Governing the academic(s)

How are our universities governed? Badly, according to critics. Universities become bigger and more complex every year, but in private, Whitehall departments are said to describe the way in which universities are governed as “bogus professionalism” – archaic structures, amateur volunteers and rigid, unresponsive processes.

With more money, more regulation, and more need for accountability, there’s increasing pressure on corporate governance to prove it is up to the job. But what about academic governance?

Most universities in the UK maintain a dual system, where academic matters are dealt with via a senate or academic board, and corporate matters via a council or governing body. There are lively debates about the skills, knowledge and even remuneration of governing body members – but on the academic side there is little discussion of structures that seem ineffective and stuck in time. Arguably, the rise of unconditional offers and tackling grade inflation are two signature academic issues where governance ought to have had a role. But did it?

Standards matter

For all UK providers with degree awarding powers, academic governance has to reach a clear standard. There must be sound academic governance with “integrity in all respects”, so that there can be “full public confidence in the integrity of the provider’s qualifications”. It has to be effective, and have clear and appropriate lines of accountability for its academic responsibilities.

Academic policies have to support the mission aims and objectives, policies and procedures have to be developed in collaboration with staff and students, and in England while a footnote makes clear that providers “are free to determine the criteria for the admission of students”, OfS expects providers to “ensure that whatever criteria is used, students’ support needs are identified and acted upon”.

As such, given the predictable press outcry over unconditional offers and the worry that universities are merely filling “bums on seats”, we might expect there to be plenty of evidence of robust debate surrounding offer making manifesting in the academic governance of providers.

The trouble is, there isn’t. A trawl through the sector’s academic board and senate minutes reveals the occasional glance at the practice, or a retrospective look at their use – but no proper debate, and hardly any policy. It might be that some don’t consider its use to be an academic issue at all – but another trawl of board of governors/council papers don’t reveal much either. Either the decision to use unconditional offers has been robustly debated and then redacted on the basis of commercial confidentiality, or it’s not been properly debated at all.

Demonstrating divergence

This might be a problem. Unconditional offers have both fierce critics and robust defenders, but there’s barely a university that can demonstrate this divergence of views in their governance. Some argue that the nature of the competitive market means that they’re inevitable – but does freedom to do something always automatically mean that it has to be done? Unconditional offers raise questions of academic standards, reputation, ensuring students can cope – and moral questions about a tactic which arguably preys on the success anxiety of young people in the context of mental health concerns, and could result in a student making the wrong choice of university for them.

Doesn’t the sector depend on the governance of universities – either corporate or academic – to demonstrate deeper thinking about these issues, accountability for the strategies and a proper eye on implications for the system and society?

The accountability question matters. A scan of most universities’ governing body papers reveals plenty of “looking up” to the regulator, which dominates senates and academic boards too – but what about accountability to the public, to the community, to students, to staff and to society? In comparison to the voluntary sector, vice chancellors have higher pay, a lower profile and almost no public “cover” from their chairs when issues break in the press. Why?

Perhaps the desire to drive change and avoid conflict, justified on the basis of competition law, is allowing controversial academic decisions to fall between the cracks. It may be a way to cope now, but a surefire way to court external regulation is to suppress internal scrutiny.

In Scotland, things differ – but not significantly. The review of governance  at old universities has introduced democracy onto governing bodies and quotas for staff and students on academic boards, with board diversity quotas a hot topic across the public sector. But without a clearer definition of what should be discussed, and how, Scotland will have fixed academic governance structures without fixing the culture.

Trust in the sector

Then there’s the question of trust. Outside of the specifics of pay and pensions, a broader look at the themes emerging from industrial strife in HE turns up the hashtag #wearetheuniversity – with academics resisting marketisation, regulation and casualisation. Of course in legal and regulatory terms “the university” is the board and council – hence a focus from Advance HE on ensuring that governors understand academic matters as well as issues of finance and buildings.

But in our dual system of traditions, if we assume that the hashtag should mean a collective academic view, we might expect those sentiments to be being reflected in discussions at senates and academic boards. As our articles on Wonkhe point out today, both university leadership and staff don’t seem to trust these structures as methods for deliberation, debate or dissemination – let alone resistance.

Writing back in 2009, the late David Watson argued that in “the age of austerity” universities would need to keep financial discipline and academic innovation on the same page – governing bodies, he argued, could not do effective strategy without the cooperation and the leadership of the academic.

“Clever ideas will continue to be very welcome”, he wrote. They still are.

One response to “Governing the academic(s)

  1. Interesting set of articles here, and a real issue. I would simply say: again, these are the unexpected outcomes of treating higher education as a market. The problems of unconditional offers and grade inflation are not those that will be solved by governance within a single institution, for itself. One of the best ways of keeping a governing board happy is to show that the institutional practices and policies are comparable to those of comparable institutions. No wonder that HEIs work as ‘rational actors’ when conditions are in place for them to do this. The solution has to come from above. Sadly, this won’t come from the present government, who, going from recent accounts in the press, are happy with grade inflation as long as it’s the ‘right’ kind of grade inflation, i.e. at a level below that of the highly implausible.

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