End our democratic deficit

Most governance models allow v-cs to ignore academic opinions and freedoms. This must change, says Sally Hunt

April 23, 2009

With at least 100 universities considering redundancy programmes, job cuts are becoming a major issue across the sector and, in turn, focusing attention on the murky world of university governance.

Does anyone believe that the majority of staff and students support the University of Reading's decision to close its surplus-generating School of Health and Social Care, or endorse a University of Liverpool restructuring programme threatening eight departments that emerged from nowhere to appear on a senate agenda?

Little surprise, then, that with staff and students opposed to the cuts and railing about a lack of consultation, senior management in both cases had to rely on the "payroll vote" to win the day at their senates.

What legitimacy can a university claim for a decision that is opposed by a majority of the academic community? Yet with vice-chancellors increasingly comparing themselves to chief executives, they seem to see staff and students as a nuisance stopping "the firm" carrying out its plans.

University councils offer no defence against rampant managerialism, either. When the senate voted not to propose a redundancy programme at Lancaster University, the decision was overruled by the council.

What better example could there be of governing councils' ineffectiveness than their inability to contain vice-chancellors' pay? As Times Higher Education showed last month, while institution heads preached pay restraint to employees in 2008, they pocketed about twice what they begrudgingly paid their staff - all under the noses of councils and remuneration committees.

After Reading closed its award-winning physics department in 2006 with neither proper consultation nor effective foresight, I noted that the group that "took the decision to shut the department contained one third business people, one third senior management, a small number of local dignitaries and just a handful of staff and students". While it would be silly, I argued, to doubt the good intentions of all those who sit on governing bodies, such decisions should be taken by those who are accountable to both students and faculty.

Three years later, how many more universities will opt to "do a Reading", as it is becoming known? How many will, like Lancaster, seek to overturn the decisions of its senate or, like Liverpool, base plans on "secret" consultations, before we all say enough is enough?

I recently wrote to John Denham, the Universities Secretary, highlighting the University and College Union's concerns about proposals for post-92 universities to slim down governing bodies and remove provisions that give staff and students at least some representation.

But we need to do more. We cannot allow decisions that affect staff and students to be taken in isolation from those most affected.

It is ironic that the two most famous universities in the world, Oxford and Cambridge, are the only UK institutions that reject the corporate model and are governed, at least nominally, by the academic community.

Too often now, the independent voices of academics are drowned out by the silent nodding majorities. Decisions on job cuts, staff pay, reorganisations and vice-chancellors' latest strategic vision are rushed through under the cloak of democratic governance.

It is time for a proper debate. Democratic governance is central to the defence of academic freedom. Governing bodies must provide the protection to allow staff to participate fully in the development of academic standards, the curriculum and institutional strategy.

At the moment, many government bodies act not to protect academic freedoms but to protect the executive and rubber-stamp decisions that have little or no support from the academic community.

Yet with the corporate governance model prevalent in the finance sector and so beloved of vice-chancellors having failed in its duty to stop the excessive risk-taking that has pushed banking close to worldwide collapse, now is the time to reject this discredited approach.

Universities must be run with the general consent of staff and students or they are nothing. It is time for a change.

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