The Imperfect University: Governance goings on north of the border

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Governance and government

There seem to be governance problems all over UK higher education at the moment. Arguably though some of the biggest governance challenges are currently being faced by institutions in Scotland. One of Mike Russell’s final acts as Education Secretary in the Scottish Government was to launch a consultation on proposals for change to university governance.

The consultation has not come from nowhere. Back in May 2012 I wrote about a review of governance in higher education in Scotland which had been led by the Principal of Robert Gordon University. At that time this seemed to me to be problematic in all sorts of ways but primarily because of its highly prescriptive nature and the new constraints on institutional autonomy which would be the consequence of its implementation.

The Scottish Government’s response to the review indicated that it was pretty keen on most of the recommendations. Whilst universities’ public responses to this highly challenging position were, inevitably, rather restrained there was real anxiety about the implications if introduced. Part of the response therefore was for the Committee of Scottish Chairs (CSC) of universities to pick up the recommendation for the development of a code of governance which was published in 2013.

This pretty sensible document, which offers a rather rational response to the more outlandish proposals, does seem to have resulted in some changes in Scottish universities as the review one year on from implementation shows.

scottish code

And it does seem to have had an influence on the latest version (currently draft) of the Code of Governance being produced by the Committee of University Chairs for the whole of the UK too.

Lots of questions. Few answers

The consultation itself has a host of questions – 31 in fact – many of which invite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or, unlike the recent referendum, ‘don’t know’ options.

It will be interesting to see the level of engagement with this consultation. However, it is difficult to imagine how the subtleties and complexities of higher education governance matters can be adequately captured by this rather crude approach. The key question remains though about what problems these proposals are intended to solve.

Our vision for this legislation is to build on the strengths the sector already has by creating provisions which will modernise and strengthen governance, and embed the principles of democracy and accountability in the higher education sector now and for the future. Our aim is not to increase Ministerial control over institutions, but to support our institutions to develop their own governance systems to enable them to continue to reach their full potential.

Laudable stuff perhaps but in total the proposals do seem to increase Ministerial control and direction rather than allowing institutions to develop their own systems. And if institutions are already reaching their full potential, why start messing around with governance?

Big changes proposed

Looking at the proposals, they cover six broad areas for change:

  • Privy Council
  • Academic Freedom
  • Role of Principals
  • Chairing of Governing Bodies
  • Membership of Governing Bodies
  • Composition of Academic Boards and Appointment of Members

On the Privy Council issue, this really is not a problem that needs solving. Making changes to Statutes via the Privy Council can take a little time but it is hardly a huge burden. Establishing a specific Scottish Government Committee simply seems unnecessary and, arguably, leaves institutional governance issues more open to political interference in future.

Are current definitions of academic freedom really that unclear? And do they really need to codify the “freedom to encourage new ideas”? Surely this is so fundamental to academic existence it doesn’t need to be spelt out in this way?

Scottish government

Principals are to be seen as Chief Executive Officers. But we can’t call them that so we should stick with “Principal”. That’s all pretty clear then

Each chair of a governing body requires a public advert, a transparent process and a competitive selection process. This seems to me to be an overly specified and quite unwarranted level of interference in institutional autonomy. These are important roles but surely it is for governing bodies themselves to determine how to select their chairs.

Membership of the governing body is also over-specified. It simply is not clear why standardisation is felt to be necessary in this way. Requiring ancient institutions to follow the modern university pattern ignores their traditions and successes. The same can be said about the over-specification of academic board composition. This really should not be in the realm of government to dictate. Whilst there are issues about diversity of governing bodies, the first annual report on the governance code does indicate some real progress in this area with, for example, five of the most recent six appointments as chairs of governing bodies being women.

Solutions in search of a problem

Again it is really unclear what problems these recommendations are intended to solve. Will any of these changes enhance institutional performance, improve the student learning experience, lead to new research breakthroughs and knowledge transfer developments? No. The proposals do very little to promote collegiality and offer very little prospect of any form of enhancement. Rather the whole package looks like a one-way ticket to reduced autonomy, more standardisation and greater government control over higher education in Scotland.

On the plus side the consultation does include a handy glossary with the rarely used reminder of the origins of Papal Bulls:

Papal Bulls: documents issued by the Pope, these are the instruments which founded the ‘ancient’ universities. The name is derived from the lead seal (bulla) traditionally affixed to such documents.

Tidy governance, tidy outcomes?

There is an equilibrium within universities. Governance structures are part of a system of checks and balances which have evolved over years, decades or even centuries in different ways in different universities. This standardised approach simply won’t work for the majority of institutions. By messing around with the mechanics of governance in this way there is a very real risk of some highly undesirable outcomes. Pleasingly tidy governance doesn’t necessarily deliver great educational outcomes. One size fits all doesn’t really work in a diverse higher education system.

These really are solutions in search of problems. We should stick to the Code of Governance approach.

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