Working models for diligent dons

Managing Good Governance in Higher Education
April 27, 2007

Michael Shattock begins this excellent textbook on governance in higher education with a reference to an early 13th-century charter of the University of Paris. Nearly 800 years later, he goes on to say, "university governance remains a contested subject". Universities have complicated histories, and they have often been the focus of heated, sometimes even violent, debate about their purpose and management. It is no uncontroversial thing to decide what (and who) to teach and which frontier of knowledge to advance upon next; nor to negotiate the university's relationship with society at large and to determine the role to be played in its affairs by scholars, students, the state, the local community, business, industry, alumni and other well-meaning friends. It is a measure of the importance of universities through the ages that so many interests seek to control them. A letter to The Times about the recent agitation at Oxford University put it simply - the issue there "is about power and who gets to exercise it: that is governance".

In reality, governance is a subtle beast, manifesting itself differently in different contexts. As Shattock points out, in universities governance and management, which in MBA thinking are theoretically distinct from each other, are more closely interconnected than would be the case in corporate governance generally. He prefers to be open about the ambiguities this implies: Managing Good Governance in Higher Education deals simply with "the constitutional forms and processes through which universities govern their affairs". Its purpose is to describe how university governance has changed over the past quarter of a century, and "to help those actively engaged in university governance to manage increasingly complex issues that confront them". He is well placed to do this, having been closely involved in the creation of one of the very best and most successful new universities in England, and lately has become analyst and commentator on a range of problems that have beset other institutions in the UK and abroad. While the book has a particular technical readership in mind, it is clearly and concisely written and is presented as a starting point for thinking about the subject rather than handing out a blueprint for action.

Chapters two to five describe models of governance and the pressures they have come under as social policy and public funding have combined to expand higher education beyond recognition. What is particularly noteworthy in these chapters is the clear evidence that there are several constitutional models in existence, very different from each other and each with understandable historical roots. Shattock pays particular attention to five such models, four of them to be found in the UK and one a fairly standard model from the US.

At one extreme, there is the type of constitution holding the ancient English and, to a degree, the Scottish universities together, where emphasis is placed on a community of self-governing scholars (albeit with complex internal hierarchies). At the other extreme lies the model, inherited by some new universities, of control by a totally non-academic board. The American model has a board of trustees - perhaps self-perpetuating - who are the ultimate governor, but with some considerable scope, even in theory, for academics to take charge. As recent Harvard University experience demonstrates, in practice good government is achieved by consent. It is of considerable interest how the senior executive officers, charged with managing the university, relate to the governing body, however that is constituted.

All forms of British university governance have come under considerable pressure from the state: since the taxpayer provides much of the resources, it is reasonable that institutions should be accountable and should provide the goods and services for which they receive funding. As Shattock shows, this has led to a rather crude approach to university government, because the state, in particular in the centralising form it has assumed in the past 30 years, is unsympathetic to complexity and to independent authority.

There has been a strong desire to streamline university management and to make higher education more amenable to immediate social and economic demand, which started in Conservative days and was carried forward with great vigour by new Labour. This, it has been argued, is best achieved by treating universities as if they were part and parcel of the regular corporate sector: an external board sets the overall goals for the institution and then ensures that management complies with their delivery. So power is exercised at two levels: the board controls strategy, but the executive is given the authority to implement it.

If this trend is pushed too far, it is incompatible with the key purposes of a university: a place where knowledge lies and qualifications may be obtained; where inquiry is encouraged and tested; where critical thought is developed and high moral and ethical values are inculcated. As the registrary of Cambridge University has argued, the crucial part of running a lively and creative university is to bring into balance the academic core - made up of individual scholars, their disciplines, departments and schools - with a sparse top-down engagement, as represented by senior management and highly professional supporting staff.

Chapters six to nine of Managing Good Governance look at specific cases of mishap in higher education, some of them serious. Shattock attributes these in part, but only in part, to problems of governance. In some instances, fairly elementary checks and balances were not in place or improperly overridden; in others, adequate professional skills were not employed to achieve a certain objective. Some were just plain failures of leadership and common sense that no amount of legislation could have avoided.

By looking at a range of problems that have afflicted particular institutions, Shattock is able to fulfil the second purpose of his book, to improve understanding of the complexity of university governance today. By so doing, he veers clearly to the view that, on the whole, the sector, for all its discords and discontents, is extremely well run compared with other forms of public, commercial and not-for-profit organisations. Perhaps we should celebrate this more boldly.

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust.

Managing Good Governance in Higher Education

Author - Michael Shattock
Publisher - Open University Press
Pages - 172
Price - £65.00 and £23.99
ISBN - 9780335216666 and 6668

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