by GR Evans
“Over a few days in September, five universities announced their vice-chancellors were leaving” reported the Guardian in November 2018. The universities included Liverpool John Moores, Southampton, Bradford and Anglia Ruskin. Elsewhere new vice-chancellors were ‘starting’ at the Universities of London, Reading, East London, Sunderland and Belfast. The turnover, suggested the Guardian, was ’unprecedented’. Certainly there had been damaging press coverage on the size of some vice-chancellors’ salaries, but there did seem to be a problem in both getting and keeping the staff at that level. But some vice-chancellors whose conduct has been criticised have recently ‘agreed’ to step down rather than facing a formal procedure for dismissal.
Times Higher Education has recently covered the dismissal of Swansea’s vice-chancellor, which seems to have taken place without reliance on any special provision for the ‘removal’ of the university’s vice-chancellor. This raises the question whether such provision is appropriate, or indeed justified. From a practical point of view alone there will be a difficulty in dismissing such a chief executive because he or she will normally be listed in the institution’s procedures as the ultimate decision-maker in the dismissal of its employees. But is the head of the institution a special case?
The Model Statute created by the University Commissioners under the Education Reform Act 1988 (s.203) was designed to provide a special protection against dismissal for academic staff when academic tenure was abolished. It applied to all universities then existing and it had a special section providing for ‘removal’ of the heads of institutions. This was clearly needed, for in the case of the ‘removal’ of academic staff only the vice-chancellor could decide whether to initiate the new disciplinary procedure.
Oxford retains the provision, requiring eight members of the Council to make a complaint to the Chancellor and if he considers there may be good cause, the Council must appoint an internal tribunal. The tribunal will comprise a person with judicial or substantial practitioner experience as a solicitor or barrister and not employed by the University, with two members chosen by Council, one of whom must be a member of the academic staff. The Chancellor would make the decision to dismiss the vice-chancellor, based on the findings of the tribunal. Cambridge (whose vice-chancellor had been one of the post-1988 Commissioners) retained the wording of that provision until 2010, allowing ‘any three members of the Council’ to complain to the Chancellor ‘seeking the removal of the Vice-Chancellor from the office of Vice-Chancellor for good cause’. Any ensuing charges would be considered by an internal University tribunal in a similar way.
The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge have their own versions of the Model Statute under which the Head of House may similarly be ‘removed’. New College, Oxford could set about removing its Warden if nine members of its governing body made a complaint to the Sub-Warden. The whole governing body would then decide whether there was a prima facie case, with a tribunal to follow if they considered there was. Girton College, Cambridge may remove its Mistress if three members of its governing body make a complaint to the Vice-Mistress, with a tribunal to follow and dismissal, if recommended, made by the Vice-Mistress. In all these college examples there are minor variations on the details of the procedure.
A high-profile and unique recent instance of the attempt to ‘remove’ a Head of House in Oxford has been the case against the Dean of Christ Church. The Dean is both the Dean of Oxford Cathedral and the equivalent of a vice-chancellor in his autonomous college. The difficulty of keeping the two roles in balance prompted a Christ Church Oxford Act in 1867. As Head of the College, the Dean’s potential dismissal came under the College’s provisions under Education Reform Act 1988. Christ Church allows ‘any seven members of the Governing Body’ to initiate a call for removal of the Dean from office. The internal tribunal which has just so expensively found no good cause at all against the Dean is a legacy of that provision.
Swansea was free to change its rules and abandon the post-1988 provision because since 2006 universities have been able to modify their Model Statute arrangements without having to seek Privy Council approval, and many have eagerly done so. Procedures for dismissal of academic staff have frequently been moved to a lower level in the domestic legislation and all staff may be subjected to a single set of employment procedures. A post-1992 university such as Buckinghamshire New University has no statutes but an Instrument of Government approved by the Privy Council under the Education Reform Act 1988 s.124A(3). Any dismissals are carried out under its general HR policies.
Bath still has the Model Statute provision in its statutes, with at least three members of Council making a complaint to the Chair of Council, a Tribunal of three, and the final decision to dismiss made by the Chair, but there was no need in the circumstances for that procedure to be followed when Glynis Breakwell decided to retire. But ‘going quietly’ with a ‘settlement’ can be very expensive. Both Bath and Bath Spa Universities faced strong criticism for the size of the ‘golden goodbyes’ paid to their departing vice-chancellors; Christina Slade ‘stepped down’ as vice-chancellor of Bath Spa in 2017.
A review of the legacy of the clumsy Model Statute provision for removing a vice-chancellor seems overdue, and with it fresh consideration of whether the head of an institution is a special case when it comes to dismissal.
SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge, and CEO of the Independent Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for HE.