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The OfS should make university governance a top priority

Many of the criticism's recently levelled at universities could be fixed with improved governance, but will the new regulator be sufficiently ambitious to ensure reform? Jim Dickinson suggests some ways forward.
This article is more than 4 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One of the frustrating things about this summer’s “debate” on higher education, characterised largely by Andrew Adonis tweeting incendiary things and then blocking people who argue with him, has been the lack of solutions on the table from a regulatory perspective other than “please behave better”.

This isn’t altogether surprising. Adonis was always better at unleashing market forces than constraining them, and the sector’s big names are unlikely want to debate introducing new regulatory measures that might control them.

It’s also been characterised by the almost complete absence of those legally responsible for the reputation of universities – their governors. When a traditional charity gets hauled over the coals, the Charity Commission and the press play ‘Hunt the Trustee’ when apportioning blame. But over in universities, Adonis has been suggesting that vice chancellors pay themselves large salaries, rather than their remuneration committees and governing bodies.

It’s interesting because a central plank of the sector’s prized “institutional autonomy” is its governing bodies. These gatherings of the great and good set strategy (or at least discuss it on away days), set performance measures (or at least obsess about league tables), and generally politely nod their way through paperwork that few of us working in or around universities ever see, let alone critique.

The governors’ precious autonomy is often naughtily conflated with academic freedom, and regulation is generally resisted on these terms. A useful rule of thumb is to test resistance to institutional autonomy on the basis of whether institutions should be free to do the opposite of the regulatory intent: “but I want my university to be free to deliver a course completely inferior to the one I’ve sold to a student” said no vice chancellor (out loud) ever.

The ‘public interest’

But there’s good news. Buried in the Higher Education and Research Act was a requirement for OfS to “determine and publish a list of principles applicable to the governance of English higher education providers”, where such conditions will require a provider’s governing documents “to be consistent with the principles… those that the OfS considers will help to ensure that English higher education providers perform their functions in the public interest”.

The core of these is protection for academic freedom; academic staff should have “have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions”. Hopefully OfS can extend that right to those colleagues in Unison as well those in UCU, and to students and their representatives too.

The most urgent problem that one of these principles should set to fix is, of course, remuneration. Whilst some of Adonis’ tweeting has been sensationalist and off beam, the sector’s discomfort at his summer of attacks underlines the problem that, despite the data being available for some years, vice chancellors’ salaries were regarded as a dirty little secret.

Given higher education institutions’ public obligations, very basic changes could be made here. Many of them have actually been in the Committee of University Chair’s voluntary code yet ignored. Pay policies should be explicit. Minutes should be a matter of public record. Students and staff ought to be members of remuneration committees and universities should be compelled to monitor, record and publish pay ratios between their “top” and “bottom” salaries. And OfS should work with other regulators, quangos, and other quasi-public bodies to research what interventions might work at keeping costs down instead of the unintended consequence of greater transparency causing salaries to rise.

A judge of character

Governing bodies are typically also responsible for determining the educational character and mission of their institution. In practical terms this tends to manifest through bland and barely distinguishable mission statements, whilst the ravages of the market and regulation do the real decision making on provision.

But these mission statements ought to provide clarity on what a university will provide, and what it won’t; who it is aimed at, and who it isn’t aimed at. It should outline principles that guide where cross subsidies go, where effort should be placed, and what should be protected when under threat. The OfS should flesh out and strengthen the educational character and mission duty, ensuring that governors are evaluating and institution’s activity against these statements.

Responsibility, diversity, and transparency

Much of the debate on university and charity governance focusses on the relationship between governors, managers, and staff. But both the new Charity Governance Code and Code of Good Governance for Colleges emphasise accountability of institutions and their governing bodies to the wider world. This is a classic public interest issue. Universities are major employers and them and their students can have huge impacts (positive and negative) on their local area and region, yet often their engagement strategies focus too narrowly on public understanding of research.

Bill Rammell’s HEPI paper on the public interest argues that all universities should identify their ‘publics’ and devise appropriate ways of engaging with and becoming accountable to them. One of the OfS’s new list of principles should take this idea on and develop it, ensuring that the public and their representatives can assert their interests to institutions clearly, and get responses on how these will be met.

University governing bodies – whether members are from public, private , educational, or voluntary sector backgrounds – have long been dominated by male, pale and stale memberships. It is welcome that HESA and the Leadership Foundation will now be collecting diversity statistics on governors, but it is long overdue. OfS should go further – building on developments in the charity sector – to ensure governing bodies also look at participation barriers, meeting accessibility, and the active setting and monitoring of diversity objectives.

And although almost all higher education institutions argue that their governing body’s business should be open, tempered only by commercial sensitivity or material on individual grievance, large swathes of governing body paperwork is nonetheless marked confidential. This prevents public scrutiny and comparability of governance practices between institutions. The OfS principles and their associated guidance need to crack this nut, finding a way to ensure that confidentiality is the exception, not the norm.

User voice

Well designed public interest governance should start by identifying the principle beneficiaries of an organisation, and then seek to given them a voice in decision making. In the aforementioned FE Code there’s a whole section dedicated to student voice, covering corporation membership, culture and oversight of student representation. In the Charity Commission Code there are sections on beneficiary input and the role of members. The CUC HE Code falls significantly short in comparison, only mentioning the role of student members of governing bodies, and regulatory duties towards students’ unions. A major principle in the new OfS list should therefore be student representation and student voice, with both the governing bodies itself and institutional cultures working to involve and be responsible to students when making decisions.

There are plenty of other ideas around for improving governance in universities. The fiduciary duty of governors alone – when compared against HEFCE’s recent financial health checks – ought to cause us real concern.

But perhaps most obviously, charity trustees are supposedly responsible for their charity’s reputation. This summer, the governors of UK universities have manifestly failed in that duty. Self regulation is clearly failing. For the sake of universities’ collective reputation, it’s time for the OfS to act.

4 responses to “The OfS should make university governance a top priority

  1. Excellent to see this raised.

    However, how do we deal with situations where the VC has stuffed the governing body with his chums (or people who owe him favours), chaired his own remuneration committee, illegally fired union reps and then given them shush money, and in short shafted the whole university for his personal benefit? How would such a university be forced to reform?

    Not thinking of anywhere in particular, though it might involve a yacht and a Bentley.

  2. You would be surprised at how much some local worthies, sportsmen, actors etc esteem the title Doctor and (in ignorance) and relish its application to them, so borrowing medical and academic credibility without any of the hard work – by now there must be many thousands of them around the UK.

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