Cultures of university governance need urgent attention

Steven Jones reports on new research for the Council for the Defence of British Universities revealing the wrong kind of compliance culture in some governing bodies

Steven Jones is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Manchester

In recent years, the authority invested in governing bodies has been enlarged and formalised by the Office for Students. As well as providing oversight and guidance, and holding leadership teams to account where necessary, governing bodies are now responsible for ensuring that a range of financial, legal, and other regulatory requirements are met.

But despite the centrality of the governing body within their institution, most university staff would struggle to name any individual members. Indeed, few in the sector have a firm grasp of how governance works, and critical research remains relatively scarce. This is partly explained by the sheer complexity of the field: there are multiple governance models in the English sector alone, many determined by institutional statutes and ordinances, and each seemingly accompanied by its own terminology. But it is also partly because governing bodies tend to stay in the shadows, with openness rarely extending much beyond the periodic release of minutes somewhere on the university website.

Last year, I led a project that sought to lift the lid on governing bodies in English universities. The focus was on cultures and discourses, and how they interfaced with rules and regulations. Between us, my co-investigator Diane Harris and I interviewed current or former governors at over forty higher education institutions. The report, published today by the Council for the Defence of British Universities, confirms that members of the governing body make vital contributions to the running of their universities.

Many interviewees found the role inspiring and described it as a “privilege”. However, the report also raises important questions in several areas: governance protocols that seem needlessly complicated; decision-making practices that can be undemocratic; and power relations that seem to reinforce hierarchies and maximise compliance.

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A recurring concern for interviewees was that key decisions were taken by a small subset of governors – usually the chair and those senior lay governors charged with running subcommittees – often in lockstep with the vice chancellor and their senior management team. While recent progress in diversity was noted and celebrated, the tendency for positions of greatest influence to be held by wealthy, retired, white men from a corporate background was frequently noted.

Some interviewees mentioned informal dinners, pre-meetings and WhatsApp groups in which institutional strategy was debated but to which they were not invited, leaving formal committees “sort of stage-managed”. Those interviewees within the so-called “inner circle” tended to reject suggestions of cliquishness, countering that in a fast-changing policy environment executive decisions sometimes needed reaching swiftly and away from full meetings of the governing body.

For some interviewees, explicit hierarchies were felt to operate alongside more implicit and localised power dynamics. The agenda for meetings of the governing body was regarded as a crucial document, both in practice and symbolically. However, few interviewees understood how the agenda was set, by whom, or how it could be influenced. Governing body discourses tended to stress how full the agenda was, as reinforced by pre-reading packs that reportedly comprised several hundred pages. Some interviewees acknowledged that the expansion of governing body duties meant that meetings would inevitably become bloated by regulatory requirements, but others suspected that time management tactics were occasionally deployed to prevent discussion of sensitive but substantive issues. Governing body processes were described by one interviewee as “deliberately unclear” and insinuations were made that data and information were sometimes “filtered”.

Some interviewees expressed anxiety about what they regarded as the “hyper-financialisation” of university governance. While it was readily acknowledged that the market turn in higher education policy left universities in greater need of financial proficiency, the specific concern was for those areas now reportedly overlooked in governing body discussions. The educational and research purposes of the university – and the associated commitment to ethics, community, values and social justice – were sometimes considered secondary to budgetary matters.

The mechanism through which new lay (external) governors were identified and recruited was also felt by many interviewees to be suboptimal. Most governing bodies had a sub-committee to oversee nominations, but this was sometimes characterised as a “rubber-stamping” exercise. One interviewee suggested that many new appointments were “convenient for the executive”; another expressed surprise at the “mateyness” between institutional managers and some of those charged with holding them to account.


A remarkable aspect of the project was the extent to which a similar critique was put forward by different types of members, whether lay governors, staff governors, or student governors. Most interviewees, aside from those chairing sub-committees or in other positions of designated power, mentioned feeling marginalised at times. The intersection of disempowerment and identity was captured by one interviewee who said: “I always felt like I had to make allies because I was young, because I was a woman, because I was the only student governor.”

Despite the sometimes problematic power relation sketched above, it is clear from this research that most individual governors remain an asset to their institution. They freely give their time and skills because they want to draw on their professional experiences to help oversee and improve how universities are run.

However, for many interviewees reflecting on their contribution, a sense of frustration was tangible. They felt that hierarchical cultures on governing bodies left protocols inscrutable and decision-making processes skewed. For those wanting to challenge dominant thinking, to advocate more directly on behalf of staff and students, or to reinvigorate ideas about higher education as a public good, the experience of university governance was often exasperating as much as it was stimulating.

