Posted tagged ‘governance’

Governing universities

January 18, 2011

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.

Ramshackle governance?

February 8, 2010

One of the more outspoken UK academics specialising in higher education policy is Professor Roger Brown of Liverpool Hope University. He is an interesting participant in debates on higher education not least because of his background, having been a Vice-Chancellor of one university, having also worked in several others, and having been chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, the forerunner of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). He has not been afraid to express views that run counter to current fashion, for example suggesting in 2008 that the pursuit of ‘world class’ status for some universities in the UK may be not only a waste of time but potentially also counter-productive. I confess that I don’t always agree with his points, but he is a lively contributor to debate and as such plays an important role.

His most recent comment – actually, not yet ‘recent’ in the sense that he has yet to make it formally at a lecture in the University of Portsmouth on February 9 – is that English university governance is ‘ramshackle’ and not well suited to deliver good governance. He feels that most governing bodies are too big to be effective at decision-making, but not big enough to be useful as a forum representative of staff, student and external stakeholder interests. So he suggests that the current model should be replaced by one where there are three ‘courts’ representing each of these three interest groups, and these courts in turn should nominate the members of a smaller ‘supervisory board’ that will have the ultimate governance responsibilities. However, the Vice-Chancellor would be required to report annually to each of these ‘courts’ and would have to satisfy them that their interests were being advanced.

I take the view that a review of how universities are governed is certainly timely, and in that sense Professor Brown’s address is useful. Whether his proposed remedy for governance problems is desirable, or indeed workable, is another matter. If, as seems likely, the three ‘courts’ would have very different views on what a university should do strategically and operationally, such a system might end up being quite chaotic. In addition, separate stakeholder governance bodies would very probably adopt highly partisan views on strategy, and might see it as attractive to drill down into detailed operational matters at the expense of overall strategy and policy, and could ultimately paralyze the institution.

However, there is little doubt that effective and appropriate governance is something that needs to be be worked on in higher education, in Ireland no less than the United Kingdom, and so I hope that his comments provoke a wider debate.

Re-establishing trust

July 2, 2009

The first Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin, is said to have remarked once, ‘Trust is good, control is better.’ Whether he really said this or not, it is a principle that underpinned the Soviet Union’s system of bureaucracy, and it is at least arguable that it contributed to the ultimate collapse of the USSR. It would be wrong, however, to imagine that other political systems have consistently approached public administration differently; there has always been a tendency to see tight government controls as a solution in almost any crisis. And we are currently careering through an unprecedented crisis in which the imposition of controls has become not just a government response but also a public demand: we want to persuade ourselves that a serious financial crisis, or an ethical crisis in top management, will never occur again if only we impose a regulatory straitjacket.

The higher education sector is currently on the receiving end of this approach, and indeed is experiencing this without having made any known contribution to the economic difficulties we are in. And yet the consensus in political circles appears to be that a light touch system of governance has failed and will need to be replaced by onerous controls and bureaucratic interventions. I don’t mean this comment to be confrontational, as I accept that universities have not always been good at demonstrating transparency, and though they have tended to respond well to national priorities as determined by government, this has not necessarily been communicated well to stakeholders. So we are now experiencing regular new mechanisms to restrict freedom of action by universities and subject even quite detailed operational decisions to direct bureaucratic restrictions.

In the end, my point is that the sector will both work more willingly and constructively to help secure national objectives, and will do so with a greater sense of innovation and reform, if the basis for the relationship between it and government were based on trust and confidence. We need to gain a better understanding of how this was compromised or lost, and how we can restore it. What is facing us right now is a whole-scale bureaucratisation of the system (which will probably turn out to be very costly in both money and effectiveness), and we need to seek dialogue to ensure that this is not what happens. Universities as administrative units of government will not secure global excellence, and are unlikely to be imaginative educators.

There is significant research to demonstrate that trust is an important ingredient of good governance. It is time to think again, for all of us.

