Leader: Sweep in the same direction

University governors must do more than take a board meeting or two, they must also take the institution's mission to heart

April 16, 2009

Keeping one's own house in order is never easy. The two vice-chancellors swept to a hasty exit by their governing bodies might be forgiven for wondering exactly who is wielding the broom.

Their departures have, however, let some much-needed light into the nooks and crannies of university governance. Often dusty and arcane, it is beset with problems as it slowly evolves to meet the needs of 21st-century universities. Most institutions can no longer be self-governing communities of scholars but, for those people who take issue with the role of managers in universities, the role of the lay governor is even more problematic.

The Committee of University Chairs' Governance Code of Practice requires institutions to be governed by a majority of lay members (Oxford and Cambridge have their own model, on which Alan Ryan has trenchant views). The thinking is that outsiders can be impartial. But we should be very careful that having no vested interest does not mean disinterest or, worse, self-interest. Governors from without may provide a handy check on the overweening power of a vice-chancellor, but there is always the danger that they are doing it with only one eye on the good of the institution and the other on a future honour.

Many lay governors are recruited from business, presumably so that they can teach academics how to run things efficiently and profitably - an idea that is now looking as bankrupt as many high streets. The lesson may have to come from the other direction: UK universities, unlike UK business, are proving very efficient indeed, delivering the goods to more people on a reduced unit of resource.

Under a proposed amendment to the Education Reform Act 1988 by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, universities will be able to shrink their governing bodies to about the size of a private-sector company board. This may streamline decision-making and make non-executive director members feel at home, but unfortunately it could be at the expense of staff and student representatives, who will see themselves evicted.

Such modernisation brings risks. Throwing out those original features such as the freedom of inquiry and speaking truth to power is a dangerous exercise and one we may later have cause to regret. In many cases, it has been the staff intimate with academe and their own institutions who have asked the awkward questions that expose governance problems. Critics of staff representation may argue that they find it hard to hold senior management to account and lack experience of governing body responsibilities. But equally, supine lay members, despite having the latter, often lack knowledge of the institution, making them heavily reliant on the vice-chancellor and thus failing to be a check on his or her activities.

Good housekeeping requires know-how, organisation and a great deal of elbow grease. Outside help can work only if there is understanding, a relationship that goes beyond attending a few meetings a year, hard graft and commitment. Those who choose to become governors of a university must do it for the same reason that others choose to work there: because they believe in its mission of expanding and inculcating knowledge through research and teaching. Whatever their own business, it is the business of being a university that should be the most important of all.


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