Posted tagged ‘higher education governance’

Scotland’s higher education governance

March 15, 2016

I guess that not everyone can say that they prompted a piece of legislation. In fairness I cannot myself make that claim entirely, since I was merely one of five people who were the panel commissioned by the Scottish Government to review higher education governance. However, I had the honour of chairing the panel, and in 2012 it submitted its report to the government, making 43 recommendations for change. Some of these were implemented, or partly implemented, in the Scottish Code of Good Governance adopted in 2013.

Some of the remaining recommendations have now been implemented in the Higher Education (Scotland) Governance Bill, passed by the Scottish Parliament on 9 March. Once in force the legislation will address, chiefly, the composition of university governing bodies and the appointment (now through an election) of chairs of these bodies.

It would be fair to say that other university Principals, and indeed governing body chairs, did not welcome the legislation, and had not welcomed some of the recommendations of our 2012 report, particularly those that became the basis of the new legislation. But equally I would like to think that the report, and now the legislation, opened up a discussion across the sector, and by now beyond Scotland, about what university governance is for, in whose name it is conducted, and how it can secure academic excellence and organisational success in a spirit of inclusion and transparency. Whether we got it right or wrong, this is an important discussion, as society’s institutions now more generally are subjected to greater scrutiny.

I continue to stand by our recommendations, though of course I also hope that university leaders will be able to work constructively and effectively in the new setting. Higher education in its substance has been renewed and reinvented over the past generation or two, and it was always going to be important that governance was also addressed. I believe that Scotland, with its Code (shortly to be revised) and now its legislation, will make a major contribution to this discussion globally.


How should universities be run?

April 24, 2012

As readers of this blog will know, I chaired the panel set up by the Scottish government to review governance in higher education. This reported in January of this year, and the report was presented by the government to the Scottish Parliament. In presenting it, the Cabinet Secretary for education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, indicated his support for the report’s recommendations.

In fact there were 43 recommendations. Of these, 40 were unanimously supported by members of the panel. One member dissented from the remaining three. As is sometimes the case in such circumstances, much of the media attention consequently focused on these three issues, and in particular on our recommendation that the chairs of governing bodies should be elected.

However, the report had a much wider focus. Its key principles can be summarised like this: (a) that universities should be autonomous and independent, and that their staff should enjoy academic freedom; (b) that without prejudicing that autonomy, universities should join with the government in an annual discussion of national higher education strategy; (c) that each university’s processes and decision-making should be open and transparent; and (d) that universities should allow full participation by as many as possible in these processes. We recognised the success of Scotland’s higher education system and institutions, but we suggested that the sector needed to ensure that it had and retained the confidence and support of its stakeholders and the wider society. Beyond that, we argued that there should be a shared vision of higher education, and that reform would be more robust if there was more work on producing the objective evidence on which such reform could be discussed.

While there was some opposition to our proposals, it is my view that their implementation is vital. The intention behind this is to ensure that universities – the institutions vital to growth and prosperity – can secure and retain political and public support and confidence. Without this they will be at risk of decline.

Higher education: from a ‘sector’ to a ‘system’?

April 2, 2012

Over recent years a view of higher education has developed in a number of countries that runs something like this. Universities have been essential organisations in creating knowledge-driven societies and economies, in creating high value investment and employment, in stimulating entrepreneurial economic activity, in securing innovation in industry and in the provision of services. However, the commitment to institutional autonomy has prevented the emergence of a more fully coordinated national strategy, has had wasteful effects, has encouraged bogus inter-institutional competition, and has made much more difficult the application of appropriate principles of transparency and accountability.

In this analysis, what is seen as the major problem is that universities together behave as a sector rather than a system. They coordinate action to support shared interests such as funding, government policy and the provision of infrastructure, but retreat into full competition to attract students, win research money, gain philanthropic support, and so forth. As a result, governments feel they cannot plan advanced industrial policy, or the development of necessary skills in the workforce, or spatial strategies.

As a result, governments or their agencies have started to look at how they can operate funding levers and other instruments to secure a coordinated system that fully complements public policy. Universities are told that they are still autonomous, but that their autonomy does not include full discretion in determining their strategic direction. Instead, this becomes a matter of negotiation, and through a network of agreements between the government agencies and the universities a ‘system’ is born that avoids duplication and focuses on national priorities. Typically the instrument of coordination is something called an ‘outcome agreement’ that establishes institutional targets the delivery of which is then, at least to some extent, a condition of public funding.

This particular methodology has most recently been established in Ireland. The Higher Education Authority (HEA), in its latest strategic plan, has described its role as follows:

‘Taken overall, the HEA exercises a central oversight role in the higher education system and is the lead agency in the creation of a co-ordinated system of higher education institutions with clear and diverse roles appropriate to their strengths and national needs; it acts as a catalyst for change in the higher education system, requiring higher levels of performance while demonstrating an appropriate level of accountability, consistent with institutional autonomy and academic freedom.’

The plan then indicates that the HEA will establish agreed strategies and outcomes for each institution and then ensure that the institution is held accountable for achieving the outcomes.

It is tempting to dismiss such an approach as a futile exercise in central planning, initiated a couple of decades after central planning in national economies was clearly shown to be wholly disastrous. It is in fact difficult to imagine that the great strengths of higher education – creativity, inventiveness and discovery – can be successfully nurtured through bureaucratic processes.

On the other hand, the increasing volume of funding and resources needed to operate a high value higher education sector makes it unattractive for the taxpayer to throw money in large quantities at institutions that declare they are not going to be told on what they should spend it. Some middle way needs to be found to secure more coordinated strategies that are not the product of bureaucratic directives.

It was in part for this reason that the review of higher education governance in Scotland that I chaired recommended that there should be a forum, convened by government, and involving all the key players (including academics themselves), that would consider national priorities and allow the institutions to find ways of coordinating the sector in response. This, I feel, will be a more sensitive and less bureaucratic way of encouraging the creation of a national ‘system’. It would, I think, be preferable to what is now being proposed for Ireland.

Governing universities

February 1, 2012

Last summer the Scottish government commissioned me to chair a review of higher education governance in Scotland. Having invited and received submissions from the public, and having taken evidence from a number of people and organisations, we submitted our report, with its list of  33 recommendations, to the Scottish government last month.

Today the report was presented to the Scottish Parliament by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP. In his speech he expressed strong support for the recommendations contained in it. Many of these recommendations are likely to be accepted by those affected, but a small number may be seen as rather radical and controversial, including the recommendation that the chairs of governing bodies should be elected. There will be further consultation on these.

But perhaps the most important aspect of our report, at least in my view, is the contrast between the model of higher education that we put forward and that which has come into being south of the border. We recommend that higher education should be seen as something deserving sustained public interest, requiring accountability and public confidence in order to succeed. We believe that Scottish universities are, and should remain, highly successful, but also that they should be part of an academic culture of critical intellectual curiosity. The detailed recommendations in our report are designed to express that culture.