< Previous page ^ Table of Contents Next page >

Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 16 March 1999. A discussion was held in the Senate-House of the following Reports:

The Report, dated 22 February 1999, of the Council on College contributions in the financial year 1998-99 (p. 390).


Mr Registrary, the Report under discussion is simply that - a report. It makes no recommendations, and therefore I am in no danger of holding up University business by making these remarks. This is important because a tendency has grown up recently to make remarks in these Discussions which are related only very tangentially to the matter under discussion and, every time this is done, the University's courteous procedures involve referring remarks to the body responsible for originating the item under discussion, and creating delay. I, for one, would be content to delegate to the Vice-Chancellor responsibility for stating that remarks made at these Discussions did, or did not, appear to require a formal reply; if he considered that no reply was required, then the matter could be speeded on its way. It is a power which I am sure he would exercise sparingly. In this way irrelevant remarks could be ignored, and need not hold up the business of the University. Some might regard the adoption of such a power as 'using a sledgehammer to crack a nut', but, if things go on as they are, measures, which might in earlier more civilized days have seemed draconian, may be needed.

The Report being discussed today relates to issues well-known both here and in Oxford, and which were addressed in Oxford by the recent Commission of Inquiry chaired by Dr (now Sir) Peter North. The Principal of Newnham was a member of that Commission. Chapter 12 of their Report http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/coi/coi/12.htm) is entitled 'Resources in the collegiate University', and particularly addresses the issue of 'Differences in the levels of resources available to different colleges'. The North Report states: 'The main concern is how far such differences lead to unacceptable variations in levels of provision between colleges, both in terms of educational provision and in terms of the conditions of service for academic staff', and goes on to provide detailed support for the view that the playing field, for undergraduates, graduate students, and Fellows of different Colleges, is far from level. Inequity is probably least serious for undergraduates, but, for graduate students in both Cambridge and Oxford, there is a problem. For them, the lowest common College provision needs to be uplifted. For example, access to travel funds, to enable Ph.D. students to attend overseas conferences, is notoriously capricious; a Ph.D. student at a poor College has no less need to present her results to an international meeting than does a student at a rich College. So far as Fellows are concerned, North concludes: 'The broad picture that emerges from the evidence available to us is that there are significant differences in the total levels of remuneration, including both stipend and other allowances, enjoyed by tutorial fellows at different colleges for undertaking broadly comparable duties. … Within a single University community the existence of these variations is inequitable'. We know by rumour and anecdote that the same inequitable situation prevails in Cambridge, though hard data are unobtainable because our Colleges are very secretive about what they pay people. What should we do about this inequity? Should we shrug our shoulders and say that we can't interfere with College autonomy, or should we tackle the problem?

Some will say that we are tackling the problem. Substantial contributions from some, though not all, of Cambridge's richer Colleges are listed in the Report being discussed today, and we note a large additional voluntary contribution made by Trinity. Furthermore, we are told: 'Following the agreement recently concluded about the future public funding of College fees, the Council intend shortly to bring forward proposals … which will introduce certain changes in the assessment of College contributions in the future.' Indeed the proposals referred to will appear in tomorrow's Reporter [17 March, p. 472] as a Report of the Council which I felt unable to sign, because it failed to address the need for measures which I will set out in my forthcoming remarks. The broad aim of the new proposals will be to enhance the redistributive effect of College contributions. We will monitor the effects of these new arrangements with interest - or at least we would if we could, but we can't.

We can't because the form of accounts which the Colleges are required to send to the Treasurer each year, and which are then published, do not present a true and fair view of the financial state of each College. Here too, the North Commission Report tackled the issue head on, for they have essentially the same problem in Oxford. North states: 'The format in which the colleges are required to prepare accounts for publication … needs to be reviewed and updated so that a clearer picture of college finances can be made generally available.'

