Ramshackle governance?

One of the more outspoken UK academics specialising in higher education policy is Professor Roger Brown of Liverpool Hope University. He is an interesting participant in debates on higher education not least because of his background, having been a Vice-Chancellor of one university, having also worked in several others, and having been chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, the forerunner of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). He has not been afraid to express views that run counter to current fashion, for example suggesting in 2008 that the pursuit of ‘world class’ status for some universities in the UK may be not only a waste of time but potentially also counter-productive. I confess that I don’t always agree with his points, but he is a lively contributor to debate and as such plays an important role.

His most recent comment – actually, not yet ‘recent’ in the sense that he has yet to make it formally at a lecture in the University of Portsmouth on February 9 – is that English university governance is ‘ramshackle’ and not well suited to deliver good governance. He feels that most governing bodies are too big to be effective at decision-making, but not big enough to be useful as a forum representative of staff, student and external stakeholder interests. So he suggests that the current model should be replaced by one where there are three ‘courts’ representing each of these three interest groups, and these courts in turn should nominate the members of a smaller ‘supervisory board’ that will have the ultimate governance responsibilities. However, the Vice-Chancellor would be required to report annually to each of these ‘courts’ and would have to satisfy them that their interests were being advanced.

I take the view that a review of how universities are governed is certainly timely, and in that sense Professor Brown’s address is useful. Whether his proposed remedy for governance problems is desirable, or indeed workable, is another matter. If, as seems likely, the three ‘courts’ would have very different views on what a university should do strategically and operationally, such a system might end up being quite chaotic. In addition, separate stakeholder governance bodies would very probably adopt highly partisan views on strategy, and might see it as attractive to drill down into detailed operational matters at the expense of overall strategy and policy, and could ultimately paralyze the institution.

However, there is little doubt that effective and appropriate governance is something that needs to be be worked on in higher education, in Ireland no less than the United Kingdom, and so I hope that his comments provoke a wider debate.

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2 Comments on “Ramshackle governance?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Without having any experience in these matters, the 3 courts solution seems unwieldy & generally daft. But good governance is certainly a must.
    In the case of UCD 8 members of the Governing Authority are appointed by the Association of County and City Councils (http://www.ucd.ie/govauth/membership.html). What is striking is that they are all a long way from Dublin. Given the mileage expenses associated with traveling up to the meetings, this must be rather expensive for the university. That’s one of looking at it anyway. By contrast, the local representatives for NUI Cork are all, at least, from Munster.
    I cannot find the information for NUI Galway or TCD though it may be there somewhere.

  2. belfield Says:

    Difficult and interesting. What would keep me awake at night – if these things did anymore – would be the corrosive nature of so much that is presented as ‘good governance’ right across contemporary society. We can’t really expect universities to escape this, I suppose. But finding the medial line in it all would probably be something that rewards the effort involved.

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