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Academic governance and (re)building trust

Tessa Harrison from King’s College London considers the role of academic governance in rebuilding trust in universities.
This article is more than 3 years old

Tessa Harrison is the Director of Students & Education at King’s College London

The history of the governance of UK universities is essentially concerned with changing notions of authority and trust.

For a short but comprehensive overview, Michael Shattock’s article, University Governance in Flux, is probably one of the best. Shattock’s article provides a synoptic overview of the ways in which the balance of authority within institutional governing structures has fluctuated sharply over the last century through the changes introduced by Robbins, Jarrett and Dearing.

Over the last fifty years or so, hierarchy has replaced collegiality; what we used to call ‘the administration’ has become the new ‘managerialist army’ of target setters and performance measurers; academics are now insecure employees; and students are customers and consumers.

I have participated in the senates / academic boards and councils / boards of governors in five universities in each of the English sector’s mission groups over the last thirty years. I have seen first-hand the transfer of decision making to senior executive teams, and the increasing power and decreasing transparency of planning and resource committees in which decisions affecting the finances and future strategic direction of individual universities are discussed and agreed, with little of the wider engagement we might have expected in times gone by.  

Decline of collegiate decisions

Across that period I have witnessed the gradual decline of collegiate decision making, and the concomitant distress of academics as they feel further and further removed from decisions that affect them in their day-to-day activities as educators and researchers. I have also heard various vice chancellors complain about how passive academic boards and senates have become.  

At the same time, I have been one of the new managerialists expressing frustration about our collective inability to tackle institutional under-performance, about the urgent need to take the difficult decisions that will address our inefficiencies and our declining performances in national and international league tables.

I have worked with students seeking to increase their representative voice at every level and, yes, I have at times used the NSS, QAA, CMA, UKVI, etc as the ‘we have no choice’ rationale for driving change at the expense of alienating some of my academic colleagues.

Deep divisions

Last spring’s industrial action exposed deep divisions between staff and senior leadership in several institutions. At its heart, these divisions arose from academics’ concerns about the current state of HE more broadly and an increasing sense of mistrust in senior leaders’ attempts to balance their role as institutional stewards with responding to the voracious demands of an unsympathetic public, impatient policymakers and an increasingly complex external regulatory and accountability framework.  

There is a strong desire amongst the academic community for our institutions to be (re)democratised. The strengthened, more corporate-like, accountabilities of our governing bodies has shone a spotlight on the role of academic governance in providing the necessary assurances about academic matters.

Notwithstanding the formal role of academic boards and senates for the standards and quality of all things academic, the call for (re)democratisation leads to questions about who should chair academic board – the accountable vice chancellor or, perhaps, a senior academic independent of the executive; who should be represented; how should meetings be conducted; how many of the executive should be present and in what capacity?

Rise of mistrust

These are fundamental questions about community, trust and how we exercise our accountabilities to each other and to the emerging expectations of our new regulator, the OfS.

A university cannot function if everyone working within it, academics, administrators and students, mistrusts each other. Over the last decade or so it feels as if we are beginning to recognise that the ways we discuss, disagree and decide have become misaligned from the changed expectations of universities arising from marketisation, competition and public accountability.  We have also been learning how to involve our students as co-creators and partners which raises interesting questions how our student unions execute their role as representatives.

Concerns about the direction HE is heading are felt by senior leaders as much as they are by staff and students, and yet over the last thirty years it feels as if we have been slowly losing the ability to know how to talk with each other.

The conversation about academic governance has become about what we communicate when, rather than how we discuss, disagree and decide together as a community what is best for our institution. Is that not what academic governance exists for?  

One response to “Academic governance and (re)building trust

  1. Perhaps academic governance should require the majority decision making of those qualified as academics, for a start ?

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