Hepi calls for alumni to take governance roles

University governance must be overhauled to address the problem of "dispassionate" independent board members who protect their own interests at times of crisis rather than those of the institutions they serve, according to a new study.

March 31, 2011

Under changes proposed by the review, alumni would be handed a central role as government reforms necessitate a move towards governors that have a direct interest in their universities' well-being.

The Higher Education Policy Institute report on the future of governing bodies, authored by Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, says that alumni have the "greatest lifelong stake in the institution's reputation and its protection".

Professor Gillies argues that the old arm's-length "common-sense" approach to governance detailed in sector guides needs to be updated, as independent board members lack the incentive to act in tough times.

"At moments of governance crisis, and holding no stake of dependency, independent governors can act to protect their professional or private interests and their reputation over those of the autonomous institution," he writes in University Governance: Questions for a New Era.

"Authority is better based in a body that actively and passionately represents the relative interests of the key university stakeholders," he adds.

The report comes in the wake of a spate of governance problems at universities in recent years (see box below), including London Met under its former vice-chancellor, Brian Roper.

Passionate intensity

Professor Gillies, who in 2009 stepped down as vice-chancellor of City University London after a row with its governing council, says that the shift in higher education funding requires a rebalancing of the membership of ruling bodies.

"(The shift) signals a move towards a more overt, more passionate balance in institutional governance and away from the dispassionate, 'independent' adjudication of matters...that is still found in current governance guides and much governance practice," he writes.

He goes on to argue that the people best placed to take on the role in future will be alumni, "as they now become the chief funding agent of most (English) universities...through their decades-long repayment of state-provided loans".

Professor Gillies also says that a key lesson from the financial crisis is that members of governing bodies need expert skills to be able to scrutinise decisions effectively.

But he adds that values are also very important, and "amateur" independent governors with less knowledge of university life are not always best placed to deal with the increasingly entrepreneurial outlook of the UK's higher education institutions.

Suggesting that governors might need to be paid for their services in future, he writes: "Better that than boards fail to exercise their responsibilities in a fully competent and dedicated fashion, and the entire institution be at higher risk."

His analysis comes days after the Higher Education Funding Council for England published a shared strategy for its relationship with governing bodies after a consultation with the sector.

In it, Hefce emphasises that it "respects" the autonomy of governing bodies, but stresses that "governors are expected to fulfil their responsibilities, both individual and collective, in a proactive manner and notify Hefce of an adverse situation in a timely manner".

However, Professor Gillies notes that the National Audit Office recently identified a need for further clarification of this relationship given the sector's changing financial environment.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the Hepi report was "very timely", adding that there was a need to reassess the role of university governors "in light of the massive changes to higher education".

"The proportion of independent/lay governors is very high at many institutions and UCU has questioned how relevant their expertise is to higher education, which functions very differently from the corporate environments they have worked in," Ms Hunt said.

"The main function of governing bodies should be to protect the academic independence of universities against interference by government and business. Staff representation on governing bodies has been eroded, as has the role of senates and academic boards. It is essential to strengthen the academic input to governing bodies in order to protect the distinctive ethos of the university and its independent role within our democracy."


Year of the long knives: v-c cull informs Gillies' vision

Malcolm Gillies is ideally placed to comment on the problems of university governance, having stepped down from his previous job after a row with a ruling council, only to pick up the pieces of failed oversight at another institution.

When he took over as vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University last year, the institution was still reeling from a student-data fiasco in which governors were directly criticised for their supervision of the executive team.

The row centred on inaccuracies in student-completion figures that prompted funding chiefs to claw back £36.5 million overpaid to London Met from 2005-06 to 2007-08.

Brian Roper stood down as vice-chancellor in March 2009 after the scale of the problem emerged. A number of lay governors, who were serving on the board at the time the inaccurate figures were submitted to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, also left last year.

Professor Gillies has since been working to mend the university's tarnished reputation and rebuild its shattered governance structure.

But a few months before joining London Met, he was tackling his own disagreements with a board a short distance away in the capital.

In early 2009, while vice-chancellor of City University London, he clashed with lay governors over the composition of the main council, complaining of a lack of skills and knowledge of education among board members. Later that year, after a report on the board's effectiveness was presented to City's council, he stepped down.

His was among a rash of high-profile clashes between university governors and executive teams in 2009.

Simon Lee, former vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, resigned in January after falling out with Ninian Watt, chair of the governors.

The pair had clashed over whether to raise Leeds Met's tuition fees from the discounted rate of £2,000 a year to the maximum of £3,312.

In February, Martin Everett stepped down as vice-chancellor of the University of East London after an investigation by its governing board into complaints that he had shown insufficient leadership. Professor Everett had already spent eight months in limbo after being suspended in July 2008 by the chair of UEL's board of governors, Jim McKenna.

In November 2009, Sir Roy Anderson, rector of Imperial College London, resigned amid speculation about a clash with his chair of governors, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard.

Minutes of a council meeting from May that year had recorded a difference of opinion between Sir Roy and Lord Kerr over how the institution should respond to public spending cuts.

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