Cambridge Colleges are charities, and they derive tax advantages from that status; they happen to be 'exempt charities', but that does not exempt them from many aspects of relevant law, much of which is enshrined in the 1993 Charities Act. Earl Ferrers, a Home Office Minister at the time, moving the second reading of the legislation in the House of Lords said:

The underlying purpose [of the Bill] is to enhance public confidence in the charitable sector by ensuring that charities are well managed and properly regulated. It is not a question of increasing bureaucracy, which none of us wants; but it is a question of ensuring that there should be a regime which will result in the public having confidence in the charitable sector. We think that the best way of maintaining the public's goodwill is to ensure that every charity is accountable, publicly and openly, for the manner in which it conducts its affairs.

An important way in which that accountability is now achieved is by the adoption by charities of Statements of Recommended (Accounting) Practice, or SORPs, as they are known. In an earlier Discussion in the Senate-House in July 1997, I spoke at some length about SORPs and why they matter, and am happy to note that all parts of the University, including the Press, now publish accounts in accordance with a SORP. I'm afraid that I have gained a reputation as something of a SORP bore, but that is a cross I am willing to bear. SORPs are important because, unlike the accounts of the Colleges presently published in the Reporter, they provide a true and fair view of the financial state of the organization. They give the reader a clear idea of the number and level of high salaries being paid by the charity to its employees, and, crucially, they give the financial 'bottom line' for each charity at the end of the year.

Do SORPs apply to exempt charities, and to Cambridge Colleges in particular? I will not repeat all the arguments that I rehearsed in July 1997, but will recall that Mrs Anne Campbell, MP, in February 1997 kindly asked the following Parliamentary Question, 'To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage to which format the accounts of exempted charities are required to conform in order to comply with the requirements of section 47(2) of the Charities Act 1993?' The answer from the Minister responsible included the following sentence: 'The statement of recommended accounting practice Accounting by Charities, published by the Charity Commission, applies in relation to all (my italics) charity accounts unless a more specific statement of recommended practice applies.'

Now it has been said that one of the problems about changing the form of College accounts which are sent to the Treasurer is that it will require a change of University Statute. This is simply not true. We, the Regent House, can change the form of accounts any time we like, but we have to be recommended to do so. Statute G, III, 2 states that 'Every College shall send to the Treasurer … a statement of its accounts as nearly as practicable in the form specified in Schedule D or in such modified form as the University may from time to time direct on the recommendation of the Finance Committee of the Council (my italics) [and] a certificate … signed by the Auditor or Auditors.'

The wording of that certificate is worth a look. It states amongst other things 'In our opinion … the said accounts present a true and fair statement of the transactions of the College for the year ended … and of the resultant balances as shown by the books of the College (my italics).' Auditors can, apparently, be found who are prepared to sign that certificate in respect of a set of accounts which do not conform to any statement of recommended accounting practice. Their willingness to sign seems remarkable in view of an important legal opinion, which I cited in 1997, that 'the courts will treat compliance with accepted accounting principles as prima facie evidence that the accounts are true and fair. Equally, deviation from accepted principles will be prima facie evidence that they are not.' SORPs clearly represent 'accepted accounting principles' for charities such as Cambridge Colleges, and the accounts as specified by the present Schedule D do not remotely conform to those principles. Many who know more about these things than I do feel that diligent auditors should not be certifying that the present form of accounts give a true and fair view, because they don't.

But why the hurry? The University has been working hard to negotiate a satisfactory resolution to the issue of the College fee, and surely, some say, trivial details like accounting formats can wait? The answer is simple. The rules that govern College contributions are about to change in order to achieve greater redistribution of wealth. We are a University with a strong scientific reputation, and we are going to embark on an experiment - an experiment in redistribution. We, and the wider public, will wish to know the results of our experiment. The experiment involves perturbing our existing procedures. In order to measure the effect of the perturbation, we need data about where we are now. No competent scientist would dream of starting such an experiment without collecting the baseline data. The present College accounts do not provide the data we need, and if we don't change that immediately, the chance will have been lost forever. SORPs would provide the data because, quite simply, they will tell us what the end-of-year bottom line is for each College. Many of us will wish that our College accounts had been telling us that over the past several years, but they haven't. Some Colleges may well be the poorer because the information was not provided on a regular basis and their Governing Bodies have been unable to judge the effects of their financial decision-making.

