Let’s take back control of our institutions

How strong a voice should academics and students have in university governance? Tom Cutterham contrasts autocratic and democratic patterns in UK and European institutions

June 7, 2018
Three people try to steer car

Earlier this year, hundreds of academics at the University of Oxford turned up to a meeting of Congregation – the institution described by Oxford as its “sovereign body” and “parliament”. Cheered on by banner-waving students and supporters outside the Sheldonian Theatre, their aim was to reverse the position on pension reform adopted without consultation by the institution’s vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson.

The debate and vote had been called at the last minute, by academics concerned that Oxford’s stance was helping legitimise cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme that threatened dire consequences for present and future academics across the UK. Under these circumstances, it took just 20 members of Congregation to stand up before the debate had begun to block the process by automatically suspending the session. When they did so, some 400 academics went outdoors and took their vote unofficially. The next day, Richardson backed down in the face of what she called the “depth of feeling of so many colleagues”.

This is not a story of functioning institutional democracy. But it is one of democratic power being wielded by the members of an academic community over its appointed leadership. It is also a story that could not have occurred at the vast majority of UK universities because, for them, even the notion of collective academic sovereignty does not exist. Most are run by self-perpetuating oligarchies, increasingly unaccountable to either staff or students. Can we – should we – do things differently?

Universities’ role in the pensions dispute is not the only thing that has brought questions of democracy and governance to the foreground in the UK recently. They also underlie the recent flurry of criticism over vice-chancellors’ pay. At the University of Bath, where Dame Glynis Breakwell was pressured by staff to resign last year, a report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England found that decision-making around her £468,000 annual pay lacked transparency and accountability. In a little over a week, she had announced her retirement, but freedom of information requests filed by the University and College Union found that the same problems were prevalent across UK universities.

Of course, executive pay, however inflated, makes up only a small proportion of university budgets. Calls for the reform of remuneration committees will have little effect if senior management teams are allowed to go on wielding power without democratic scrutiny. As tuition fees and a more market-oriented regulatory regime potentially give individual universities increasing autonomy and financial leeway, it is not just remuneration committees that warrant reconsideration, but the entire structure of institutional governance.

How do things currently stand? At the University of Birmingham, where I work, the Senate contains more senior managers acting ex officio than it does elected representatives of the academic community. Council, the “supreme governing body of the university”, is even less democratic. Among its 24 members, four are elected – but by and from the academic members of the Senate (presumably including the unelected ones), not the academic community as a whole. Nowhere in either of these bodies are there any elected representatives of professional services staff.

In UK terms, these arrangements sit somewhere near the middle of the spectrum. At one end are a few elite institutions, including Oxford and the London School of Economics, where most academic staff belong to some sort of assembly with significant governing powers. At the other, more populous end, democratic representation is more or less non-existent. As Michael Shattock put it in Times Higher Education last year, there are “substantial numbers” of British universities “where the academic community is in effect excluded from any major questions of institutional policy” (“The four ages of UK university governance”, 23 March 2017).

In comparison with continental Europe, autocratic tendencies at British universities show up particularly starkly. Since the wave of student protests across the Continent in 1968 helped weaken the grip on power held by the most senior professors, the norms of academic governance in most of Europe have included substantial academic, and often student, representation. This does not just mean that elected representative councils held final authority over executive appointments, resource allocation and institutional strategy. In many cases, it also meant that the heads of faculties and departments were elected by their members. They were, in other words, democratic institutions.

A series of reforms over the past two decades, pushed forward by the European Commission through the Bologna Process, has aimed to curb the power of academic staff and students across the Continent and replace it with corporate-style executive boards. In the name of efficiency and competitiveness, European politicians and university executives have dragged their institutions towards the neoliberal model familiar to anglophone academics. But they have not done so without resistance. Even today, democratic norms at European universities far outstrip those on show in the UK.

At the University of Oslo, for instance, even after national reforms in 2005, “employees and students…elect their own rector [university leader] and pro-rector every four years”, according to its website. Faculties elect their deans, and some departments also elect their heads. Alongside the rector on the university board sit four elected representatives of staff (including one for professional and support staff), two student representatives and just four external members appointed by the government. Unlike anything in the UK, it is both streamlined and democratic.

Those government-appointed board members at Oslo hint at another distinction between British universities and their cousins in Europe: institutions in the UK have traditionally been more independent of political control. Tuition fees and the lifting of caps on student numbers have increased that independence (even if there are concerns about the amount of power that the new Office for Students could wield over English institutions). The question for British academics, though, is whether interference in our teaching and research agendas is really any better coming from unaccountable university executives than from government ministers – or indeed, whether state interventions such as the research excellence framework serve mainly to further empower our unelected bosses.

