Contribution of lay governors to universities ‘very mixed’

Professor warns scholars’ sense of disempowerment could ‘come to be reflected in the academic product’

August 29, 2019
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The contribution of lay governors to English universities has been “very mixed”, according to a leading professor, who says that academics must be given more involvement in the day-to-day running of institutions.

Michael Shattock, visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education, warns that scholars’ increasing feeling of disempowerment and their lack of influence over their affairs could ultimately “come to be reflected in the academic product”.

Writing in a Higher Education Policy Institute paper on governance published on 29 August, Professor Shattock says that in the past two decades university governing bodies with majority lay membership have taken on increasing authority, partly in response to government pressure, and in doing so have marginalised the traditional role of academic senates or boards.

However, he writes, ministers have placed “too much expectation on the powers and capacity of lay-dominated governing bodies, acting as pseudo company boards, to manage and direct the affairs of universities”.

Professor Shattock – co-author, with Aniko Horvath, of a forthcoming book on governance in UK higher education – says that at many universities, the chair of the governing body is in effect an executive chair, while the other members meet only four or five times a year and have limited knowledge of the institution.

The effect is “to create a top-down organisational culture that runs right through the institution”, while academics express a “wide sense of disempowerment”, Professor Shattock writes. This goes beyond questions of morale, he says, because “almost every managerial decision in a university has some academic implication which needs consideration if we want our universities to be truly academically competitive”.

Meanwhile, Professor Shattock continues, governing bodies have increasingly been asked to give assurances to the sector regulator about the student academic experience, student outcomes and degree standards. These requirements “certainly extend far beyond the professional competence of the average lay governor and have encouraged lay members in many universities to ask to sit in on senates or academic boards to witness academic decision-making in action”.

“Conflict and lay intrusion into the conduct of academic business must be likely to follow, especially in some ‘at-risk’ institutions,” Professor Shattock writes. “Even in areas where lay expertise and experience might be most useful to universities, for example in major long-range borrowing or the control of executive salaries, the record of the lay contribution seems to be very mixed and, in the case of vice-chancellors’ salaries, it has been disastrous for the reputation of the sector as a whole.”

Professor Shattock highlights that many academics control multimillion-pound budgets and lead major research programmes, meaning that they have significant managerial experience.

“If universities are to be able to confront the difficulties that lie ahead in the next decade, we need to re-establish a partnership between governing bodies and senates/academic boards so that their strength and expertise can be drawn on together,” he concludes.

Professor Shattock adds, however, that this would require many pre-92 universities “to address questions such as the over-large size of their senates and their methods of conducting academic business, to ensure that they are in a position to respond to the managerial demands posed by an uncertain external environment”.

Professor Shattock told Times Higher Education that the current system was “not an effective way to run universities”. “The academic community feels disempowered and the danger is that the decline of ‘shared governance’ will come to be reflected in the academic product,” he said.

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