Most university lecturers, and I suspect pretty well all students, will not know very much about the bodies that have ultimate responsibility for institutional strategy and policy. In most western industrialised countries, universities will have a governing body as the highest decision-making body. In England and Australia this is usually the ‘Council’, in Ireland the ‘Governing Authority’, in Scotland the ‘Court’ or the ‘Board of Governors’. Typically they have oversight of strategic planning, and adopt policies and budgets. The university’s chief officer (President/Vice-Chancellor/Principal) will report to them.
University governing bodies will usually have a membership drawn from university officers, internal representatives and external (lay) members; the latter normally make up the majority of members (though not in Ireland). A total membership in excess of 20 – and sometimes significantly in excess of that number – is not unusual.
How effective is this form of governance, and how connected are these governors with the institutions for which they exercise oversight? How qualified are the members to exercise corporate governance? How well do they understand the principles of modern governance, and how effectively do they apply them? How aware are they of the need to separate management from governance and to keep out of operational matters?
There is of course no general answer to these questions, as conditions will vary significantly from university to university. However, it seems to me that two factors will critically determine whether a governing body is able to exercise its role appropriately. One is the level of involvement in and understanding of the university that individual governors (particularly the external ones) have. If their connection is more or less restricted to the formal meetings, then this condition generally won’t be met. The second issue is the relationship between the university’s senior management and the governing body, which needs to be constructive and supportive on the one hand, but also appropriately monitoring on the other.
It is arguable that none of this can be achieved properly if a governing body is too big. A board of 25 members will never be able to exercise real governance, and its meetings (often then attended by members with only the vaguest idea of how the university operates) will risk being rubber-stamping exercises, or sometimes battlegrounds on which internal conflicts are fought out (which is equally wrong). For that reason the proposal in Ireland’s recent national higher education strategic review that governing bodies should be restricted to 18 members is sensible, though it would have been even better to choose a smaller number of, say, 12. But then it would also be vital to ensure that these governors get a real feel for the institution, its ethos, its staff and its opportunities, and that they become both board members and ambassadors.
In today’s age of corporate accountability and transparency, good governance is vital. Universities on the whole do not yet enjoy it.