The four ages of UK university governance

Universities in the UK have developed a range of different approaches to governance, and there’s no sign that the trend will stop, says Michael Shattock

March 23, 2017
Governance, management
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University governance is in flux. Where does authority within universities really lie?

Over the past century, there have been considerable changes in the way that universities have distributed authority within their governance structures – although the actual legal frameworks, both statutory and legislative, have remained largely unchanged (with the exception of the Higher Education Corporation constitution accorded to polytechnics in 1988).

Critics of current governance trends tend to look back to what is seen as a traditional model where authority was distributed throughout the university and decision-making was highly participative. In fact, the evidence suggests that the internal balances of where authority was located have, to a considerable extent, been contingent on external conditions, and have fluctuated accordingly.

In a Centre for Global Higher Education working paper, I analyse four distinct periods of university governance. The paper maps the changing balances of where authority was located on to changes in the external environment and the pressures that were imposed on universities.

The first period, from 1919 to the mid-1950s (and for many years before that), was a time when governing bodies were dominant. The second period, from the mid-1950s to 1980, is often described as the “golden age”, when senates were dominant and academic self-government was at a premium. The third period, from 1980 to 2000, saw the introduction of budget cuts and austerity, research assessment exercises, changes in the role of the vice-chancellor and the publication the Jarratt report.

The Jarratt report was followed by the 1988 Education Reform Act, which created the HEC constitution. This saw the establishment of pseudo company boards with chief executives and the downgrading of the role of the academic board, changes that were paralleled by the Dearing report’s recommendations for the reinforcement of the role of governing bodies in the pre-92 universities.

In the fourth and final period, from 2000 to 2016, the policy turmoil that accompanied the increasing marketisation of the higher education system and the introduction of a league table culture has led to the growth of powerful vice-chancellor-led executive teams, which have transformed governance practice and decision-making in many universities.

It is important to note that (HEC decision apart) the state has made no constitutional intervention in the structural framework of UK university governance over this whole period, although it has certainly been responsible for imposing considerable pressures in areas such as funding and accountability. The changes that have occurred must, therefore, be regarded largely as evidence of universities’ own accommodations to external conditions: austerity and financial risk, increasing institutional size and the growing emphasis on competition.

Perhaps the most pressing of these is the third. A 2013 paper on continental Europe describes “wannabe” institutions, prepared to sacrifice their organisational identity by adopting “radical rebuilding strategies that involve clean breaks with their past” and developing “a sort of cherry-picking organisational model”. The authors contrast these institutions with a “top of the pile” group. The latter’s social capital and strong organisational culture gives them a resilience that enables them to continue to rely on trusted constitutional arrangements and on the virtues of academic participation in decision-making. Similar trends can be seen in Britain.

A consequence of these pressures is that we can now see a more divergent picture of university governance than in any previous period. We have a subset of research universities that have largely retained their previous modes of governance and could be said to have remained closest to the traditional model where there is significant academic input into decision-making and where the main organs of governance have stayed in place.

By contrast, there are substantial numbers of universities that have strongly “top down” governance models where the academic community is in effect excluded from any major questions of institutional policy.

In between these groups are pre-92 universities moving towards the HEC model and post-92 universities that are moving in the opposite direction. The result has been the creation of a diversity of governance styles that would have been inconceivable even 20 years ago. There seems to be no good reason why this diversity should not intensify. 

Michael Shattock is a visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education, and a co-Investigator at the Centre for Global Higher Education. 

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