Oslo-style democratic governance could be the rallying call for the next reform movement in British universities. In light of the pensions dispute and the debacle over vice-chancellors’ pay, one benefit would simply be the introduction of some form of restraint on runaway senior management teams, whose actions have damaged not just students’ and academics’ trust but also the public reputation of the sector. Elected vice-chancellors would also be far more effective representatives of universities, able to speak legitimately on behalf of the communities that they lead in public debates over funding, strategy and regulation.

In the same vein, elected faculty or college heads could properly represent the interests of their own subjects, scholars and students within the larger institution. Instead of simply enacting commands and implementing strategies from on high, they would need to be creative mediators between different demands and interests. Of course, this doesn’t always work flawlessly in the European institutions where such structures are in place. It can lead to gridlock or drift, disincentivising innovation and restructuring. On the other hand, some might not think those more conservative tendencies an altogether bad thing. At the very least, we would regain a sense that an institution’s direction, or lack thereof, was a collective responsibility.

Forklift lifts car

We should also consider the governance of universities in light of the roles that we expect them to play in society. For students, higher education is about more than just a certificate or a set of skills useful to them as someone’s employee: it is preparation for an active and engaged life as a citizen and member of society. If we want graduates to be comfortable and competent in their civic participation, we should make democracy a regular and visible part of university life. If we want them to take responsibility for their communities – at every scale, from neighbourhood to planet – we could start by giving them a proper say on campus.

Formal rules and procedures of democratic representation can shift power from appointed leaders to the ordinary members of our university communities. But democracy also reaches beyond the specific moments of formal participation such as casting a vote. When leaders need to win support for their ideas and policies, they actually have to communicate with the communities that they lead. Sometimes, through that process of public conversation (and always anticipating the next round of voting), they even change their minds – as Louise Richardson did when confronted by her dons.

UK staff and students who spent time on picket lines or at teach-outs this spring have described their experience as revelatory. Standing together through the snowstorms, striking workers and supportive demonstrators helped shape as well as defend the ideals of higher education. Many began to investigate more deeply than before the conditions of labour and study, not just for themselves but for the larger community as well. “What gives me hope is the sea change in sentiment that I feel around me,” wrote Dan Healey, professor of Russian history at Oxford. “We are not going back to business-as-usual when this strike is over, that’s for sure.”

Democratisation holds the key to reproducing those feelings and connections in the long term, embedding them in everyday campus life and changing the way that staff and students relate to their institutions. As Lucy Delap, reader in modern British and gender history at the University of Cambridge, put it: “The strike has raised questions over the accountability of our institutions – who takes decisions on our behalf? Who is consulted?” Those questions may fade away with the suspension of the strike. Or they may prove the starting point for transformation.

Three years ago, a similar moment of resistance, protest and debate began at the University of Amsterdam, where students launched a 45-day occupation of the central administrative building, known as the Maagdenhuis. The protesters called for the reversal of a series of proposed cuts and mergers. More than that, they demanded the restriction of casualised academic labour and a democratic overhaul of the university’s governing board. Gaining support from both the Dutch public and a roster of distinguished academics around the world, occupiers challenged the direction of market-driven reform that had pushed European universities towards increasingly unaccountable, corporate-style governance.

It is still too early to assess the final outcome of the Maagdenhuis occupation. But in the immediate aftermath, university administrators were forced to make a public commitment to strengthening internal democracy, as well as reining in exploitative employment practices. The follow-up has seen a referendum on new governance structures, an increased presence for workers’ and students’ councils in senior appointments, and the beginning of a “university forum”– made up of randomly selected staff representatives – that will guide future strategy. It will take continued struggle, but the trajectory at Amsterdam now seems to be towards democracy.

At the same time, though, events since 2015 have discouraged many well-educated citizens from looking kindly on democracy. The Brexit vote and then Donald Trump’s election in the US have given some commentators licence to question whether voters can really be trusted to decide their own political fate. Defending the importance of expertise in public debate has sometimes gone alongside the denigration of fundamental political equality. So who would choose to redistribute power to the ordinary colleagues and students who make up our institutions? Do we really want to take back control from the expert management elite?

The answer depends on where we see the future of society itself. Through both research and teaching, universities are at the leading edge of how we come to understand ourselves and the world we live in. The kind of culture in which we pursue those functions and the way we set priorities within them, make a difference to the outcomes that we produce. One future for universities sees the continuation of present trajectories, a straight road towards the ever greater concentration of power and the ever more efficient marketing of educational commodities. Another breaks off on a different path – one whose destination is all the less certain and the more desirable because we must build it together as we go. 

Tom Cutterham is lecturer in US history at the University of Birmingham.

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