Governance track for man who helped privatise the UK's railways

Sir Nick Montagu of the CUC talks to John Morgan about regulation, remuneration and accountability

May 24, 2012

Sir Nick Montagu, chair of the Committee of University Chairs (CUC), gets some blank looks when he wanders around campus at Queen Mary, University of London, where he leads the institution's council.

"If I'm honest, quite often if I go around Queen Mary, people won't have a clue - and I'm talking about academics - what the governing body does. It doesn't loom large in their lives. That is as it ought to be."

Simon Gaskell, Queen Mary's principal, and his executive are "the important senior body in [academics'] existence", Sir Nick added.

University governance may be opaque to some scholars, but the CUC is looking at a number of pressing issues under the former senior civil servant, who began his working life as a philosophy lecturer at the University of Reading.

He then joined the government, serving as director-general of public transport - overseeing the latter stages of the privatisation of the railways - and chair of the Inland Revenue board.

A CUC plenary meeting last month agreed that a steering group should be set up to look at "governance in a changing world". Chaired by Sir Nick, it will include representatives of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and other key sector bodies, with a "remit to lead a rewrite of the [CUC] guidance on governance".

"What I'll be coming up with guidance where, if a university can show it is compliant with that [guidance], it clears the first hurdle for qualifying for lighter-touch regulation by Hefce," he said.

Sir Nick, who was elected as CUC chair in July last year, wants the organisation to "focus on governance" and being "an information resource for our members".

That will include a "drastically overhauled website", which will "also be a blogging site" and "highly interactive" - offering members of governing bodies a way to share information and experience.

He defined the role of a higher education governing body as setting "the strategic framework within which the executive under the vice-chancellor work and to hold them to account for delivery", not intervening "unless they think there is real cause for concern".

One of the key questions raised by the new fees and funding system is the accountability of governing bodies to students, Sir Nick said.

As Hefce starts to hold fewer of the purse strings and funding is routed via students, Sir Nick said that the steering group on governance will ask: "'What does that say about your accountability to students as consumers?"

Asked whether that could mean more of a role for students on governing bodies, Sir Nick said: "Not necessarily, but it could be that. You need to consider whether students as directly paying consumers have any additional rights or not. You can argue it both ways.

"[But] to have more students on the governing body is a sort of knee-jerk reaction. Governing bodies aren't the be-all and end-all."

Greater accountability could mean "additional information systems about what students want and what students get, other than the National Student Survey and comparable surveys", he added.

Chairs of governing bodies tend to chair remuneration committees, giving them a key role in setting vice-chancellors' pay.

That is "obviously a big issue for chairs of governors and we share information about it in a sensible way", Sir Nick said.

But, calling this "a very important point", he added that vice-chancellors' pay was "a matter for the individual remuneration committee of each university" and that it would be "wrong for us to have any significant policy role there".

The University and College Union often calls for greater transparency about how remuneration committees reach their decisions on vice-chancellors' pay.

But Sir Nick said: "The fundamental rules covering the confidentiality of personnel and decisions relating to individuals are the proper overlay for everything.

"I think it's very difficult - yes of course 'transparency' is a great hooray word, but so is the protection of individual privacy."

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