Posted tagged ‘code of good governance’

Higher education legislation: benefit or peril?

November 11, 2014

Shortly after I took up my post in 2011 as Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, I was asked by the Scottish Government to chair a review of higher education governance. At the time a friend remarked to me that this would be a great way to learn fast all about the Scottish system; and a great way also to be hated by everyone within that system. I cannot say whether the latter turned out to be true, but it is certainly the case that recommendations on governance will not always please everyone.

The review that I chaired reported in early 2012, and we summarised the purpose of our work as follows:

‘It is not just a question of assuring the integrity and transparency of processes, it is a question of allowing society to protect its broader investment in education, knowledge and intellectual innovation in a way that makes the most of a long Scottish tradition adapted to the needs of the 21st century world.’

In this spirit we made a number of recommendations for reform that might maintain public confidence in the sector. We suggested that these reforms would be more easily secured through a code of good governance for Scotland, and also with the help of ‘a statute for Scotland’s higher education sector setting out the key principles of governance and management.’

Subsequently the chairs of the governing bodies of Scottish universities adopted a code of good governance which addressed some (but not all) of the review’s recommendations. And now the Scottish Government has initiated a consultation on a proposed Higher Education Governance Bill. This suggests that new legislation may cover six topics that were the subject of recommendations in the higher education review: (i) transferring the role of the Privy Council in approving university governance instruments to a new Scottish committee; (ii) creating a new statutory definition of academic freedom; (iii) clarifying the role of Principals of the universities; (iv) setting out procedures for electing a shortlist of candidates for chairs of governing bodies, and selecting the successful candidate through an election; (v) ensuring that governing bodies include staff, student and alumni representatives; and (vi) clarifying the role and composition of academic boards or Senates.

In bringing forward the proposals, the government has correctly identified those issues set out in the governance review that would require legislation in order to be implemented.  If enacted in the form suggested in the consultation document, the new statute would secure a system of higher education built on institutional autonomy and academic freedom, a system that recognises that universities need to be independent but that they must not be disconnected from wider public views and concerns.

It is already clear that the proposed legislation will not be supported by everyone. Trade unions have welcomed the consultation, but Universities Scotland (representing Principals) has issued a statement suggesting a fair degree of apprehension.

In his Foreword to the consultation document, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, underlined the government’s commitment to institutional autonomy:

‘The Scottish Government does not want to increase Ministerial control over universities, but support them to refine their governance systems, enabling an evolution that can enhance their important contribution to Scotland and the advancement of its people and economy.’

In a modern system of higher education, governments and universities need to balance the important requirement of institutional autonomy with the recognition that institutions also serve a number of public purposes and need to maintain the support of key stakeholders. This is not an easy thing to achieve, and the government’s consultation document will rightly prompt debate. But right now I think that the proposals, together with other instruments such as the code of good governance, have got this balance largely right.

Good governance in higher education

May 6, 2013

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.