Analysis: Legal ins and outs of power

April 12, 2002

Natfhe is on the warpath over governance structures that reflect the 'dysfunctional distrust of staff'. Claire Sanders reports.

Universities are legally independent corporate bodies. The council or board of governors has ultimate responsibility for all the affairs of the university.

In old universities the constitution and powers of the governing body are laid down in the charter and statutes. Most old universities were established by royal charter granted through the Privy Council, together with a set of statutes. A very small number were established by an Act of Parliament, again with a set of statutes.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge do not have a charter or an act, but a body of statutes. Changes to the more important of these require Privy Council approval.

For new universities and colleges, the constitution and powers of the governing body are laid down in the Education Reform Act (1988) (as amended by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992), together with the instruments and articles of governance.

Old and new universities have different terminologies. In old universities the governing body is usually referred to as the university council; in new universities it is the board of governors.

The body responsible for academic affairs in old universities is usually called the senate; in new universities it is the academic board.

The court is the old university term for a body with a formal role that does not take part in decision-taking processes but that performs an important public role through its large and varied membership.

The main responsibilities of the governing body are:

* Proper conduct of public business - including management of public and private funds

* Strategic planning

* Monitoring performance

* Financial estate management

* Charitable status - all higher education institutions have charitable status under the Charities Act 1993. Governing bodies must ensure that the property and income of the institution are applied only in support of purposes that are charitable in law

* Staffing - responsibility for employment policy and appointment of vice-chancellor

* Students' union - ensure that the students' union operates in a fair and democratic manner and is accountable for its finances

* Health and safety - ultimate responsibility for health and safety of employees, students and visitors.

Taken from Guide for Members of Governing Bodies of Universities and Colleges in England, Wales and Northern Ireland April 2001 .

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