How universities are run

April 30, 2009

It seems to me that one of the big debates that should take place, both in Ireland and elsewhere, over the next few years is what model of governance and management is most appropriate for higher education institutions. There are of course many different possible models, and many points of view amongst all the stakeholders. But one might say that on the opposite ends of the spectrum are, on the one side, those who would argue that universities are communities of scholars who should direct their own affairs by consensus, presided over by a primus inter pares with mainly ceremonial functions; and on the other side, those who argue that today’s universities are modern organisations that need to be led by a strong management responsible to corporate-style governing boards, with appropriate functions and powers delegated to a series of middle managers.

No university – or none that need detain us here – is run on the basis of either of these extreme models. Most have governance and management that fall somewhere between these two positions; variations may be due to the age of institutions, their history, their purpose and strategy, their location, and any number of other factors. But it is also clear that, in some cases, their is disagreement amongst stakeholders as to whether a particular model is appropriate or workable.

In an article recently in Times Higher Education, the general secretary of the British University and College Union, Sally Hunt, argued that too many universities in the UK are run by autocratic university heads notionally reporting to ineffective governing bodies, and that decisions are regularly taken with profound effects on the academic community without proper consultation and without consent. In the article she did not particularly make it clear what type of governance she favours (beyond very general references to the accountability of university leadership to the academic community), but she is clearly unhappy with the pattern she believes she has identified in the system. Her views may be similar to some that have been expressed in Ireland about a culture of ‘managerialism’, which I have mentioned in a previous post in this blog.

Sally Hunt mentions Oxford and Cambridge as two universities that are ‘governed, at least nominally, by the academic community.’ On its own website, the University of Cambridge describes itself as a ‘self-governed community of scholars’. But then, on a separate part of the website entitled ‘how the University works’, the operation of the university is set out in all its complexity, with an admission that ‘the way in which the University governs itself can appear complex.’ The reputation and status of Cambridge (and other institutions like Oxford, Harvard and Yale) make this model acceptable to at least some bodies that deal with it (though I have heard people say that their experiences with Cambridge would stop them from working with the university in the future) – but in any case for the rest of us a more transparent and accessible system of decision-making is needed if we are to succeed. But what system?

Most universities will need to have a system of governance and management that, on the one hand, is responsive and flexible and decisive, and on the other is sensitive to the views, needs and interests of those who make up the university community. Autocratic dictatorships are unlikely to work for long, but it is equally true that chaotic and complex committee structures will turn off those who need to support and work with universities. Governing bodies will need to have members with knowledge of and experience in corporate governance and accountability, but will also need to have a composition that gives some confidence to university faculty and staff that their interests are being respected; and it will also need to be borne in mind that very large governing bodies are almost always ineffective in providing effective governance, and tend to become debating chambers that often miss the real issues of strategy and direction.

As the higher education sector is subjected once again to a strategic review, these issues deserve proper attention. It is not clear that they are receiving it, yet.

The significance of governance

February 20, 2009

The UK journal Times Higher Education recently reported on a survey of governors and senior managers in 27 British universities, carried out by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. This revealed that a ‘significant minority’ of both governors and senior managers felt that relations between them were only ‘sometimes’ or ‘rarely’ constructive, and in some institutions there was ‘almost no contact’ between governors and academic leaders. More generally, university employees didn’t understand the role of the governing body, either at all or much.

In fact, it could be argued that corporate governance is something that is not well established in higher education. Lest I am misunderstood, I should say first that I believe that, in my own university, it is functioning rather well. But in universities more generally, it would be hard to conclude that. Even on governing bodies, there is often a degree of tension caused by the different expectations of governance perceived by the various groups represented there. Also, the large size of most governing bodies doesn’t on the whole help, although this can be overcome by effective chairing.

In Ireland, the composition of governing bodies and their responsibilities are governed by the Universities Act 1997, and further guidance has been issued from time to time by the Higher Education Authority (for example, in relation to financial accountability). More recently the HEA has also been in dialogue with governing body chairs.

But despite these advances, it is still true to say that governance is probably not well understood in the university community more generally. The absence of such an understanding is potentially serious when accountability and transparency are becoming major issues in the sector. On the whole, the tensions (and worse) that have been observed in some British institutions between governors and senior management have not been a major feature in Ireland. But as public interest, and political interest, in the running of universities grows, it would be timely to make governance, its functions and its limitations better known to staff and students. This may be something that DCU can lead the way in.