- Naomi Pfeffer
Michael Davies Thoemmes, pounds sterling3.99, pp 139 ISBN 1 85506 366 2
Over the past few years, a number of stories have given rise to concerns about declining standards of propriety and accountability in public life. People working in what remains of the public sector have not been immune from criticism. The “new” NHS has been a source of scandal. There is a widespread belief that the internal market introduced values which undermine the public service ethos of those working within it. Paradoxically, although similar values have been introduced into universities, there have been relatively few allegations of wrongdoing by academics.
An exception is the melodrama acted out in public over several years by members of staff of the department of philosophy and health care, University College of Swansea. The “Great Battle” of Swansea, as it has been dubbed, centred on accusations of poor academic standards of the “taught” MA (Wales) in philosophy and health care. This claim was substantiated by what turned out to be the fourth of five investigations into the affair, that by Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer.
The fifth investigation was carried out on behalf of the visitor of the University of Wales (the Queen) in July 1992, by former High Court judge Sir Michael Davies. Although there were numerous complaints to consider, his task boiled down to deciding whether or not “the critics” were right to have voiced publicly their concerns about academic standards. He found no other means through which staff of the department of philosophy and health care could gain the attention of their bosses, whom he called “the establishment.” Nevertheless “the establishment” maintained that “the critics” had taken an extreme course of action, and refused to work with them.
With elegance and sometimes irony, Sir Michael has drawn out the relevant details from—among other things—documents of almost 2900 pages submitted to him by the protagonists. He is a model of diplomacy, wisely refusing to be drawn into the argument. In the end Sir Michael restored the status quo, a solution which he believed would be in the best interests of the institution and its students.
Sir Michael's report is a fascinating read. It touches on issues which undoubtedly will sound familiar to people working in the NHS, but which have not yet been adequately explored by non-medical academics. The most worrying factor is its suggestion that managerialism and competition between university departments may be inimical to academic freedom. The report of the committee chaired by Lord Nolan said that a systematic reinforcement of the basic principles of public service might restore the public's confidence in the holders of public office. It may also serve as a prophylactic and protect both academics and students from outbreaks similar to that which took hold in Swansea—NAOMI PFEFFER, school of health studies, University of North London