What’s the point of academic governance?

I remember well the response of a friend and colleague, many years ago, when I told him that I was taking on the servicing of senior university committees

“Well, you can imagine what I think about that.” And he was right – pointless bureaucracy, decision making by committee, endless hours of rubber stamping and the occasional piece of hobby-horse riding from the floor, which would result into an extension of the meeting into its third hour, and precious little else.

I can also imagine the response of the same colleague six months later when his dean informed him that this colleague was to be the new school representative on the academic board. He came to the board armed with the usual induction of that institution – “the meeting takes place at 2.00 … here are the papers”. I think I saw him at the next five or six meetings but I didn’t hear him speak once.

Existential discussions

Every board or governing body I’ve been involved with since has had fairly lengthy discussions about their purpose and practice; how they can be more effective, how can we use technology better, and how can members be better prepared? But they’ve always been hamstrung by a failure to really discuss the central questions – what is it that the committee is here to do? And is gathering in a room every three months and wading through the equivalent of a PhD thesis worth of paper really the best way to do it?

I know of one institution that I worked for which went in the opposite direction and disbanded all of its committees below Senate level. On the face of it this was a triumph for those demanding more robust decision making, with officers given the right to actually act to change things, along with full responsibility for the results. I enquired a couple of years later to find out how this had worked out. “We’ve re-constituted all the committees, but they’re not called committees any more,” was the response.  We know that committees are important, but we’re not quite sure why.

What is academic governance?

Generally, corporate governance has a high profile. The dangers of inadequate corporate governance have been made clear from Enron to London Met, and there is an understanding that, particularly with financial matters, there has to be proper scrutiny.

But academic governance is a different matter, and the problem is at the root. There is a lack of understanding about what constitutes an academic governance framework. Issues like the difference between regulations and policies, the line between executive authority and accountability, or which governance instruments committees are required to scrutinise are generally not clear and not discussed. It’s impossible to have conversations about the effective operation of a committee if it isn’t clear what that committee is actually supposed to do.

Most universities have operated committees for years if not decades, and it is not unusual for the purpose of these committees to become lost over time. Three or four years ago I sat in an examination board meeting; the meeting itself followed the exact same format as the first one I ever participated in. Provisional results were circulated to the 30 or so participants, and each result was read out. “Student 12345 – index score 68.1 –  propose 2.1. All agreed?”

The chair read these results out for about an hour, with no contribution from any other person there. The format was perfect for a time before anonymous marking and when results were produced by typewriter and carbon, but the board’s function isn’t now to check whether results have been correctly transcribed from pen and paper to database, or for someone to shout if they think that an individual student’s results appear incorrect.

At the point where a student information system had been implemented, no one had questioned  whether the board’s format should be changed. As a result, the important conversations – about whether the board could be satisfied in the case of each module that the results were a fair reflection of achievement – simply didn’t happen.

Not only was a huge amount of time wasted, but the committee arguably did not achieve its core objective, to reassure the academic board that the required standards had been achieved.

The role of committees

The problem comes from committees that try and cover too many bases. Committees are poor vehicles for communication. At best, information is sent to committee members, but is rarely disseminated beyond that. And there are far more efficient ways in this age of getting information to the wider university population. They are also poor vehicles for the formulation of strategy and policy – there isn’t the time, and with the wide range of responsibility rarely the correct membership to do so.

Committees broadly serve two purposes –  to scrutinise (not formulate) strategy, policy and regulation, and then to hold officers to account for the delivery of these. Scrutiny involves checking, referring back to mission statements and previously agreed strategy, ensuring consistency and testing assumptions. Holding to account involves one key question – how do you know that this is working?

Effective academic governance means ensuring both that these responsibilities are effectively discharged, not a proxy for malfunctioning communication or dissemination.

One response to “What’s the point of academic governance?

  1. When I first came into HE, about 20 years ago, I could not get over the number of meetings there were, often without any real purpose and frequently no record of actions taken. The formal committee structures very rarely deliver change or lead to real scrutiny of key issues within an institution.

    As is correctly identified there is no point to an exam board that simply confirms pre-determined outcomes, a lot of institutions no longer allow boards discretion to change grades or outcomes. The real purpose of them should be, and where greater value would be got from having External Examiners present, is a serious discussion about the relevance of the curriculum being taught.

    Committees often struggle under the weight of huge volumes of paperwork, that members are expected to read. Very rarely does this provide any real scrutiny, people quickly work out how to get controversial things through ‘under cover’, and meetings are often full of reports that actually say very little. I know people who have successfully copy and pasted the same annual report for several years, without anyone noticing.

    For institutions to work more effectively in an ever more challenging world, then there is a real need to move away from ‘tick box’ exercises

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