So this is what I am inviting the Finance Committee to recommend. Save yourselves the complex and time-consuming task of devising new accounting formats just for Cambridge. Simply recommend to the University that, with immediate effect, the accounts that Colleges send to the Treasurer, and which are published, should be in two parts:

Part One: the accounts of the College prepared in accordance with the Statement of Recommended Practice as issued and modified from time to time by the Charity Commission.

Part Two: the accounts of the College as presently produced in accordance with Schedule D.

The virtue of this approach is that no work will be needed on developing new in-house procedures for Cambridge alone, and as the SORP evolves and develops in line with best practice, so the format of College accounts will evolve.

Part Two of the accounts will be used primarily for the purpose of working out the level of the College contribution, and over time could well become simplified. I suspect that once we have Part One of the accounts providing us with a true and fair view of the financial state of the Colleges, nobody will be very interested in Part Two.

I hope that this suggestion will be met with a rapid response, and I look to the Vice-Chancellor and the Treasurer, Chairman and Secretary respectively of the Finance Committee of the Council, to provide clear leadership in this matter. The issue is too important to wait for the unanimous agreement of all College Bursars. The issue was referred to them more than eighteen months ago, and there is still no sign of any action. Many of them, I know, would willingly accept a proposal along the lines I have suggested (though I recognize that, for some, it might involve additional work), but others might feel that they were being cast in the role of turkeys being invited to vote for Christmas. There is no time to lose. Oxford was the first University to recognize publicly that there is a problem; let Cambridge, in an act of decisive leadership, provide the solution.

The Report, dated 22 February 1999, of the Council on the days of General Admission to Degrees (p. 391).


Mr Registrary, unlike the last occasion upon which I spoke to a Report; that being the Discussion on 3 March last year of the Council's Report on the wearing of academical dress on 'scarlet' days, I come today principally to praise this Report rather than to seek to bury it. The Council has, I believe, both identified a real problem and suggested the right remedy. I do, nevertheless, wish to ask the Council to take note of two points.

Firstly, for the University to consider holding a Congregation on a Sunday has other than purely financial or staff-welfare implications, and I note that the Council does not mention this when rejecting the idea in paragraph five. Cambridge is not yet an entirely secular university; it is, for example, still a requirement of Statute B, V that sermons shall be preached in the University Church during Full Term, and it is an offence to impugn the doctrine or discipline of the Church of England in them. Statute B, II, 2 forbids the opening of museums or laboratories or the giving of lectures on Good Friday. I hope that the Council would expect to give cogent argument for any change in the current position, i.e. that sermons are the only formal proceedings permitted on Sundays.

Secondly, I congratulate the Council upon their resolve not to allow our formal proceedings to become less dignified merely to accommodate the demands of expediency. Having been admitted to a degree in one of the older 'Redbrick' universities last year, I was concerned to discover how relatively undignified and poorly understood those proceedings were. Oxford, Cambridge, and Trinity College, Dublin are, I believe, those universities in which the notion of degree conferment as a solemn, democratic act of the assembled university is still most clearly identified. At my recent graduation, however, the sense of there being something solemn and momentous done was largely absent. It might have been a private stage-play, in which one had been given a bit-part as a reward for a period of study elsewhere. At times the proceedings appeared to have been conceived primarily as a form of entertainment for the graduands' guests.

