Governing universities

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.

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11 Comments on “Governing universities”

  1. I remember once seeing a list of the number of governors in the various governing bodies of Irish Universities. Trinity had by far the greatest number; yet, among Irish universities, it probably has the best international reputation.

    The University of California is a highly regarded state university system and its Board of Regents has 26 members.

    The danger of a small board is that it’s more susceptible to group-think, and hasn’t the variety that’s a feature of complex learning systems.

  2. Jilly Says:

    I think it’s also worth making the point that the current structure of Governing Authorities for Irish universities keeps them free from political interference. This is significantly different from the Governing Authorities of IoTs, which are to a large degree under the political patronage of local authorities.

    Any suggestion of changing the university GA appointments system to resemble that of IoTs would seem to me to be a huge threat to university autonomy. However it seems more than likely that such a change will be suggested sooner rather than later – I’ve long suspected that a large part of the government’s obvious hostility to universities is based on the fact that we do not provide them with opportunities to grease the wheels of their political machinery. On the day that it has been revealed that 90 appointments to State Boards have been made (on the basis of political patronage, every last one of them), this is no small matter.

    • Vincent Says:

      Why not have the head of INTEL or the like take over from the Archbishops of the various provinces.

      And really Jilly, in Ireland academic independence was somewhat overstated.

    • Actually, three of the GA members in all universities other than TCD are government-appointed. The last time this came up I did a bit of negotiating with the then minister, and while the individual choices were all hers, she did in the end select two of them in terms of background and experience as I wanted.

      I would be in favour of having no ministerial appointments at all.

      • Jilly Says:

        The GAs of IoTs are a LOT more stuffed with political apointees than that proportion on university GAs. And they’re there as rewards for services rendered to the party, not on the basis of any knowledge or expertise.

  3. Al Says:

    My fear in the long run is the education in Ireland has become the new Church and we and education itself finds it hard to question itself in an interrogative Socratic way about what it is at!

    And with that sometimes we need to take a closer look at the effort that goes behind the making of claims about ourselves.

    For example, is it a worthwhile debate over the possibility of speculation or even a ‘bubble’ in education?

  4. kevin denny Says:

    The large number of county councillors (8) on UCD’s Governing Authority seems strange. I wonder what expertise they bring. What is also curious is that most of them are a long way from Dublin – not one is from Dublin or an adjacent county. It must be a bother having to drive up for the meetings.

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