Principal/agent concern

June 6, 2013

Michael Shattock rightly draws attention to the parallels in the governance failures at HBOS and London Metropolitan University (“The best board I ever sat on”, 30 May). He is also right to point to the greater risk of “executive capture” in post-1992 institutions. However, the difficulties with university governance go deeper still.

In essence this is a classic principal/agent problem, where the principal lacks the knowledge, expertise or time to effectively control the agent. Having senior governors with higher education experience would help, but a better solution would be to have a small executive board reporting to an upper-level court genuinely representative of key stakeholder groups – students past and present, all categories of staff and local communities – and with real powers to call the executive to account. There also needs to be stronger regulation: in the past, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has been the backstop, but its role is changing and its influence waning.

These weaknesses will become even more apparent as the competitive pressures on ­institutions intensify. It is therefore regrettable that none of the key agencies – Hefce, Universities UK, the Committee of University Chairs or the Leadership Foundation – appears to be willing to grasp this particular nettle.

Roger Brown
Professor of higher education policy
Liverpool Hope University

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Reader's comments (1)

HEFCE were told of problems at London Met (UNL) long before the matter "blew up" (by me). They chose to ignore my message. The Dept. for education (David Blunkett) were told. They raised the matter with the university who, effectively, told them to go away (they said they were an autonomous organisation). Rob Slack

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