While remembering the Vice-Chancellor's strictures on 1 October about the 'sentimental allure' of imagining that gowned figures in conclave can be an efficient government for a modern university, I do commend to the Council the symbolic value of public assembly in fostering a genuine sense of community and lasting loyalty. I do not imagine that in speaking now I play any important part in the government of this University, but the very fact that I can come here to speak today is a powerful tribute, both to my membership of a great historic and evolving body, and to my attachment to it. It was in this respect regrettable that Cambridge chose to follow Oxford in the late 1960s and abandoned Congregations of the whole Senate for the conferment of degrees; the last meeting of the Cambridge Senate for this purpose being in August 1973. Only Dublin now preserves intact the idea that its degrees flow from the common consent of all its masters and doctors in public assembly.

Congregations of the Regent House may no longer have anything to do with the government of the University as they once did, but I hope that we shall never reach the point at which they become so inconsequential that degrees might just as well be conferred in the ADC Theatre by hired actors. At a time when alumni relations are ever more firmly on the University's agenda, let it not be forgotten that it is the gowned figures, sentimentally alluring or not, rather than ticket-wielding 'guests', who are the University, and amongst whom the Congregation is held and the pledges of the Praelectors given. No member of this University, properly dressed as the Ordinances require, should ever be reduced to the status of mere 'guest' and thus feel potentially excluded from these most symbolic occasions.

Dr J. C. HORTON (read by Mr T. N. MILNER):

Mr Registrary, it has been clear for some time now that General Admission continuing late into the evening of the second day is far from satisfactory. I therefore commend the Council's decision that the best solution is to extend General Admission to three days rather than abbreviate the present form of proceedings in any way. It is always pleasing to note that the Council fully recognizes the dignity of our proceedings.

It is gratifying to read that the Council believes graduands' guests find the occasion attractive. However, since degree Congregations are University occasions, the principal interested parties are the members of the University. I trust Council's omission of this fact does not mean that its members are under the impression that degree Congregations are held chiefly for the benefit of graduands' guests.

The Report reveals that numbers in the Senate-House are now restricted to 325. This, no doubt, is what has prompted the introduction in January of a system of tickets for entry. Up to that date, tickets were only required for General Admission and for the Congregation for the conferment of Honorary Degrees. As far as I am aware, no notice of the introduction of tickets was placed in the Reporter. On arriving here on 23 January, therefore, I was momentarily taken aback to learn that a ticket would be required to gain entry to the Senate-House Yard and the Senate-House itself. I'm glad to relate, however, that dressed in academical dress as the Ordinances require, I met with no difficulty. Nevertheless, I would have appreciated prior warning that the system had changed.

The notice that appears a month or so before General Admission suggests members of the Senate advise the Secretary of the Senate-House Syndicate of their intention to be present. Other Congregations are far less crowded so this particular measure is unlikely to be necessary; however, perhaps a notice in the Reporter of the new state of affairs would be appropriate. The General Admission notice also includes the line 'All members of the University are required to wear the academical dress of their degrees in the Senate-House'. Such a reminder might profitably be included in the suggested notice: some members seem to believe they are at liberty to unilaterally derogate themselves for an hour or two for their own sartorial convenience. It is just such misapprehensions that can lead to the impression I noted earlier - that degree Congregations are for graduands and their guests only - and thus detract from the dignity of our ceremonial occasions.

The Report, dated 12 February 1999, of the Faculty Board of Biology on the regulations for Part II (General) of the Medical and Veterinary Sciences Tripos (p. 392).


Mr Registrary, Dr Findlay chose to begin with an irrelevant disquisition on irrelevance, but I will not take the time of this assembly by commenting on that, for I hope our freedom of speech here allows us to explore the implications of everything which is said in a Report. That is what I propose to do, and I do not think that, as a rule, the connections in my trains of thought are hard to follow.

The General Medical Council 'believe that medicine will become 'increasingly dependent on the ideas and techniques of other disciplines, ... on the social sciences and philosophy in confronting the wide range of cultural, environmental, and ethical issues that will increasingly impinge on the problems of health'' (Reporter, p. 392). Accordingly, it is proposed that we adjust our Tripos teaching for our medical and veterinary students. I have a sister who reports to me from the front-line of the NHS. I have lectured for her on one of the graduate training courses she runs for doctors, and I can see the advantages of this interdisciplinary approach.

