University governance reforms must go further

Nottingham Trent University’s chair of governors Neil Goulden explains why institutions need to do more to regain public esteem

February 23, 2018
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UK universities have been the subject of intense public debate in recent months, and this does not appear to be fading.

As chair of governors for one of the country’s largest higher education institutions, I have tracked this debate closely.

The points raised by Lord Adonis and many others around senior executive pay and value for money cannot be ignored; universities must act to restore public faith.

It is in response to this debate that the governing body and senior leadership team at Nottingham Trent University – including the vice-chancellor – are introducing a set of new reforms to ensure that the university is at the forefront of higher education governance.

The Committee of University Chairs, the representative body for university chairs, needs to make clear that several meaningful changes are expected from the sector.

First, no vice-chancellor should sit on a remuneration committee that discusses his or her own pay.

Second, every university should appoint to its remuneration committee a student representative.

Third, an indication of how a vice-chancellor has performed against the key performance indicators of an institution should be available on university websites.

Details of salary and bonus should also be made public when agreed. This would ensure that the salaries of those running our universities are transparent and contained, with any future growth justified. Nottingham Trent will be implementing these measures from next academic year.  

Some of those vocal in the debate around higher education this year have been calling for a government-sanctioned reduction in vice-chancellors’ pay.

But let’s be realistic. It is simply not plausible – or legally possible – to cut vice-chancellors’ pay across the board.

Equally, removing tens of thousands of pounds from university budgets that are usually in the hundreds of millions of pounds is a relatively trivial act, the only likely result of which would be to deter potentially talented applicants for some of the most important jobs in our education system.

What is both possible and required is to make a change to the standards by which we judge the success of our universities.

While universities must ensure value for money across a range of different metrics, the most important of these should be graduate employment, matching individual skills to organisational needs.

The teaching excellence framework is a refreshing initiative that must remain focused on such outcomes.

However, much of the higher education sector has failed in its duty to facilitate true meritocracy over the past 20 years. Social mobility must be woven into all metrics by which universities are judged.

Too many universities in this country have used the shield of rankings based on data shaped by research to deflect from their lack of success in fostering diverse student bodies. The Office for Students (OfS) should treat achievement in social mobility as a key marker of success for universities overall.

Entrenching this as a measure by which universities are appraised – one that is at least as important as research outputs, which are normally far removed from the average undergraduate experience – would greatly incentivise change.

UK universities continue to be some of the best in the world and serve as a constant attraction for the best and brightest students and staff from Europe and beyond.

The institution that I chair was recently awarded the Times Higher Education University of the Year title and received the Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year award.

But that by no means makes us immune from criticism, and none of the country’s universities should be excused from evolution.

We should be rightly proud of our higher education sector. However, now is a moment for the CUC and the OfS to come together to help the sector restore its tarnished reputation and live up to its potential.

Neil Goulden is chair of Nottingham Trent University’s board of governors and is a former chief executive of betting firm Gala Coral Group.

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