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The wonderful and frightening world of university governance

Getting governance right remains a critical issue for universities, and Paul Greatrix has been reading a book on that very subject
This article is more than 4 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Getting governance right remains a critical issue for universities and is particularly important in a period of significant challenge and regulatory turbulence.

Whilst it sometimes might all seem a bit dull, difficult or long term for institutions and governors, individually and collectively, to address governance matters where there appear to be more pressing concerns, it is nevertheless vital that university leaders do not take their eye off the governance ball.

With governance challenges making headlines at universities around the country the issue is now likely to feature more prominently on many universities’ risk registers, especially as the impact of such problems may be severe. Where it goes wrong it can go really badly wrong as some of the examples at UK universities from De Montfort to Swansea recently demonstrate.

Despite the relatively low profile of governance compared to other big sector issues, it is a critical factor in institutional success. While good governance can’t compensate for poor management, poor governance can seriously hinder a university’s progress, lead to a major diversion of effort and resources and hold an institution back for months or years. At the very least a governance-generated crisis can represent a major diversion for university leaders and governors and result in significant lost opportunities or missed targets.

Many in the sector, including some of those in leadership positions, are sometimes rather under-informed about governance matters. This is partly because unless you have direct exposure to the operation of a governing body, either as a member or by attending meetings, it is quite difficult to get a real sense of what is going on. But it’s also down to the relatively limited range of research covering this critical topic.

Brought to book

I was particularly pleased therefore to acquire a copy of this recent book from Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath which offered the prospect of a new and helpful oversight of university governance issues.

Entitled The Governance of British Higher Education: The Impact of Governmental, Financial and Market Pressures, you can find full details via the publisher

Drawing on the authors’ investigation of the governance of higher education in the four UK nations, including extensive on-site interviews, and discussions with government policy-makers, the book shows how global, national and system level pressures have changed the face both of the external governance of higher education institutions and how universities govern themselves. Government priorities, new funding methodologies and marketisation have all played a part in this process. Since the mid-1980s, there have been drastic changes in the external environment, reinforced by the increasing diversity within the higher education system as a whole and between the national sub-systems. In addition a new private sector of higher education has been created. New forms of institutional governance are emerging which may have profound effects on research and teaching and on academic creativity and innovation. The study discusses the effects of a state regulated system compared with the more heterarchical system which preceded it. It offers a comparison of the effects of devolved governance to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on the respective higher education systems and their impact on institutional governance. The study concludes that England is becoming increasingly an outlier, and discusses the long term implications for the coherence of a British higher education system.

There have also been some exceptionally complimentary initial reviews:

“the definitive account of [higher education changes] and their implications for the governance and management of UK universities and the sustainability of 2019 arrangements…will come to be seen as a classic of the genre.”

“An admirable assessment of the changes in system and institutional governance during a critical period. It updates Shattock’s own previous work with new empirical evidence, razor sharp analysis and wise conclusions.”

“A masterpiece using the British devolution as a laboratory for higher education analysis.”

Does the book live up to this? Not quite. Although very much focused on England, there is an exploration of models from all four nations and the divergence in governance approaches together with a broader global assessment. There is a strong and useful introduction which covers the history of university regulation, governance and management, particularly over the past 30 years following the watershed legislation of 1992 which ultimately resulted in greater disruption, diversification and regulation in the sector.

Chapter 2 describes the shift over the past century from a wholly self-governing to a more highly regulated system and articulates both system governance and institutional governance up to the introduction of the new Office for Students. The authors argue that the effect of OfS powers is that the new rules mean that universities have moved from substantive autonomy to “operational autonomy, which is circumscribed by the new Framework Regulations”. This is a significant development from the previous regime in England where “HEFCE represented a force of advocacy towards sensible and institutionally manageable decisions on policy”.

A helpful chapter covers the impact of devolved government and describes the divergence of systems across UK which includes some significant differences, not just in terms of fees but the political context too. There are still many common features, including regulatory and structural, but major differences too. Whilst Northern Ireland and Wales are covered the focus is mainly on Scotland, where much of the governance action is. The impact of fee divergence in Scotland is noted but also the Higher Education Governance legislation of 2016 which was intended to “democratize” university governance (see also this previous piece on the topic) and prescribed the composition of governing bodies, a step which it is argued is the only area since the 1992 Act where any government has sought to legislate on governance. Which may be true, technically, but the impact of the HERA in England has had a significant effect on governance in English institutions as indeed is acknowledged later in the book where it is suggested that HERA is a much more significant intervention than that of the SNP government in Scotland and represents the “most far-reaching assertion of the state’s power of governance control in the modern history of British higher education”.

Ringing the changes

Reviewing the changing pattern of institutional governance the authors set out the clear structural divide between pre- and post-1992 institutions and argue that, even post-Jarratt, in the pre-92s Senates “remained the beating heart of university governance” with Councils still playing more of a critical friend role. More recently though system change, including significant diversification driven by institutional ambition, league tables, student number growth, creation of a market, has completely overturned this. The text goes on to review a range of changes which have impacted on governance over the past 40 years from the 1981 cuts, the 1992 Act, Jarratt in 1985, Dearing and CUC and suggests that all have revived governing bodies. In addition the 2016 requirement from HEFCE for the governing body to provide assurance on quality and standards was a really significant development which not only added to the regulatory burden, but led to a blurring of responsibilities in terms of the governance/management divide.

Furthermore, it is posited that “senates do not feel the sense of ownership of the university that they certainly felt in the 1980s and 1990s”. There is something of a rosy nostalgia about the role of senates here in university governance but the reality is that the context in which universities are operating in the first quarter of the 21st century is radically different from the 80s and 90s and, whatever one thinks of the extent of marketisation of higher education, it is the world in which institutions have no choice but to operate and governance structures have to respond accordingly. The authors stress that senate powers will be further weakened “as governing bodies are tempted to exercise their powers under the new HEFCE [and presumably OfS] requirements”. However, this is less about temptation than regulatory demands.

Looking at the development of university executive boards it is argued that the use of head hunters and the growth in external appointments has changed the character of such boards. When all appointments were internal then leaders would be regarded as having one foot in the academic community but external appointees owe their first loyalty to the Vice-Chancellor. All such boards are now viewed as being similar, with greater turnover and less academic integration than before.

Lay of the land

The authors set out what they call the “laicisation” of governance, which started with the Lambert report of 2003, and has been achieved without consultation but reinforced via new accountability requirements, the diminishing the role of the senate and the gradual disempowerment of the academic community. When a university is doing well, it is suggested, the governing body functions as a sounding board but when less successful “the governing body can become utterly dominant”. However, the institution has to retain academic commitment or it simply won’t solve the problems it faces – the authors argue that even talented governing bodies do not have the experience or expertise to address academic matters and their capacity to do so is overestimated. This is a powerful case but the authors are at the same time unfairly dismissive of the role of students in governance, suggesting they operate “in a rather cosy world” rather than the really positive partnership which is more often the case.

The Committee of University Chairs or CUC comes in for criticism too as being “essentially a compliant organisation, taking its tone from a largely quiescent Universities UK” and going along with Dearing/Lambert line of increasing the power of governing bodies. Shattock and Horvath argue that what we have now is no longer a partnership of lay and academic members but it is this which has driven the successful expansion of British HE since the 60s. This really is too simplistic an analysis though and whilst there have undoubtedly been significant developments away from senates and towards governing bodies the principles of shared governance remain in place in large part even if this is not a term in common use in UK HE.

Purely academic

The comments from senior leaders and academics interviewed by the authors are generally critical of the capacity of governance structures to facilitate academic work, enable open discussion and the freedom to explore new ideas as well as providing the conditions to stimulate good teaching and ensuring the right climate for research. One commentator also suggests that academics are losing an “extraordinary amount of autonomy” because of marketisation and managerial interference and:

Criticisms that universities have become too top-down in their governance, and are insufficiently bottom-up, that good academic work is stifled by over-regulation and bureaucracy, and that too much academic business is now handled by non-academic professionals, are commonplace.

In terms of day-to-day academic life, it is argued that REF has institutionalised competition between departments and individuals and encourages “outright managerialism and various forms of top-down compulsion”. TEF and other regulatory demands also lead to further burdens at all levels in institutions but the “accretion of top-down management, mostly arising from increased demands for accountability, is in danger of stifling individual initiative and originality”.

The authors refer (somewhat nostalgically) here and elsewhere to Clark’s conception of the “central steering core” which is at the heart of a university embracing central management and academic departments and which reconciles managerial and academic values. But this body is now becoming a central “directing body” with a mainly ex officio membership “made up largely of people appointed from outside the institution, backed up by an army of professional staff who owe their primary allegiance to the executive rather than the institution as a whole.” This directing body the authors argue takes big decisions outside the framework of academic decision-making, dispenses with debate and academic argument and is “inimical to the conditions that produce good academic work”. This is something of an overstatement, as is the suggestion that the bicameral structure is being dismantled. Rather the issue facing institutions is about how to ensure the right ways to involve the academic voice meaningfully in a very changed environment. I would also take issue with the suggestion that professional staff allegiance is not primarily towards the institution.

The trump card here in the analysis of why the new governance developments are moving in the wrong direction is the success of Oxbridge: “Britain’s two most successful universities in world league table terms are entirely academically self-governed and have no lay governing bodies at all.” Beyond the Oxbridge model the authors suggest making the executive more accountable to the governing body and the academic community, including by requiring it to report to senate as well as the council. In addition they argue there should be more internal appointments to senior positions and the academic voice should be restored to academic boards and senates: academics “need to be at the heart of university governance, not, as in some institutions, at the periphery”. The reality though is that almost all non-external members involved in governance are academics, from the Vice-Chancellor down.

All around the world

Looking at the broader global picture there is a suggestion here that the UK is isolated, neglectful and complacent about its international position. The authors argue that the attraction for some operating at the higher levels of governance has been franchising and lucrative international student fees rather than the merits of international research collaboration and this is suggested as a major and unhelpful imbalance.

It is noted that in line with the broader globalisation of HE, an overarching international infrastructure of governance has come into being from the EU to UNESCO to OECD. UKHE it is suggested has proved reluctant to engage and learn from this new architecture and from the governance frameworks of other nations and senior university officials are not connected to this international HE governance architecture. I am not at all sure that this line about learning from governance elsewhere is really the issue here – system level learnings may be of interest and international collaboration is vital for success but governance is rooted in more local historical and cultural traditions and the legal framework within which HE operates means there is it little scope for change unless happens at national level. It is right to say that the UK should play a part in the global governance architecture but it is reasonable to suggest it already does so appropriately.

There is a very brief section on students which concludes that the student “has become accepted as an important and routine component of university governance”, a proposition with which it is hard to argue but really understates the significance of student input at every level of governance in today’s university.

End of the line

All in all there are plenty of tasty nuggets in here for governance aficionados and a really helpful historical overview (and also a genuinely outstanding list of acronyms). The issues raised are critical for the future of higher education in all parts of the UK but the analysis, whilst unarguable in places, is sometimes too broadly articulated to provide much assistance to those involved in dealing with the challenges of the current sector environment. There is much to like therefore but the remedies offered, whilst attractive in principle are, I would suggest, too rooted in a historical perspective and feel rather removed from the present realities to be particularly helpful to university leaders.

It feels that insufficient space was given to fleshing out a conception of shared governance which is hinted at in places; there is a third way between golden age Oxbridge nostalgia and a rather crudely characterised brutal market-led managerialism, a model which offers a more collegial and collaborative approach to university governance and which could have provided something genuinely valuable. Perhaps we will get more in the follow up. In the meantime, there is nevertheless plenty in here for governance wonks to enjoy.

3 responses to “The wonderful and frightening world of university governance

  1. great review Paul, thanks. having worked in universities since the 1980’s I think the view that senate were the bearing heart of governance might refer to rather a short list of institutions! As regards Oxford and Cambridge, no one can deny their success but I suspect that the fact that they cost about twice as much to run per unit of output in terms of graduates and research may be a factor, good governance is less important if resources are plentiful.


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