Can Welsh universities be trusted to improve their own governance?

A new review of Welsh Universities' governance makes Jim Dickinson feel like he's heard it all before

To really understand Gillian Camm’s Independent Welsh Universities’ Governance Review and Charter of 2020, it’s tempting to look at the almost never ending stream of governance scandals that have dogged the Welsh sector in recent years.

But you’d be better off taking a look at John McCormick’s Independent Review of Higher Education Governance in Wales of 2011, whose recommendations on improvement to institutional governance were all accepted by the sector at the time. Trust us, they said. We’ll change. So did they pull their socks up to protect their autonomy in the way that was promised – and if they did, why didn’t that sock pulling work?

Deja vu

Eight years ago McCormick found that there was a need to ensure means of securing “regular governor engagement” with principal external stakeholders – the success of which should be “measured by an effectiveness survey”. Camm finds little progress and draws the same conclusion.

Back in 2011, McCormick worried that governing body engagement with strategic planning was “very limited” in some institutions, often “only reactive”, and argued that governors needed greater “involvement in strategic planning”. But in 2019 Camm still found that governors “were presented with strategies late in the day and then placed under pressure to sign them off”, examples of where strategies were “progressed between meetings and governors felt bypassed as the strategies were implemented”, and even some moments where there was “a degree of confusion where governors felt that involvement in strategy development would compromise their independence”.

McCormick noted that use of effective KPIs for institutional scrutiny in 2011 was variable, and limited use was made of sectoral and peer group data for benchmarking institutional performance against national, UK and international standards. In 2019 Camm found governors complaining about a lack of information to use as a basis for challenge, and calls for “common data sets” and the availability of “benchmarking and comparative information” to provide a basis for challenge. Just as McCormick did.

Eight years on

2011’s review found that relations between the board and the academic board/senate were in some instances marked more by poor communication and a lack of understanding than effectiveness. 2019’s found that the ability to have a view on the “core” academic business of the university was “not easy” and that some thought that it “was not the role of the governing body in any event”. And some governors that felt they had been fed a diet of good news and had not been given a comprehensive picture about the performance of the university, such that when a significantly negative one emerged, “governors were genuinely shocked”.

On student engagement, the 2011 review argued that “further improvement is still needed”. The 2019 iteration finds students “had felt marginalised and unsupported”, manages to get the name of NUS Wales wrong in its first paragraph, and argues that student members should be denied support from their SU’s CEO “because it results in another attendee at the meeting”. On diversity, McCormick noted that “women make up only one third of overall membership” of boards. Camm, as McCormick did, calls for action by nominations committees.

And in 2011 McCormick wanted reviews of governor performance and recruitment based on the principles of openness, transparency and equitability – although “the voluntary nature of the role should not be an inhibiting factor
preventing any individual being considered for board membership”. Amazingly, eight years later, Camm found that for some “there was a feeling that governors were unpaid volunteers” and it was somehow therefore “unreasonable and disproportionate” to “subject” them to a “structured recruitment process”. Or to be appraised. Or indeed “to have their attendance monitored”. All of which, by the way, does makes their governance highly likely to be much much worse than that of their own students’ union. Its recommendation on payment? “Now does not seem the right time”.

I could go on, but you get the jist. Why would we do the same thing over and over and expect a different result? In the review Camm argues that because many of the governance issues in Wales “relate to leadership, culture and behaviour”, that this therefore is “no real place for regulators and legislators”. Given the vast sums of public and student money involved, on the evidence of the Welsh sector’s efforts over the past decade, I think I’d argue the precise and diametric opposite.

2 responses to “Can Welsh universities be trusted to improve their own governance?

  1. A good illustration of the parallels although I’m not sure the sector in Wales did accept the recommendations from the McCormick review, which was a Welsh Government commissioned review. There was a commitment to work with Welsh Government to evaluate the ideas in that review. In that regard, there is a difference between McCormick and this, where Chairs and VCs have committed to a series of actions and agreed to be monitored on it.

  2. …Which as I recall was preceded by a sector commissioned review from Eddie Newcomb in 2010 which basically found the same issues and reached the same conclusions

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