Governors and academics are 'out of touch'

More constructive contact is needed between key groups, survey suggests. Melanie Newman reports

February 12, 2009

Concerns that some university governing bodies are out of touch with the academic leadership of their institutions have been raised by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

A survey for the foundation found that although the majority of senior university managers reported that relationships between the governors and the academic board were constructive, a significant minority reported less constructive relationships. One in five managers said relationships were only "sometimes" constructive, while 15 per cent said they were "rarely" constructive. Some 8.5 per cent of governors said relations were "rarely" or "not at all" constructive, and 10 per cent reported that they "don't know" if relations were good or not.

The Office of Public Management surveyed 294 governors and 131 managers at universities across the sector.

The report accompanying the survey, published this week, says that in some institutions surveyed there was "almost no contact" between governing boards and academic boards "whereby not even minutes of the academic/board senate go to the governing body".

"It would certainly appear difficult for higher education institutions to undertake effectively their responsibility for determining educational character (whether formally defined or not) in such circumstances," the report says.

Half of governors and a third of senior managers answered "don't know", "sometimes", "rarely" or "not at all" to a question about whether their universities' employees understand the responsibilities of the governing body.

The report, prepared by Allan Schofield, the director of the Leadership Foundation's governor development programme, notes that little research has been done on how boards can maximise their effectiveness and how effective boards can be distinguished from poor ones.

"Similarly, the four UK higher education funding bodies have identified the increasing importance of governance but have no real way of identifying effectiveness in practice, beyond compliance with regulatory requirements and what is deemed acceptable practice in the sector," Mr Schofield says.

He adds: "In the private sector, it is difficult to conceive of a board being held to be effective where a company is performing less than satisfactorily, however, in higher education it has been perfectly possible to have the situation where corporate governance has had little relationship to the efficiency and effectiveness of teaching and research.

"The case for enhancing governance ... needs to be made not only on the basis of public accountability, but also by demonstrating the 'added value' to institutional performance that effective governance can bring."

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