Leader: Guardians of their own future

Malcolm Gillies' report on university governance, the fruit of bitter personal experience, offers a way forward for the sector

March 31, 2011

They were dropping like flies. In a few dramatic months in 2009, Martin Everett stepped down as vice-chancellor of the University of East London after governors held an investigation into his leadership; Sir Roy Anderson quit as rector of Imperial College London after known clashes with its chair of governors; Simon Lee stood down as head of Leeds Metropolitan University after its governors handed him an ultimatum - quit or face an investigation into his treatment of colleagues; and Malcolm Gillies left the top job at City University London after less than two years in charge as a result of "differing views on matters of governance".

Gillies stepped almost immediately into a crisis at London Metropolitan University, taking charge there just after its governors had been persuaded by funding chiefs to resign en masse over the student-data scandal that had claimed his predecessor, Brian Roper.

While each case was unique, they all raised the same questions: how should our autonomous universities be run? How are those in power best held to account? Who guards the guardians?

So it is pertinent that Gillies himself was tasked by the Higher Education Policy Institute with helping to make sense of those extraordinary events and to look forward to the future of university governance.

With the weight of some spectacular corporate failures and the global banking crisis to bolster his case, Gillies argues in his report this week, University Governance: Questions for a New Era, that across all sectors there is clear evidence that governors "need to understand more about an enterprise's core business and relate better to stakeholder interests". Being a "good chap", he says, will no longer do - especially if those chaps have a tendency to look after their own personal and business interests, not those of the institution, when things go wrong.

Universities are unique and precious institutions and need passionate, representative governing bodies that truly understand just how unique and precious they are.

The academy is entering a new era. It must cope with a dramatic diminution of direct taxpayer support, a more ruthless free market with for-profit providers licking their lips in anticipation of new business, plus ever-increasing pressures to identify new sources of funding.

In this context, it is worth remembering the excellent statement on the purpose of the university penned by Colin Lucas and Geoffrey Bolton for the League of European Research Universities and published in 2008.

"The freedom to inquire, to debate and to speak truth to power, whether it be the power of government, of those who fund the university, or those who manage it, is central to the vitality of the university and its utility to society...an easily governed university is no university at all," they wrote.

Gillies clearly understands this, and his proposed way forward is simple. He says that the university should be governed by those who best understand its core business of education and research, who have the greatest lifelong stake in its reputation, who have the biggest "moral and financial stake" in its future - its graduates.

It is not a revolutionary idea, but it is still a good one.


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