The significance of governance

The UK journal Times Higher Education recently reported on a survey of governors and senior managers in 27 British universities, carried out by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. This revealed that a ‘significant minority’ of both governors and senior managers felt that relations between them were only ‘sometimes’ or ‘rarely’ constructive, and in some institutions there was ‘almost no contact’ between governors and academic leaders. More generally, university employees didn’t understand the role of the governing body, either at all or much.

In fact, it could be argued that corporate governance is something that is not well established in higher education. Lest I am misunderstood, I should say first that I believe that, in my own university, it is functioning rather well. But in universities more generally, it would be hard to conclude that. Even on governing bodies, there is often a degree of tension caused by the different expectations of governance perceived by the various groups represented there. Also, the large size of most governing bodies doesn’t on the whole help, although this can be overcome by effective chairing.

In Ireland, the composition of governing bodies and their responsibilities are governed by the Universities Act 1997, and further guidance has been issued from time to time by the Higher Education Authority (for example, in relation to financial accountability). More recently the HEA has also been in dialogue with governing body chairs.

But despite these advances, it is still true to say that governance is probably not well understood in the university community more generally. The absence of such an understanding is potentially serious when accountability and transparency are becoming major issues in the sector. On the whole, the tensions (and worse) that have been observed in some British institutions between governors and senior management have not been a major feature in Ireland. But as public interest, and political interest, in the running of universities grows, it would be timely to make governance, its functions and its limitations better known to staff and students. This may be something that DCU can lead the way in.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university

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