Governors don flak jackets

November 14, 1997

QUALITY assurance, franchising, downsizing: the academic world is prone to latch on to the latest management mantras long after the private sector and is inclined to have trouble handling them. Nonetheless business and education are converging in the way they are governed, as firms become more interested in people as assets and universities and colleges diversify activities and become sensitive to outside stakeholders.

In the corporate sector, directors have to pay attention not only to shareholders but also to external audiences. At this week's Confederation of British Industry meeting, trade and industry secretary Margaret Beckett said that new legislation to improve company governance may be needed to make firms work better and account more openly for their behaviour.

Apparently disparate events such as Gill Evans's battle with Cambridge (page 2), failures in research supervision at Keele (THES, November 7), the abandonment of geology at Aberystwyth (page 2) and rows over the management of Thames Valley (THES, November 7) show that universities are complex places where much can go wrong. The diversity of their community - students and staff - means that many separate mechanisms are needed for ensuring quality and fairness. Indeed, as firms employ more part-time and contract staff they could learn from education.

But universities have a simpler product line - degrees, theses and research papers - than most companies. Teaching and supervision of students need not be standardised for quality to be high. And student fees will mean higher expectations. Complaints are going to be more frequent and more newsworthy.

Indeed, in the stroppier world they are now entering, the educational and corporate worlds may have more in common than they might think. Neither can afford to have people in charge who are not fully committed to the task. Except at Oxford, the post of vice chancellor has long become professionalised and a layer of deputies has sprung up. Lecturers might think these people expensive, but not having them would cost more.

Now the focus should shift to the people to whom these managers report. In universities and colleges being a governor or member of council is becoming a serious job.

Old universities have a long-standing distinction between academic matters that are the province of the senate, and financial and other matters for which the council is responsible. Former polytechnics and colleges do not have such a clear division. In local authority days their governing bodies were full of local politicians. Since they became independent they have been the domain of local industrialists and too often appointments have seemed cliquey. Relations with local business are increasingly important. Companies should be interacting with institutions as research funders or course participants. Rules need to be much clearer about conflicts of interest.

The job description for governors is simple enough. They must not be too close to full-time managers: they need to put in enough hours to see systems work properly and be familiar with the institution's psyche: and they have to take decisive action when needed. In return, they have to know they are helping build a valuable institution, and they have to be taken seriously. Like non-executives in the private sector, they also have to know their performance will attract attention when there is a problem. This week Keith Scribbins points up (FE, page 12) one set of criteria that can help them know what to do and what to leave to others. However this develops, governors are likely to be increasingly exposed as demand grows and resources shrink.

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