I observe that the assistance of other Faculties, History and Philosophy of Science, Archaeology and Anthropology, as well as a range of scientific disciplines, will be required to make this work. Our Vice-Chancellor in his evidence on our behalf to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology on 1 February made a number of points underlining the importance of an interdisciplinary approach, which I know he has much at heart.1 'Sir Keith has come along with me today because we see a lot of interdisciplinarity in this world', he commented. 'We have this vocabulary word which is like engineer. To certain people technology is papier maché in high schools. To me technology is your best physicist who has now learned a bit more.' He is pessimistic that scholars who do not look across at others' work can achieve anything worthwhile. 'I just know that somebody on their own in a room overlooking the Cam with a bright idea and a bit of equipment is going to get nowhere.' He is especially keen on the cross-fertilization which makes possible the application of theory in practice: 'Many Cambridge graduates, particularly at undergraduate level, are still thought to be thinkers as much as to be doers. They do not know how to work all the latest equipment.'

(I hope members of the Regent House will read this evidence carefully, every word, and write to the Vice-Chancellor with their thoughts. A number of alarm bells rang in my own mind which I will not signal here, since they are not relevant to the question about our interdisciplinary provisions which is raised by this Report. But do read what was said about links with industry, and the principles on which the Vice-Chancellor will be thinking when he decides on the secret extra sums now to be paid to select Professors without the Regent House knowing anything about who and how and why.)

My concern in relation to today's Report is that members of the academic staff who are generous enough to give their time to assisting other Faculties than their own in the teaching of that other Faculty's undergraduates, and who are saving the University employing additional teachers to cover these matters within the relevant Faculty, are in danger of suffering huge professional disadvantage.

I hope we can rethink our habit of rigid establishment of posts in single Faculties which retain total control over their promotion prospects, so that we may begin to ensure that our interdisciplinary scholars are not only valued, for they save us a lot of money, but also rewarded. That requires us to establish a proper system for the obtaining of 'appropriate information' so as to evaluate their work.

I speak from two decades' experience of being sidelined by my own Faculty and not put forward for promotion year after year when others who had done far less were being hurried through ahead of me. But then, my British Academy Readership of 1986-88 was in Theology and my Faculty is History, so perhaps it did not count in the eyes of the historians that I had won a recognition which others in the historical mainstream whom they were keen to promote had failed to achieve.

I have just established once more that the General Board have not yet thought through the way in which interdisciplinary work is to be assessed. I have been accused of being unkind to the Secretary General by mentioning him in Discussions of the Senate in the past. But I do not think he is so small as to think like that. And I do not believe (to use the General Board's favourite verb) that he is in so unloved a position in the hearts of the General Board that it is ungentlemanly of me to take seriously the principle that there should be accountability for what happens in our promotions procedures. He can make a speech in his own defence, after all.

On 24 February, the Secretary General was kind enough to arrange a meeting with me at which it was intended that I should be able to get answers to questions I had raised, some of them in Discussion here, answers I needed in order to put in my application for a personal Chair by 1 March. He arranged for two senior General Board officers and his secretary to accompany him. The four of them ought to have been able to explain how the procedures were actually going to work. For if they do not understand them, who does?

One of my questions (I am sorry to have to report that I did not get answers to any of them which took me any further forward) was about the definition of the phrase 'interdisciplinary subject' in the purple booklet.

I invited the meeting to look at paragraph 3.3, which speaks of the duty of the Faculty Committees to ensure that they obtain the most appropriate information on behalf of each applicant. The Secretary General said that 'what interdisciplinary means is left to the applicant'. The record taken by the secretary shows that the Secretary General also said that the Faculty Committee 'will come to a view as to whether or not they accept your definition or not and if they accept it what action they plan to take'. One of his lieutenants said 'is it not for Faculty Promotions Committees to make that decision?' So if I say my work is thus and thus and the Faculty says 'no it isn't', I have no way but the courts (again) of attempting to get them to address their minds to the relevant considerations.

