The last two years have seen universities out of step with their local communities over Brexit, at odds with the public and ministers on vice chancellor pay and, most recently, at war with their own staff in a bitter pensions dispute.
One of the causes is undoubtedly due to governance, but rather than the current governance structures being too archaic, perhaps the truth is that they are are not archaic enough.
What makes the recent drum-beat of crises all the more startling is the contrast between the self-evident quality of leadership in some parts of the HE community and the way the sector as a whole has consistently found itself on the wrong side of the argument.
I’ve had the privilege of working with a large number of vice chancellors and pro vice chancellors over the last few years and have consistently been struck by their calibre. Intelligent – yes, obviously – but also passionate, insightful and genuinely committed to the values of the academy.
Far more than in many sectors, academia’s leaders are promoted from within, giving them genuine insight into the day-to-day running of a university. However they may sometimes be caricatured, academic leaders are as far from being self-interested profit-seekers as it would be possible to get.
So why, then, are universities so often getting it wrong? I agree with Sam Gyimah: “this is not a blip”, not a passing storm that can be weathered by battening down the hatches. And the answer to the problem, surely, must lie with governance.
The Humboldtian university
One of the most counter-intuitive phenomena of the last few decades is the way that while universities have, rightly, fought tooth and nail to resist any attempt by government to encroach upon institutional autonomy or academic freedom, they have simultaneously and blithely abandoned the one element of the Humboldtian university that was entirely within their own control: the notion of a university as a self-governing community of scholars.
Certainly, Jarratt and Dearing made recommendations about governance but – for all their totemic status – these were relatively modest, and in no way demanded the wholesale retreat into corporate-style governance that we see today.
Furthermore, both were independent reviews: even if government did, inevitably, play a role in shaping their findings and the response to them, at no point has any government passed legislation, primary or secondary, that mandates a particular form of university governance.
The case of the post-92 universities is, of course, somewhat different: in the polytechnics, sovereignty never rested with staff. But while they rapidly assumed the other traditions of universities, from institutional autonomy to the ability to award their own degrees, the idea of becoming a self-governing community of scholars was unaccountably overlooked.
The claim, of course, is that governance by academics is inadequate for the trials of the 21st century, and that only so-called “modern” corporate governance can thrive in the digital age. Such claims have little basis in fact.
If we consider Oxford and Cambridge – which almost uniquely, have maintained their status as self-governing communities – we see the hollowness of such arguments. Not only have they maintained their preeminence within the UK, where one could argue that they have certain inbuilt advantages, they have preserved and even enhanced their global status against much better funded international rivals. Furthermore, they have achieved this while maintaining their ethos.
To choose just one example, it is notable that at neither, unlike at some other research-intensive universities, did the focus on teaching ever diminish, even though their research prowess and international reputation would have allowed it.
None of this is to say that no reforms were necessary during the 1980s. The Jarratt Report undoubtedly addressed a variety of deep-seated institutional malaises, and his recommendations, read 30 years later, read as both modest and sensible.
The point is that reform could have occurred within the framework of a self-governing community of scholars, rather than by abandoning it. While it may sometimes be convenient in the short-term for an executive team to make decisions without having to justify them to the academic community, in the long term such sidelining may not lead to better decisions.
What does academic self-governance mean?
It’s important to be clear what academic self-governance means, particularly as it can be misrepresented by those who wish to discredit it. It does not mean every decision is made by a plenary of several thousand scholars, any more than representative democracy necessitates weekly referenda.
Nor does it mean that a university board or council cannot draw in expertise from external members, perhaps from business or other charities, or from students. Cambridge’s reforms in the early 90s, which created a full-time, long-duration vice-chancellorship, demonstrates the importance of a strong central executive within a self-governing model.
In fact, the Oxbridge experience of centralisation is in some ways misleading: in a non-collegiate university, the central executive would almost certainly remain far stronger than in our two most ancient universities.
But what it does mean is that ultimate sovereignty in the institution is vested in its academic members via a congregation or assembly – which would, ideally, include key professional and technical staff as well as academics.
The congregation would elect members to the university’s council, including approving the appointment of the vice chancellor and other senior figures; provide a forum to which the most important strategic decisions can be brought; and, in extremis – as recent events at Oxford have demonstrated – provide a means whereby the executive can be held to account and overruled.
On a day-to-day basis, the executive should be left free to administer, but always knowing that it was ultimately accountable to the congregation.
There is no reason why academic self-governance should be only for the elite. It is clearly neither the only, nor – by itself – a sufficient solution to the demands for greater accountability that are sweeping the sector. But it is one that lies entirely within each university’s own gift: there is no need for collective action, government regulation or additional funding.
As vice chancellors seek to rebuild relationships with their staff and communities, will any dare to make their universities into true self-governing communities of scholars? Not merely by token gestures, but through vesting genuine sovereign power, in the manner described above, in an academic congregation.
It would be a powerful move, both symbolically and practically, with the potential to have a long-term positive impact on their institution’s ethos. And as an added bonus, it might just increase the sector’s credibility when it seeks to defend other elements of the Humboldtian vision.