How universities are run

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.

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7 Comments on “How universities are run”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    You say Cambridge gets away with being run the way it is because it is so good; isn’t it likely that you have this the wrong way around and whatever about this one person you know who wouldn’t like to work there, lots of us would: I was a postdoc there and I’ve spent time in lots of universities, and the more complicated the governance, in my experience, the more the researchers are valued and supported. Research needs a sensible, organic, complex, organization able to reward what is hard to measure; a more business-like, transparent, third-level institution ends up competing with business rather than providing what business can’t. Sure, there is room for lots of different types of universities and not all can be like Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing what they do well.


    • Aoife, I would say that the Cambridge experience can vary greatly. I was there as a postgraduate researcher, and it was wonderful. But when you talk to staff, you can get some very different impressions. Many of them are hugely under-paid and under-appreciated, and actually have no say whatsoever. Those who do have a say are the more established academics.

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        Well the pay isn’t a Cambridge issue and having a say and helping to run the place are perhaps not what I want from the academy, of course, we may differ in this. Cambridge, like other great universities, seems able to aggregate and accommodate the values and needs of its many staff, students and stakeholders. As for under-appreciated, I find that odd, good work: deep and creative, research and effective teaching, seem better appreciated there than anywhere else I have been.

  2. Vincent Says:

    It would be a real help if anyone could define what exactly the University’s are supposed to do in the first place. If that happened, then there might be some chance for any strategy. What is the point of any re-view when there was no clear notion or agreement with what people were seeing. The blessed wonder of the whole thing is that they are as successful as they are, when there are about twenty different goals and all are going about things like a Star-burst firework.


  3. Vincent has it right. Universities will never have a clear sense of how they ought to be managed until we get to the point where we know what value they ought to be providing. (Vague generalities don’t count.) Without substantive objectives, we will never how effectively a particular system of management is serving us.

  4. ösym Says:

    Hi! I’m just visiting from Lynnette’s blog. Congrats on being featured and on your new book! That is really something to be proud of! I wish you much success with your new book.


  5. […] stuff out. Anyone not from DCU but with an interest in the Eurovision, the Premier League, or the running of a university- check his stuff […]


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