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.