The Joint Distance Learning MA in Town and Country Planning: The Management Board

Introduction

This qualification was approved by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) for the first time in 1995. This followed a predecessor undergraduate diploma approved by the RTPI in June 1984 and by the Open University for a BA (Open) in the same year, although in its initial form this proved financially unviable. These have been the only planning qualifications available to students who cannot take day release so the scheme has been a monopoly. It is managed by the JDL Management Board on which all five universities are represented.
The Management Board’s terms of reference

Information provided by one of the members and other evdience raised questions about its terms of reference. The Council asked the RTPI for these in 2005 but was referred to the Course Director, John Allinson at the University of the West of England.

Therefore the Council wrote, under the Freedom of Information Act, to the Course Director on 14 December 2005. A reply in 20 days, as required by the Act, was not forthcoming so a reminder was sent 17 February 2006. Mr Allinson replied on 23 February 2006, enclosing a copy of the General Guide for the degree and a paper setting out the contractual and operating agreements reached by the Management Board. So these did not provide the information on how the Management Board was approved.

The Council had to write again on 15 March but its letter was passed to UWE’s Clerk to the Governors, Katie Owen-Jones. Her reply of 11 April 2006 stated that “The Management Board was established by arrangements approved by the University’s Academic Board under its responsibilities set out in the Articles of Government of the University made under the Education Reform Act 1988 as amended”.

However, neither the legal instrument setting up the Board nor the minutes of the Academic Board, was provided. The Council replied on 22 April seeking these documents. A holding reply of 3 May 2006 acknowledged that its letter had been received on 25 April and that there would be a reply as soon as possible but one had not been received by July so a formal complaint was made to the Information Commissioner on 14 July. This eventually led to a reply from Ms Owen-Jones of 10 October. Her letter reiterated that UWE was “conducted in accordance with the Instrument and Articles of Government, made following the 1988 Education Reform Act and revised in 1992 in line with the new legislation”. She enclosed copies of the:

Articles of Government for UWE;
Privy Council Order making the Instrument of Government for the UWE higher education corporation;
Academic Procedures for Approval, Validation and Review of New Programmes of Study;
Quality Assurance section of the Academic Regulations.

Ms Owen-Jones’ letter admitted that these copies “cover only the highest level of the University’s governance arrangements”. She added that the JDL Management Board was not designated under Section 121 of the 1988 Act but no evidence was provided of the Management Board ever having been approved.
Other evidence

Ms Owen-Jones’ evidence indicates that the JDL Management Board is part of UWE. They key question is whether it was formally approved by the Principal and Board of Governors as required by Section 3 (4) of the Articles of Government if it is a committee established by the Academic Board as indicated in her letter of 11 April 2006. If it was then UWE have either withheld the information, without any justification, contrary to the Freedom of Information Act, or have lost the documents giving that approval.

The Information Commissioner has determined that mislaying a single document is unlikely to lead to a practice recommendation. But the University may be open to censure from the IC for careless records management.

If approved, the JDL Management Board is clearly part of the UWE higher education institution. But that is not what UWE have claimed in the past. A letter of 23 July 2002 to a Member of Parliament from the then Registrar, Margaret Carter, stated that “the Management Board is not a UWE body” (her emphasis). At no stage had UWE stated that it held or did not hold the specific information requested, as required by Section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. If it did hold the information UWE would have committed a series of criminal offences.

Therefore a new request was made under the Freedom of Information Act for the minutes establishing the JDL Examination and Management Boards and the legal instruments setting out their terms of reference. After 18 months, the university has failed to provide this information, despite repeated requests by the Information Commission.
Conclusion

It has become clear that the JDL Management Board and the JDL Examination Board have never been legally constituted for these planning qualifications. A court will therefore rule all decisions of these two Boards and hence the examinations and awards to be ultra-vires. A judge may rule that this is not a legally valid accreditation for RTPI membership. This has very serious implications for students who have followed this route, for the RTPI as the professional body and also the Open University as some students have used the planning courses towards their OU qualification.