Further work is needed to establish how the full potential of all university governors can be unleashed. Some interviewees suggested that induction events should more plainly acknowledge the sector’s difficulties, and actively seek to give new recruits the confidence to take on established traditions and pecking orders within their governing body where appropriate. Others felt that a more inclusive code of governance, focused on protecting the interests of campus communities, might act as a reminder that the scope of university governance extends beyond regulatory compliance and financial oversight. The evidence from today’s report suggests that some governing body cultures need urgent attention.

12 responses to “Cultures of university governance need urgent attention

  1. Thanks Steven! Really interesting, and I’m looking forward to reading the full report. I have not served on our Council, but recognise some of what you are saying from the governance substructures at my institution. In Higher Education, ‘governance’ has become a game to enable (executive) management decisions to be pushed through, and to insulate those at the top from criticism and accountability. Good governance is supposed to be about something very different. As Vivienne Stern put it in her inaugral speech at UUK, “For the blink of an eye, we’re the temporary custodians of our university system. We’d better try to leave it in a better state than we found it”.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Sam. I don’t recall many of the governors we interviewed using this kind of language (“custodian”, “steward”, “protector”, etc.). My sense is that many assumed that was what the role involved, but then became overwhelmed by discourses of business realism. The current model can insulate the executive, as you suggest, but only in the short term: there does seem to be a sense even among the more corporate lay/external members that the sector is left exposed if it can’t articulate its non-economic value and stand up for itself as a public institution.

  2. This is a great piece of some critical relevance to meaningful governance of British unis. These issues of democratic decision-making are observable across the education sector: see our curent project on educators in edu governance:

    1. Thank you for the comment, Abdulla. I’m aware of your research, and agree fully that the issues arsing in HE governance are observable at other education levels.

  3. This is very important research and I am not surprised by what Professor Jones has written above.

    Tax payer funded institutions with considerable independence, like Universites, FE Colleges, arms length bodies like Ofs and Quangos, have a tendency to resist change, be opaque and self cloning.

    Vacancies on Governing bodies should be displayed on local, regional and national websites in a special section of the Public Appointments website.

    1. Thanks Albert. I think your final point is particularly well made. It would make such a difference if governing bodies were required to advertise vacancies publicly for lay/external members. Almost all of our interviewees described process which may have been well-intentioned but were remarkably informal (“the old tap on the shoulder”!).

      1. In Wales we are required to advertise our lay member vacancies externally or explain why we didn’t to HEFCW under the T&Cs of funding

        1. Thanks Ruth. I really can’t think of any disadvantages to advertising lay member vacancies externally, and it would do wonders to improve perceptions of transparency within the English sector.

  4. The issue of “filtering” is a huge issue. Here in Sheffield Uni, the VC’s update at each Council focuses purely on external pressures (which are considered ‘strategic’) whilst internal problems caused by his actions are ignored (as they are deemed ‘operational’).

    I’m surprised that you did not say more in your report about the CUC Code of Governance’s recommendation for a “full and robust reviews of governance effectiveness with some degree of independent input….every three years” (p18, CUC 2020). I have been in contact with CUC regarding the complete lack of guidance relating to these reviews. Each university can determine the scope and methods used. The reports are then hidden away. And the results not communicated to staff. There needs to be clear requirements relating to how these reviews are undertaken and communicated. At the moment, many universities just see it as a box-ticking exercise.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Simon, and for the helpful email too. The strategic vs operational binary is another example of how language can be used to hinder transparency. It also implies that a neat distinction between the two is always possible!

    I agree with your critique of the CUC Code of Governance and its recommendation for reviews of governance every three years. There’s no suggestion that involving staff and/or students in those reviews might be a good idea, and I doubt many university staff will ever have seen their institution’s final reports.

    1. Strategic vs Operational – we’re coming to a good place on this now as those in governance can see that it is not so clear-cut: for governing actors to make a good strategic deciision, they need to get engaged with the operational to understand the context (not to interfere), of course.

      1. Agree. There are serious risks in separating the operational from the strategic.
        1. Every operational decision needs to align with and progress towards the strategy, or the startegy will not be fulfilled.
        2. the strategic decision making may not be fully cognisant of the operational issues, and fail to address some of the inhibitors to delivery on institutional mission.
        The two must stay connected as they are interdependent.

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