We then came to the question what is to be done about a candidate for whom no referees exist in the world competent to give an expert judgement upon the work as an intellectual whole. I am concerned about that because the references disclosed to me from last year (in the withdrawn victimization case) said that the referees did not know more than a fraction of my work and declared themselves not qualified to comment on it as a whole. The procedures assume that for each candidate there is a row of appropriate experts. The Secretary General admitted that this was 'interesting'. But all he could offer was that the process of promotion was 'based on peer evaluation'. Yet I had just made the point that there may be no peers.

The Vice-Chancellor as Chair of the General Board Committee shares the collective responsibility of forming an informed and thoughtful and careful academic judgement as to whether the 'appropriate information' has indeed been obtained.

To quote our Vice-Chancellor before the Select Committee once more:

Peer review...tends also at times to follow subjects which are fashionable in academic circles which are not necessary...It is why I like to see the big leading players in, so you make sure your standards are right in where you are and where you want to go and not funding everything because locally there is a group of people doing something which maybe nobody else thinks is interesting but they think it is interesting and there is enough of them.

That would suggest that he has a confidence in the 'big leading players' and no worries about knowing who they are. I long to be able to meet the committees the Vice-Chancellor chairs and ask him to clarify his thinking on peer-review for me with particular reference to the interdisciplinary work he clearly approves.

For is there really any solid ground here? Professor Skinner is listed on the panel from which the appeal committee is to be drawn. Indeed, as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, he may well be invited by the General Board to chair one of its promotions sub-committees. He clearly counts as a 'big leading player' in the Vice-Chancellor's estimation.

I wonder whether the General Board's members are familiar with Meaning and context; Quentin Skinner and his critics, ed. James Tully (Oxford, 1988). In it Kenneth Minogue 'finds Skinner's method 'pernicious'.' (p. 3). Nathan Tarcov 'argues that Skinner's account ... is very difficult to make out ... because Skinner seems to waver from page to page in what he wants to say about Machiavelli's position' (pp. 5 and 198). 'Skinner's interpretation of Machiavelli is superficial, confused and poorly documented', he continues (p. 202). John Keane 'argues that Skinner's method is uncritical' (p. 5), that 'the form of explanation he has in mind is flaccid and uncritical' (p. 213). Joseph V. Feria speaks of 'his curious methodological strictures.' (p. 175). I ask you to conjure with the hypothesis that Quentin Skinner is one of this year's candidates and these senior figures are his referees. Will he get promoted this year? But of course he does not need to. He is a 'big leading player' and I am engaged, it seems, in one of those subjects 'which are not necessary'. Is this how you 'make sure your standards are right in where you are'?

Able only to call bleakly from the sidelines, we interdisciplinary scholars will not be joining the ranks of the 'big leading players' in the University until the question of the fair evaluation of our work is sympathetically addressed, as though it were in the University's interests as well as ours that we should have a fair chance of recognition.

If the Work and Stipends Committee and the General Board do not tackle this at once (perhaps, who knows, even allowing me to come and talk to them as I have begged to do) we are offering our young vets and medics a training likely to make them despised by those who, metaphorically, do 'know how to work all the latest equipment' so as to get on in the University.

For you do not get on in the University by having the courage to ask challenging questions and make people realize things they had not seen before and create unprecedented and perhaps uncomfortable juxtapositions of subject-matter and interpretation - not unless you do that on the 'home territory' of one of the 'big leading players'.

1 http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm199899/cmselect/cmsctech/17/9020101.htm

< Previous page ^ Table of Contents Next page >

Cambridge University Reporter, 21 April 1999
Copyright © 1999 The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge.