University governorship should not be like marriage

The pejorative comment most commonly used by Whitehall departments (in private, if not in public) to describe the way in which universities are led and managed is “bogus professionalism”.

Rampant grade inflation in the award of top degrees, endless stories of over-paid vice chancellors, the National Audit Office assertion of miss-selling, and the revelation that only one in three HE students consider their course offers value for money all suggest that such criticism is not without foundation.

Given that universities do not appear to be keeping their houses in order or effectively holding their senior management to account, the view is that governance is at fault.   

A challenging role

Universities are distinctive professional bureaucracies and governing them – like leading and managing them – is more challenging than ever. They have experienced change over the last generation that has been unprecedented.

Universities have successfully responded to successive government demands to engage with business and communities, develop knowledge transfer, diversify income streams, improve research rankings and so on. Indeed universities have accommodated a tripling of student numbers while assimilating a 50 per cent reduction in the unit of public funding.

The task of governance has been made even more challenging still as universities are increasingly “hollowing out” their activities or shrinking their traditional core (full-time faculty, student services, and libraries) while expanding their peripheries (outsourcing partnerships, discrete research institutes, sponsored research, licence and patent activity, corporate training) – leaving governing bodies with a “paradox of scope” or less control over more things.

Are governors prepared?

All of which begs questions of the preparedness of university governors for their role in this new HE environment. Universities naturally want their governing bodies to be packed with the best diverse talent on offer from a variety of professions and backgrounds, and many provide induction programmes often in conjunction with Advance HE to support their new governors in navigating the HE Code of Governance developed by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC).

As useful and informative as this practical guidance may be, the question remains: is this sufficient in itself to equip governors to be effective in facing up to the new demands of their role – as well as to be held to account for their actions as governors?

License to practice

Governorship should not be like marriage – a learn-as-you-go partnership. Other areas of university practice have become increasingly professionalised – tutors with more formal teaching qualifications; student services with external customer service accreditation; researchers and managers with customised development programmes and so on – and it is arguable that the same rigour and expectation should be made of governance. Namely, that all individual university governors be required – as a condition of their appointment – to secure a formal “licence to practice” in order to fulfil their duties.

Many may baulk at this proposal. After all, governors are often professionals with expertise in their field already. Even so, the majority are unfamiliar with HE (save as likely graduates a generation ago). The cult of the expert can often mitigate against learning – an affliction to which universities (as cultures of knowers) are particularly prone – and lead us to assume (mistakenly) that any intelligent, educated individual can govern (lead, manage or teach) and there is, therefore, no need for training.

As psychologist Chris Agyris reminds us: “The reason that smart people have so much difficulty learning is because they think they know it all already”. Nor should we underestimate the attraction of being a university governor even if it is an unpaid voluntary role.

Serious intent

A formal “licence to practice” accredited for example by CUC or the Office for Students, would not only give individual governors greater confidence and skills in carrying out their duties but would give reassurance to students, employers and government alike that universities are serious in their intent to enhance the quality of their governance.

Such a licence would tutor governors in the transition taking place in the HE environment from the traditional (students as apprentice scholars; teachers as directors of learning; peer review; academic calendar) to the new (students as consumers/producers; teachers as facilitators of learning; external assessment; year-round campus); the diverse traditions and forms of governance, that one size does not fit all; the importance of balancing the need for due process against openness to contradiction; the variety of ways to make genuine shared governance (with academics) a reality rather than an aspiration; and in recognising that the key to effective governance is not so much structural as cultural.

That is, less about slavish adherence to the good governance handbook and more about governors taking account of the culture and norms of their particular institution.

Governing bodies as robust effective social systems are key to changing the fortunes of universities. We need to ensure that those who join them are up to the job.

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