It seems to me that one of the big debates that should take place, both in Ireland and elsewhere, over the next few years is what model of governance and management is most appropriate for higher education institutions. There are of course many different possible models, and many points of view amongst all the stakeholders. But one might say that on the opposite ends of the spectrum are, on the one side, those who would argue that universities are communities of scholars who should direct their own affairs by consensus, presided over by a primus inter pares with mainly ceremonial functions; and on the other side, those who argue that today’s universities are modern organisations that need to be led by a strong management responsible to corporate-style governing boards, with appropriate functions and powers delegated to a series of middle managers.
No university – or none that need detain us here – is run on the basis of either of these extreme models. Most have governance and management that fall somewhere between these two positions; variations may be due to the age of institutions, their history, their purpose and strategy, their location, and any number of other factors. But it is also clear that, in some cases, their is disagreement amongst stakeholders as to whether a particular model is appropriate or workable.
In an article recently in Times Higher Education, the general secretary of the British University and College Union, Sally Hunt, argued that too many universities in the UK are run by autocratic university heads notionally reporting to ineffective governing bodies, and that decisions are regularly taken with profound effects on the academic community without proper consultation and without consent. In the article she did not particularly make it clear what type of governance she favours (beyond very general references to the accountability of university leadership to the academic community), but she is clearly unhappy with the pattern she believes she has identified in the system. Her views may be similar to some that have been expressed in Ireland about a culture of ‘managerialism’, which I have mentioned in a previous post in this blog.
Sally Hunt mentions Oxford and Cambridge as two universities that are ‘governed, at least nominally, by the academic community.’ On its own website, the University of Cambridge describes itself as a ‘self-governed community of scholars’. But then, on a separate part of the website entitled ‘how the University works’, the operation of the university is set out in all its complexity, with an admission that ‘the way in which the University governs itself can appear complex.’ The reputation and status of Cambridge (and other institutions like Oxford, Harvard and Yale) make this model acceptable to at least some bodies that deal with it (though I have heard people say that their experiences with Cambridge would stop them from working with the university in the future) – but in any case for the rest of us a more transparent and accessible system of decision-making is needed if we are to succeed. But what system?
Most universities will need to have a system of governance and management that, on the one hand, is responsive and flexible and decisive, and on the other is sensitive to the views, needs and interests of those who make up the university community. Autocratic dictatorships are unlikely to work for long, but it is equally true that chaotic and complex committee structures will turn off those who need to support and work with universities. Governing bodies will need to have members with knowledge of and experience in corporate governance and accountability, but will also need to have a composition that gives some confidence to university faculty and staff that their interests are being respected; and it will also need to be borne in mind that very large governing bodies are almost always ineffective in providing effective governance, and tend to become debating chambers that often miss the real issues of strategy and direction.
As the higher education sector is subjected once again to a strategic review, these issues deserve proper attention. It is not clear that they are receiving it, yet.