Good governance in higher education

On a recent visit to Ireland, I had a conversation with four academics from three different universities, and I asked them about the code of good governance that applies in Irish higher education. All four gave me blank looks; none of them had ever heard of such a code. Yet, there is one, and you can find it here; it was adopted by the Higher Education Authority and the universities in 2007. As well as setting out the main regulatory provisions that apply to Irish universities, it also outlines some principles of good governance.

Although I was President of Dublin City University when the code was adopted, to be honest I also had forgotten all about it until recently, when developments in my new jurisdiction in Scotland brought it back to mind. It is not actually wholly surprising that the Irish code is not on everyone’s mind, because it is, shall we say, a rather dry document that focuses on listing lots of regulatory stuff and cramming excessive amounts of  information into its pages.

Anyway, on to Scotland. As readers of this blog know, I chaired a Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, and the report we submitted in 2012 had as one of its recommendations that ‘the Scottish Funding Council should commission the drafting of a Code of Good Governance for higher education institutions’. Shortly afterwards the Chairs of Scottish universities offered to set up a group to draft a Scottish governance code, and the draft of this was published recently.  So does this code meet the expectations of our governance review, and should it therefore be adopted?

Some of the early comments have been critical, in part because some of the recommendations of our Review have not been addressed in it. However, it also has to be said that a code of good governance is not legislation, and a significant number of the Review’s recommendation will require a statute to implement them (which I believe will be introduced by the Scottish Government in due course). So what is the code for? It cannot be a document that resolves all governance issues, or regulates all key aspects of higher education. Rather, it should serve as a statement of best practice that prompts governors and those with whom they work (including university heads) to ensure that what they do observes integrity, transparency, legitimacy and openness. Furthermore, it should be written and presented in a style that is accessible and will therefore be understood and widely known.

On those criteria I believe the draft code comes across well. It sets out the main principles of governance, and then gives further explanations, supported by illustrations of good practice from across the sector. It therefore scores well in terms of accessibility. In content it aims to implement a number of the recommendations of our Review, leaving out others that will require legislation. There are no doubt some passages that can be amended or improved in the light of comments that are now being invited. On the whole, however, I am satisfied that this is a document that will serve the interests of good governance and will support the Scottish system of higher education. If adopted it will require most universities to make some changes in practice that will serve the interests of openness and transparency. And it is likely to be much more visible in the system than is the HEA’s code in Ireland.

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2 Comments on “Good governance in higher education”

  1. V.H Says:

    If one went at that HEA code with a red pen how many of the 76 pages could you lop off. Then if you passed the remainder through the WordPress edit program to clicking on the ‘complex expressions’ rendering them readable. Would you get something that might be read ?.
    Why don’t people write as if it’s to be read by the people on the 66X to Maynooth.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    This morning I had the privilege to attend the session of the Education and Culture Committee at Holyrood (the Scottish Parliament). Being a bit of an architecture buff myself I arrived well before the start of proceedings in order to have a good look at the building. It was my first visit and the building itself had been at the centre of some controversy since its opening in 2004 for several reasons: the cost, the choice of site, the selection of a non-Scottish architect and the modernist style. You can find out more, if interested here
    I have to say that I really liked what I saw, parliament buildings are often austere and monumental, they reflect the ‘serious’ business that national identity is, instead there is an aura of informality and ‘lightness’ to this building that makes it modern(ist) without being spiritless.

    Anyway, enough of my architectural musings and on to the business at hand of the draft code of good governance discussed today in committee room no.2.
    I do not intend to write a report of proceedings, suffice it to say that all the actors in the ‘governance play’ were present on stage today, FvP as chair of the Review, the representatives of students, of unions and the chair of the steering group that has produced the draft code. The discussion was overall cogent, relevant and above all useful, in that it exposed and tried to address some of the difficulties and contradictions typical of any process that attempts to codify behaviors, rules and protocols in academia, or elsewhere.

    As acknowledged in today’s post some of the early comments have been critical of the draft code, “in part because some of the recommendations of the Governance Review have not been addressed in it”, crucially: “However, it also has to be said that a code of good governance is not legislation, and a significant number of the Review’s recommendation will require a statute to implement them (which I believe will be introduced by the Scottish Government in due course).”

    The above point was reiterated by FvP this morning and, I believe this passage is the key not only to better understanding the reasons for the criticism, but also, hopefully to move towards some agreement. What I personally gathered from today’s discussion is that the various actors in this play had very different views of what a code is, or should be, and consequently some had almost conflated this process with the one of legislation or with the expectation of a faithful reflection in the code of all the recommendations put forward by the original Review. To put it simply, unless everybody shares the same, or at least a very similar, notion of what a code is and what it is for in this pre-legislation stage, criticism and disagreement are unavoidable. The latter point mentioned in the above quoted passage and also touched upon this morning regards the fact that some particular issues (gender quotas for examples) do require legislation and cannot be implemented via a code. In this case legal reasons were mentioned for such a requirement. This is the point that really needs, to my mind, more clarification. I believe that it would be helpful if all such cases, the ones requiring legislation for legal reasons, were to be clearly identified, this would help not to create expectations that the code cannot deliver. This is also what politicians should mostly concern themselves with. If the purpose of today’s session was, among others, for them to understand whether legislation is at all necessary when it comes to university Governance, why then not focus attention particularly on this aspect, maybe something to consider for the next stage?

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