Let’s go fly a kite: Running and regulating universities

A radical rethink on governance

Smita Jamdar, Partner, Shakespeare Martineau

Governance really matters. Done badly, governance can leave institutions exposed both financially and reputationally, as examples in many other sectors and some in HE have shown. Done right, good governance creates a shared, layered and critical approach to institutional decision making which could help mitigate many of the challenges the sector faces.

Those challenges are widespread and growing: threats to funding, questions about the value and purpose of universities, rising anti-intellectualism, and a retreat from internationalism. Meeting these challenges requires strong, united voices from all those within institutions, as well as strong advocacy from those outside institutions who value them. Yet institutions seem divided, with staff and students often pitched against management, the link with external stakeholders rather tenuous and governors largely absent from the discussion altogether.

To fix this, we should shift to unitary boards (majority lay, non-executive governors but with more executive members) where there is shared responsibility and accountability for decision making and its consequences. Then we should create staff, student and external partner (business, community and civic institutions) stakeholder groups, whose roles would vary based on who they represent, but would broadly be to hold the board to account for decisions it makes that affect those groups or that adversely affect the values and reputation of the institution. Stakeholder groups could have rights ranging from making representations direct to the board, or to passing a vote of no-confidence.

Finally, being a governor is a difficult and increasingly demanding role and so appropriate time, investment in development, and remuneration needs to be available. Together these measures would help create transformative, engaged and accountable governance, well equipped to safeguard and promote institutional success.

Link VC pay to the lowest paid

Jo Grady, Senior Lecturer in Employment Relations, Sheffield University

January 4 is ‘Fat Cat Friday’, which marks the day in the year that a typical FTSE100 CEO has already earned the average wage of one of his or her employees for a whole year. Your typical vice chancellor is more modest. They won’t earn the average annual salary of a grade 3 university worker until mid-January.

The pay of vice chancellors should be linked to the lowest paid in their universities. At a time when vice chancellors’ remuneration is growing, this would at the very least eliminate exponential wage growth and in several cases rein in some of the existing egregiously high salaries awarded.

It would see vice chancellors pay linked to that of the lowest paid member of staff at the university, with the vice chancellor earning no more than fifteen times that number. But, as most university staff are, vice chancellors would also be able to apply for merit awards. If deserving, merit awards would boost their pay but would be dependent on factors such as increases in staff and student wellbeing. And under this policy vice chancellors would also be elected, rather than appointed. All full-time staff would be eligible to vote in the election, and it would be an open nomination process.

Giving students (a bit of) power

Jim Dickinson, Associate Editor, Wonkhe

Since Peter Mandelson began ramping up marketisation rhetoric in the late 1990s, there has been repeated talk of a consumer revolution in HE. Many commentators have bemoaned students thinking like consumers, but in reality students have barely gained any real power. The national focus seems to be on choosers of HE, empowered through information about their courses or institution. Meanwhile, users of HE who have a complaint or problem have been left to languish – baffled by a panoply of implied rights, disparate bodies and complex procedures that are run by providers whose legal bills often dwarf the block grants of their local students’ union.

And that’s just in the traditional part of the sector. In emerging HE, there’s a wild west of poor procedures and a complete absence of the traditions of funded advocacy that students’ unions have quietly provided alongside societies and socials.

In the NHS, patient councils ensure the voice of patients and local communities are at the centre of how the service plans and commissions healthcare. In the water industry, the regulator requires every provider to support an independent customer challenge group and independent assurance to the regulator on the quality of a company’s customer engagement – and analysis of the degree to which the results of this engagement drive decision making. Similar things happen across regulated public markets. Over in HE – where the users are often less experienced and worry lots about the provider academically judging them – the situation needs urgent attention to ensure that students are protected.

First, the OfS should require providers to be much clearer about the academic and non-academic services that providers are offering in their contracts. CMA’s advice focuses on courses and content, missing much of what students are paying for. And some body should be funded to communicate clearly to students what their rights are – to influence their education, live and study free from harm, and secure redress when wronged.

Next, OfS and OIA should require every HE provider to be compelled to appoint an independent ombudsperson of their own. It would be independent – commanding the confidence of students, academics, university managers, and taxpayers alike. It would investigate complaints, adjudicate, resolve, and ensure systemic learning from mistakes – relieving pressure on OIA

Then OfS should compel all HE providers to facilitate access to high-quality independent advocacy in the event of a complaint, appeal or contract enforcement issue – through an SU or another body – by providing funding and additional suggested behaviours in its Public Interest Conditions.

Give every library a cat

Paul Greatrix, Registrar, Nottingham University

The sector does not need more regulation. However, despite having had an enthusiastic new regulator and an expansive regulatory regime introduced last year, there are still some gaps to be filled. And we also need to address the PR gap – universities haven’t enjoyed much love from the public or the media over the past year.

First, we need to tackle those who profit hugely from exploiting students and encouraging them to cheat in their assessments. It is time to take on the parasites and introduce legislation to ban the essay mills as soon as possible.

Next, we need to plan for the introduction of post-qualification admissions in a few years. The current admissions system is completely indefensible and has resulted in all of the market-driven challenges such as the growth of unconditional offers.

Thirdly, colleagues across the sector need to set the best of examples in terms of social media behaviour. The past year has seen examples of really poor and unpleasant online commentary. It’s time to remember that we are meant to be the environment where rational discourse rules so let’s aim for politeness and civility this year.

Finally, the harmonious co-existence of students, staff and animals on university campuses needs to be promoted in the wider interest of everyone’s health. Every university library should therefore henceforth be required to adopt a cat. Some have already done so, and now every library needs to join in. Those that do not risk having a cat imposed on them later on.

5 responses to “Let’s go fly a kite: Running and regulating universities

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr Jo Grady’s suggestion on VC pay.
    One slight niggle I would point out is that as long as any pay rise is in percentage terms the trend is always exponential. So, even with linked VC pay to grade 3 pay, if grade 3 gets (say) a 2% increase, the pay increase is exponential.

    Still, that’s no argument against the policy

  2. @DW You raise a good point, more than happy to see my suggestion finessed and enhanced. It would need some careful thinking through if actually enacted.

  3. Yes, I reckon a VC’s cat would be acceptable provided that it had a university card which permitted access to all buildings.

  4. LInking VC salary to the lowest salary may lead to an unintended pressure to contract out the lowest-paid jobs. It may be better to link it to average salary and number of staff (so VCs of larger institutions would, potentially, command larger salaries than those of smaller institutions).

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