||The section on 'Student services' (p. 12) discusses the Counselling Service, but there is no acknowledgement of the restrictions on the use of this facility (and others, such as the University Dental Service) by University staff.|
|(e)||There is silence, too, over such regrettable developments as the impending loss to Cambridge of the Wellcome Unit for History of Medicine.|
|(f)||The section on 'Links with industry' (p. 11) gives no hint of the concern aroused in some Departments by the 'embedded company units' which may involve a Department's affiliation with just one company, at the cost of competition and with an attendant threat to intellectual freedom. A succession of major benefactions since the close of the year under report have continued to attract attention to this issue.|
|(g)||Finally, nowhere is there any direct mention of the Board of Continuing Education, whose role in determining external perceptions of the University has probably never been greater, and to which two paragraphs in the University's Strategic Plan (Reporter, 1996-97, p. 1113, §§ 85-86) were devoted. Here again, developments since the end of the year under report may call for attention.|
We earnestly hope to see these and other such issues addressed in the Council's next Annual Report.
23. The issue of University officers with no College attachment appears to be linked, on p. 6 of the Council's Report, with the then unresolved question of the College Fee. To the limited extent that this has now been clarified, we hope that it will give the Council, and the new joint Planning and Resources Committee, freedom to make more positive progress on this long-standing source of discontent.
26. This is the issue of new offices and proleptic appointments (dealt with in §16 of the Report). During the run-up to 31 March 1996, the University sanctioned nine new, single-tenure Professorships (not counting one which, grotesquely, was announced only in May of that year and took effect from 1 October). To these must be added some nineteen new or proleptic appointments at lower levels; the General Board had earlier announced (Reporter, 1994-95, p. 462) that they would 'normally expect' the level of these appointments to be that of University Lecturer/Assistant Director of Research, with consideration of additional Professorships only 'in the light of a particular case'. Thus some twenty-eight appointments, in twenty units of assessment, were made in connection with the RAE. Seven of the new Professors were persuaded to move from other institutions. The other two were internal promotions. Whatever the motive for these latter appointments, they can hardly be presented as enhancing the research return for the Departments in question.
27. It is, of course, impossible to answer the hypothetical question of whether, without these appointments, the University would have secured the same impressively high proportion of top ratings. The best clue might be offered by a comparison of the performances of the Departments thus 'reinforced' with that of those not reinforced. These appear to be as follows:
|5*||No 5*, but achieved a
better grade than in 1992
|No change||Lower grade|
The proportions in the first two columns are rather similar.
28. The General Board's Report is not generous with figures. To help the Regent House to assess the expenditure for this exercise, which was rather hurriedly carried through between late August 1995 and late February 1996, some further numbers may be useful. The cost of the exercise to the University appears to have amounted to some £1.2m, about one-third of which was recurrent, in additional stipends alone; this leaves aside any consequent spending incurred on plant and laboratory equipment.
29. On the extreme assumption that none of the eleven Departments in the 'reinforced' category of ¶27 above would have got their 5* without the new and/or proleptic appointments, the University would indeed have been nearly £3m per annum worse off in research funding, although this differential was not yet known at the time when the appointments were approved. To this £3m may fairly be added the sum, perhaps £130k, which the University gained simply from the additional numbers of research-active staff underlying the calculation of the research funding. The three reinforced and 'promoted' Departments in the second column of the table would, on a similar hypothesis, perhaps have forgone a further £700k in funding. But the figures given in the second line of the table in ¶27 above show how improbable such hypotheses would be. Given these figures, it seems an inescapable conclusion that the effect of the whole exercise was, at best, marginally favourable in terms of the University's finances. In their Report the General Board comment (§16 again) that 'additional funding must be carefully targeted in future, primarily to support institutions whose ratings might be improved'. This welcome statement looks like a veiled acknowledgement that this was not the principle operative in 1996. Many will feel that it should have been.
30. The General Board have undertaken (§16, ad fin.), 'as soon as the scope and format of a future exercise are clear', to consult institutions on this and other issues. We welcome this assurance and look forward to its implementation.
31. This matter also has a bearing on the morale of the University's existing staff, and on one aspect of it in particular. This is the differential between the Arts and Humanities, on the one hand, and the Sciences on the other. One of the effects of the new and proleptic appointments was to reinforce this differential. Eight of the thirteen new offices were in the Sciences, and ten of the fifteen proleptic appointments. The obvious justification would be that the marginal and absolute gains on the Science side were much greater. So they were; but with the larger Departments characteristic of the Sciences, there also goes a diminished likelihood that one or two extra appointments will decisively affect the rating. Whatever its efficacy in securing added research funding, the programme of new and proleptic appointments has perceptibly widened the gap between the 'rich' and the 'poor'.
