Analysis: Who is pulling your strings?

April 12, 2002

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

A well-worn joke about university governance goes like this: who really runs universities? Is it a) the academics, b) the lay governors, or c) the individual responsible for allocating car-parking spaces?

The joke is popular because the question of who really runs universities is a live one. Later this month, lecturers' union Natfhe will launch a campaign for the reform of governance of universities and colleges of higher education.

Natfhe argues that in new universities and colleges of higher education, the academic voice is stifled by a culture of managerialism and a dominance of lay governors.

Liz Allen, Natfhe national official, said: "Staff and student governors are excluded from key committees on employment policy and finance, and academic boards are required to have a majority of managers. None of these restrictions applies in the old universities - nor in the further education colleges."

Research to be published later this year will raise further concerns about governing bodies. A close analysis of the minutes of governing bodies of new universities and colleges of higher education by Brian Bennett, former director of resources at Southampton Institute, shows them to be "passive" and "ineffective".

"We will be publishing a manifesto calling for structures and practice of governance to be based on principles including public service, academic freedom, inclusivity and accountability," Ms Allen said.

The union says that the governance framework for new universities and colleges reflects the "dysfunctional distrust of staff and students" of the early 1990s. It will also publish the results of a recent survey into the governance of new universities.

"Early analysis shows a wide variation in practice in matters such as open advertisement for board membership, ethnic minority membership of boards, the involvement of staff governors in committee business, and the development of joint academic and governing body decision-making," Ms Allen said.

Rebecca Boden, professor of accounting at Bristol Business School at the University of the West of England, said: "It is fantastic that Natfhe is acting on this. For too long academics have abdicated their professional responsibility and neglected what has been happening in their own backyard. It is time they reclaimed universities."

Michael Shattock, professor of higher education at the Institute of Education and former registrar of Warwick University, raised many of the same points at a Universities UK conference on governance, in November last year.

"The real question I was asking is: who really runs universities" Professor Shattock said. "Universities have to maintain a balance between lay and academic involvement. This is the whole point of shared governance. There are clear differences between old and new universities in the way they are governed, and new universities have to take steps to ensure adequate academic involvement."

Professor Shattock is preparing an edition of Higher Education Quarterly that will include a report of Dr Bennett's research on governing bodies. Dr Bennett has reviewed board minutes at two new universities and one college of higher education and analysed questionnaires sent to a five other colleges. The report is one of the first pieces of research to look at what governors do as opposed to what guidance thinks they should do and is entitled The New Style Board of Governors - Are They Working?

The answer to the question would appear to be no. "The findings indicate that boards could be said to be very efficient but passive bodies, in that they deal with a large number of items at board meetings but mostly without discussion or debate," the report says.

"They could also be said to be rather ineffective bodies not appearing to have any major impact on the strategic plans and major governance matters of their institutions or overly involved with the monitoring of executive performance."

The analysis of minutes found that very few of the items discussed could be matched against agreed criteria of what governors should be doing. Only 16.2 per cent of the items were concerned with strategic thinking and 8.7 per cent with accountability, self-assessment, monitoring the executive or external information.

"Board meetings were also generally passive affairs with only 10.2 per cent of all items submitted giving rise to any questioning or challenging behaviour by the board," the report says. And when items were questioned, the majority of requests were for more information.

Michael Knight, head of accounting and a member of the governing body at South Bank University, has long argued that the governance structure of new universities is not effective and that they should move more towards the structure of old universities and seek a Royal Charter.

"If you look at the major scandals in higher education governance over the past few years, you find academics a necessary restraining voice. At Huddersfield, academics were actually banned from the governing body. It seems daft for universities to have two different models of governance," he said.

But while many governance concerns focus on new universities, old universities are not above suspicion. Since the Dearing inquiry reported in 1997, old universities have adopted the more streamlined governance structures of new universities. The report recommended that governing bodies in old universities be reduced to a maximum of 25 members (the maximum permitted at new universities). It also proposed that governing bodies contain a majority of lay members; that they adopt a "set of defined, qualitative, quantitative, internal and external indicators" to enable them to compare the performance of their own institution with others; and that to qualify for funding, they should produce an annual report that should review the institution's performance and its record of compliance with a code of governance practice.

It fell to the Committee of University Chairmen, of which Professor Shattock was then secretary, to respond to this agenda. The great majority of old universities subsequently sought Privy Council approval to reduce the size of their governing bodies, but to an average of between 30 and 34 rather than to 25. Most universities have carried out effectiveness reviews according to a template proposed by the CUC.

"Having brought in these reforms, it is now time to turn to the role of the senates and academic boards," Professor Shattock said. "We need to reform the operation of senates so that they can play a more positive role in shared governance."

"Universities that generally occupy the top ten positions in the league tables seem to emphasise shared governance in their management styles rather than any form of executive dominance," he added.

Mr Knight pointed to different governance structures creating problems as universities sought greater collaboration. "Another reason why a review of governance is needed across the sector is because of the current concern for mergers and rationalisation and the difficulties that diverse governance arrangements would present for mergers across the prior binary divide," he said.

"It will be interesting to see which governance structure is adopted by Bradford University and Bradford College should they decide to merge," he added. A spokesperson for Bradford said that the two institutions were still conducting a feasibility study and had not yet addressed governance issues.

Professor Boden warned that by focusing too much on structures, academics could lose sight of who was really in control.

"New universities tend to look enviously at the governance structures of old universities," she said. "But the truth is that across the sector, managers have moved in to control academics. As a result of the research assessment exercise and Quality Assurance Agency, I now have to fill in endless forms and account to managers for my activities. The managers are no longer there to facilitate my work - they are there to control it. That is the real governance issue for universities, and by focusing on mechanisms and structures we lose sight of that."

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