Posted tagged ‘university governance’

The difficult questions concerning university autonomy and accountability

August 24, 2015

As readers of this blog will know, in 2011-12 I chaired a review of governance in Scottish higher education. The main products of the report we issued in 2012 so far are the Scottish Code of Good Governance and, more recently, a Bill now before the Scottish Parliament.

It is not my intention, at least in this post, to restate the case for the recommendations we made or to critique the code and the Bill. However, in the course of our deliberations we came across one recurring theme: how do you reconcile university autonomy (which both we and really all of those who gave evidence strongly supported) with the modern desire for accountability? As universities are free to follow their chosen strategic direction, how are those who take the decisions on strategy answerable to those affected by it, or indeed to anyone at all?

There is, I think, a widespread consensus that this cannot be resolved by allowing governments to direct universities or review their decisions, except that where universities are spending public money they must answer for the expenditure; this indeed is the issue being debated now in the context of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill. But if university governors are rightly not accountable to government, then to whom, and how is that accountability expressed? Furthermore, how can it be assured that any framework of accountability does not undermine effectiveness and operational success? How can universities be held to what one might describe as their traditional responsibilities to the wider society, as recently expressed by the new President of Cornell University?

These questions are at the heart of governance review and reform, and having a satisfactory answer will be the key to securing acceptable forms of governance into the future. It is important for universities to accept that autonomy does not mean that those taking the decisions are answerable to none of the key stakeholders; university autonomy is being misused if it is seen by the decision-makers as autonomy from the wider university community of staff and students. And it is important for governments to understand that controlling higher education institutions condemns them to educational and intellectual mediocrity and compromised integrity.


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.

The meaning of university ‘autonomy’

June 18, 2013

Just over three years ago, towards the end of my term of office as President of Dublin City University, I took part in a meeting between university presidents and members of the ‘strategy group’ chaired by Dr Colin Hunt who were then working on a new strategy for Irish higher education (and whose report was published in 2011). One of the points of discussion was the desirability of university autonomy. All those present – presidents and members of the Hunt group – agreed that autonomy was vital for universities in a successful national system. But in the course of the conversation it became clear that there were rather different views about what ‘autonomy’ actually meant. In an exchange I had with a senior public servant on the strategy group it became clear that they saw autonomy not (as I suggested) as independence in formulating strategy, but rather as freedom to choose appropriate management methods to implement a government strategy.

In 2011 I moved to Scotland, and as readers of this blog will know I was appointed chair of a review of Scottish higher education governance. My panel issued its report in early 2012. One of our recommendations was that chairs of governing bodies should be elected by staff, students and other stakeholders. This recommendation, which we suspected would be controversial, has been vehemently resisted by governing body chairs and others within the universities, with one of the objections being that if implemented it would compromise university autonomy.

So is there in all this a properly developed view of autonomy? What does it mean? Does it mean, for example, that the state may take no interest of any kind in university governance? Does it mean, on the other hand, that the state can impose a strategic direction, merely allowing universities to choose methods of implementation? Presumably the truth lies somewhere in between these two rather different propositions. Autonomy cannot mean that society has no stake in universities and that its representatives should mind their own business; that would suggest a level of independence from anyone’s oversight that no other body in society, public or private, enjoys. On the other hand autonomy, if it is to mean anything, must include the right of a university to determine its own strategy, taking into account the public interest (which will usually be expressed in conditions of state funding).

Various definitions of university autonomy have been suggested. The European Universities Association, for example, has argued that it involves organisational, financial, staffing and academic autonomy – a definition that for me is too structural, and not strategic enough. Others have questioned whether university autonomy has come to be seen too much as managerial autonomy from staff influence.

Universities must, like all other bodies, show their responsiveness to the needs of the wider society, but must be left to make most of the judgements about how to reflect this themselves. In the meantime the state, as the guardian of the public interest, must be able to regulate some of the structures of governance, provided this does not include control over decision-making within the institutions. This was the position we were seeking to address in the governance review. I still think we found the right balance.

Scotland’s Rectors and elected governance

November 18, 2011

One of the genuinely unique features of Scottish higher education is the office of Rector in the ‘ancient’ universities. This is a totally different function from that of a Rector in continental European universities, where the holder is the institution’s chief academic officer. In fact, the origins of the office are the same, as originally Scottish Rectors were also heads of their institutions. However, the role evolved over time and, since the late 19th century, has been governed by statute. Since that time Rectors have been the elected representatives of the university’s students (except in Edinburgh, where they are elected by students and staff), and have the right to chair the governing body, or Court.

It is hard to evaluate the usefulness of the office, as students have from time to time adopted a variety of approaches to the elections. A number of celebrities have been university Rectors, including John Cleese, Brian Cox and Stephen Fry. On the whole these have not been active contributors to university affairs. In other cases Rectors have had a more direct involvement, such as Edinburgh’s current Rector, the journalist Iain Macwhirter.

The modern concept of the Rector was based in part on the desire to see greater student input in university affairs, at a time when students were not yet granted membership of governing bodies. Whether this is still useful is an issue being debated in Scotland. Are Rectors an historical curiosity that survives because of the attraction of such an unusual feature? Or could they be retained or even extended as an example of a democratic element in higher education? Or is it time to consider whether the office has outlived its usefulness?

University governance review in Scotland

June 29, 2011

I have previously pointed out in this blog that I have been asked by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, to chair a review of university governance in Scotland. The remit of this review was published by the government on Wednesday. The key principles against which governance is to be assessed are democratic accountability, autonomy, transparency, the effectiveness of management and governance, the clarity of strategic purpose, and its efficient implementation.

The review panel is now calling for submissions from interested parties. My invitation to do so can be found here. More specifically, those wanting to submit are invited to answer a number of questions, which can be found here.

This review will benefit from the submission of a wide range of views, and I hope that readers of this blog will be willing to support the exercise in this way.

University governance in Scotland

June 17, 2011

The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Mr Michael Russell MSP, yesterday made the following announcement in the Scottish Parliament.

‘On the specific subject of university governance, however, I can announce today that Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the Principal of Robert Gordon University, will chair a small 5 member panel that will undertake a review of the current governance arrangements.  It will include unions and students as well as a Chair of Court. The panel will publish its remit before the summer recess [end of June] and invite views on this important subject over the summer. They will provide me with their conclusions at the end of the year and we will base our plans on their proposals for change.’

For obvious reasons I do not intend to comment further on the work of the panel while its work is ongoing, but when it has undertaken its deliberations the resulting report will be published.