Good practice should lead to a lighter touch

October 15, 2004

A code of conduct for university governors should lead to less external monitoring, says Andrew Cubie

University governors have never had higher obligations and responsibilities and, in his report last December, Richard Lambert specifically asked the Committee of University Chairmen to consider a draft code of practice in governance.

One of the CUC's objectives, as the organisation that com-prises the chairs of governing bodies of UK universities, is to support the sector in developing the highest standards of governance - the framework within which universities operate and are accountable to their stakeholders.

For the past 16 months, a review group drawn from the CUC, the English and Scottish higher education funding councils, Universities UK, Universities Scotland, the Standing Conference of Principals and the Association of Heads of University Administration has been updating an earlier CUC guide for governing body members and trying to identify good practice in governance in the sector. That guide will be published for all UK governing bodies and be presented at a conference to be addressed by Kim Howells, the Higher Education Minister, in London next month.

We believe our work will make a useful contribution to the sector and all who have stakeholder interests in it. The guide will be a reference document for governors and will contain a code of practice.

Lambert's first draft, which drew to some degree on the Australian code, has been taken further. Our work in this field has been the most challenging. We see it, and our supporting work, as an important signal by the sector that self-regulation of governance issues is timely.

The code addresses broad areas of principle and we trust that it can be viewed by all higher education institutions as relevant to their individual circumstances. The sector is diverse, reflecting the age, origins and missions of each institution. Nevertheless, there are some fundamental concepts and approaches that are relevant to each to ensure that governing bodies have unambiguous and collective responsibility for overseeing their institution's activities. Such a statement does not detract from the executive responsibilities of the head of an institution. Indeed, in the code and in the guide we describe the need for clarity in the differing roles of independent and executive members of governing bodies.

The guide, which has separate sections for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, also addresses general principles of governance, the responsibilities (statutory and general) of governors, issues surrounding the effectiveness of the governing body, its committees and individuals, and assessment approaches.

Lambert identified some areas of good practice in governance, that we have developed to challenge universities with approaches different from their own. We invited CHEMS Consulting, which collaborated in the project, to explore practice in the following areas: n the selection, induction and support of governors

* the involvement of governing bodies in an institution's key decision processes

* the relationship between the governing body and the senate/ academic board and the development of committee structures

* the role of the governing body in overseeing commercial and so-called third-leg activities

* how the governing body can measure the performance of an institution

* ways in which the effectiveness of governance can be reviewed.

We consider that the consultants' review of good practice in these areas (which we describe as "those actions taken to meet specific institutional needs to enhance governance, that are fit for institutional purpose and broadly compatible with validated standards and practice") will be helpful to most institutions.

Thereafter, we hope individual institutions will reflect again on whether their governance arrangements match their needs and responsibilities.

In addition, a series of regional seminars is planned for the first half of 2005. This will provide an opportunity to disseminate our results to a wider audience. We will work alongside the newly established Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

I trust that, today, in a context where governing bodies demonstrably recognise and measure up to their responsibilities, the so-called lighter touch of regulation can begin to be outlined and then put into action. True accountability should, logically, lead to less monitoring.

Andrew Cubie is a corporate lawyer and chair of the governance group of the Committee of University Chairmen.

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