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Governance of UK universities: what’s going on?

Good governance of universities has never mattered so much, but it never seems to be high on the agenda. Today we announce a new research project aimed at understanding governance in HE and helping the sector improve this vital part of university leadership.
This article is more than 8 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Ben is a Partner at Minerva, the executive recruitment agency.

Leading universities is a complicated business, never more so than now.

Governing bodies across UK universities face uncertainty about the future of the sector, and at the same time are being given increasing amounts of responsibility: for instance, the Government recently handed governors the dubious responsibility for ensuring that no extreme activity takes place on campus and HEFCE’s consultation on quality assurance envisages a greater role for governors. However the former ends up in the policymaking process, consensus exists that external regulation of universities should be more risk-based and a new regulatory landscape, encompassing quality and much more, is currently being developed.

That risk is ultimately going to be the responsibility of governors to assess, manage, plan for, and sometimes even shoulder themselves.

At exactly this moment of increased responsibility, there appear to be growing tensions in governance. Gossip about fallings-out between governing bodies and executive teams is common and there have been a string of hasty departures of vice chancellors over the last few years. Much of the business of governance needs to happen behind closed doors for good reason, but it has been suggested that perhaps the balance has been tipped too far: necessary confidentiality often ending up as a culture of secrecy, transparency only existing in so far as statutory responsibility encourages, and no further.gender-balance-button-wonkhe

One of the casualties of this dynamic is that it makes it hard for the rest of the sector to learn from others’ mistakes – the rumour mill plugs some gaps in information but it is not reliable enough to help make things better. A lack of transparency also means that the many varied stakeholders of universities become less connected to their institutions because such an important part of institutional governance is obscured from view.

There’s also lots to celebrate about the current system – the remarkable resilience of universities in choppy funding and regulatory waters, the commitment, engagement and value brought by governing bodies across the sector, the disproportionate levels of excellence that thrives in UK HE compared to other systems around the world. No universities have yet to “exit the market” – to borrow a term from Jo Johnson – despite repeated predictions that one or more universities are overdue for failure.

Outside the boardrooms, change is on the horizon. Whilst there’s much to play for, universities’ place in our society is on the move. And so it feels like the right time to look inwards and upwards at our leadership and ask who is steering the ship? How are things working on the bridge? How involved are the rest of the crew in the perpetual higher education voyage?

These questions – and many more besides – are why Wonkhe and Minerva have started a fresh programme of work on governance in UK HE, which launches today and we hope will run for some time.

To start our work we’ve built a database of every governor in the UK. We wanted to know who they are, where they come from, and how easy it was to find that information (it wasn’t always easy at all). We’re thinking about how we might best publish the dataset for others to use, but in the meantime, it gives rise to many fascinating questions.

To begin with, we wanted to know what the gender balance on governing bodies looked liked across the UK. Our first snapshot of this research is published here today, and other themes will follow in the coming weeks and months.

4 responses to “Governance of UK universities: what’s going on?

  1. Interesting project. In these sort of areas, Universities tend to compare themselves with institutions in other countries or with big companies but sometimes worth looking at rest of the education system. State sector schools and colleges are both education charities governed by volunteer trustees

    AoC’s board composition survey (60% response rate for an estimated college governor population of 5,400) reported that 40% of governors are female:

    University of Bath’s 2014 report on school governors (a sample of 7,700 for a population of 350,000 but, oddly, I can’t see anything on gender balance – lots of other good stuff)

  2. “No universities have yet to “exit the market” – to borrow a term from Jo Johnson – despite repeated predictions that one or more universities are overdue for failure.”

    Wrong! Heythrop College (part of the University of London) is shutting down, saying:

    “We are just too small to carry the necessary regulatory, administrative and student services costs which any autonomous institution needs to carry these days”

    1. HESA keep a complete list of HEIs exiting the sector (although not the alternative providers) at I think 2009/10 is the only year since HESA began with no exits at all. However, strictly, few of these HEIs were universities.

      It is notable that the rate of exit in this century has been much slower than in the last. Back in the 90s it was common for four or five providers to exit in a year. Now it is rarely more than one or two.

  3. Not university-related as such, but for a year or so I have been trying to apply the expectations of the HE Code of Governance to Boards of Governance in two small independent HE colleges, with some success. The gender balance in both of the Boards is around 50-50 male-female and the benefits of having independent external members are considerable. I have even applied the same approach to a Board in a large ELT provider in the Republic of Ireland, again, with some success.

    Ian C Fleming

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