32. On the question of the selective exclusion from the return of academic officers who are less active in research, with a view to optimizing the ratings, it is well-known in the University that, while other institutions used this tactic to a greater or lesser degree in 1996, Cambridge generally eschewed it as a matter of policy: only some 2 per cent of the University's staff were not included, as against (for example) 9 per cent at Oxford. The General Board express their inclination to maintain the same course, and the Vice-Chancellor (Reporter, 1997-98, pp. 531-32) has recently offered a robust criticism of the practice of other universities, and its deleterious effect on the credibility of the 1996 exercise. Although it is frankly admitted, in §9 of the General Board's Report, that by adopting a similar policy Cambridge would have achieved a higher proportion of 5* ratings (and maybe consequently more research funding) than it actually did, we affirm our support for the policy adopted by the General Board and the Vice-Chancellor.
33. The sums discussed in ¶¶28-29 above are not large according to the scale of the University's overall finances. They look larger, however, when compared with the expenditure on additional personal promotions which the General Board authorized in the same context of the 1996 RAE. The cost of the nine or so additional Readerships (Reporter, 1994-95, pp. 565-67) which the Board awarded in recognition of the RAE can hardly have amounted to much over £50k per annum.
35. The closing section (§§71-73) of the General Board's Report deals with 'Progress in opportunities for women'. The evidence for this progress does not, as yet, seem very substantial. §72 reflects an unspoken assumption that the provision of 'additional nursery places for children of University staff' falls exclusively under this heading. This apart, we should have welcomed here some acknowledgement of the long waiting-lists and high costs currently faced by University staff seeking to avail themselves of this service. Like the other auxiliary services mentioned in ¶22(d) above, this service is of sufficient concern, both to employees and to student members of the University, to deserve a public statement as to what the University sees as its responsibilities in this sector.
36. On the subject of equal opportunities properly speaking, the Board accept that the University began from a low base and welcome the progress made in a number of areas. At the same time, it seems to us that by taking a more vigorous and pro-active stance the University could make more rapid progress in the future. It is essential that both existing and future initiatives are adequately resourced.
38. One of the advantages of retrospectivity is hindsight. We acknowledge that we have drawn heavily on this, especially in our comments on the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise. In welcoming the recent actions of the Council and the General Board on promotions, we would ask the General Board to be seen to give an equally high priority to the morale and quality of life of the University's existing academics in their future planning on the other issues (listed above in ¶37) which are likely to affect an even wider group of staff. In particular, we urge the General Board to consult earlier and more widely about their strategy when preparations for the next Research Assessment Exercise in 2001 take place.
II. The Board recommend that the team responsible for the implementation of the new Management Information Systems be further strengthened in order to comply with the HEFCE Audit Code of Practice by the end of the Michaelmas Term 1998, with due attention to necessary security measures as well as to the concerns of end-users in University institutions (¶6).
III. The Board recommend that the Council offer the Regent House a justification of the rationale behind the policy of non-depreciation of the University's buildings, with specific explanation of the provision for full maintenance and its compliance with the Statement of Recommended Practice (SORP) for Accounting in Higher Education Institutions (¶13).
IV. The Board recommend that the next quinquennial survey of the University's buildings be carried out by an external surveyor (¶14).
V. The Board recommend that the General Board publish, by the end of the Michaelmas Term 1998, a statement on their policy and monitoring procedures on unspent Departmental reserves (¶16).
VI. The Board recommend that, in reporting on the Local Examinations Syndicate and other associated bodies, the Abstract of Accounts should conform to the SORP for Accounting in Higher Education Institutions (¶18).
VII. The Board recommend that the Council publish, by the end of the Michaelmas Term 1998, a statement on the purpose and criteria of access by students and by academic and assistant staff to the auxiliary services such as the University Dental Service, the Counselling Service, the Nursery, and the Holiday Playschemes (¶¶22(d), 35).
VIII. In connection with the next Research Assessment Exercise, the Board recommend that the General Board should, in the course of the academic year 1998-99, complete a general consultation with Departments, Faculties and Schools, about the appropriate strategies, procedures, and funding priorities to be adopted, in so far as these can be known ahead of time; and should have in place, by the Easter Term 2000, the necessary administrative infrastructure (¶¶25-31).
IX. The Board recommend that the Council and the General Board present to the Regent House, by the Easter Term 1999, a Report on their policies regarding the overall balance of support as between the University's various Schools (¶¶31, 37).
1 June 1998
|ANTHONY SNODGRASS, Chairman||E. CLARK-KING||M. D. POTTER|
|CLAIRE BARLOW||BRIAN HEBBLETHWAITE||DAVID SMITH|
|MARKUS BOCKMUEHL||SUSAN LINTOTT||R. J. STIBBS|
|ARNOLD BROWNE||MICHAEL A. MESSAGE||KATHLEEN WHEELER|
1 In the interest of greater clarity, the siglum ¶ is used to refer to numbered sections of this Report, while § refers to sections of all other documents under discussion.
2 See the Council's Report, p. 802.
3 One of these Departments, which was awarded a 4, had not featured in the 1992 return.
4 See Reporter, p. 804.
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