Lean, mean boards do not work better

Study finds no link between fewer board members and higher performance. Hannah Fearn reports

July 16, 2009

Universities may be blindly following advice to establish smaller corporate-style boards, despite a lack of evidence that this is a good move.

The idea that less is more on university boards stems from the Dearing report on higher education, which was published in 1997.

Lord Dearing, the report's author, suggested that an effective university governing body should not exceed 25 members.

While post-1992 universities currently have the size of their board prescribed, many older universities are now sticking to the figure on the advice of the Committee of University Chairs, despite being free to have as large a governing body as they like.

However, a study led by Adam Dawkins, assistant registrar at Queen Mary, University of London, found no link between smaller boards and better institutional performance.

According to Mr Dawkins, the figure of 25 is now "situated in the fuzzy realm of 'good practice' somewhere between guidance and regulation".

Yet the research found that a governing body with 30 members was just as effective as one with 18 in making responsible and accountable decisions.

For example, the University of Warwick's governing body has 32 members, yet it is an institution with "entrepreneurial flair", the study says.

"It is hard to believe that Warwick's success is in spite of its larger-than-recommended governing body," it concludes.

The research also warns that by reducing board sizes, academic representation could be lost, highlighting the fact that when membership exceeds 25, it is because a "sizeable proportion" of faculty members are involved.

"The signals of shared stewardship of an institution's affairs sent out as a result of this more proportioned and participative approach to higher education governance should not be underestimated," the paper says.

"There is scant evidence to indicate that the almost exclusively lay-populated boards of the post-1992 institutions have been as effective as was intended."

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr Dawkins said: "The reductionist approach to boards could be at the expense of decision-making rather than to its benefit.

"I think it reflects a growing tendency across the sector for groups and organisations to produce 'good practice' that risks being adopted by the academy as mandatory."

David Fletcher, chairman of the CUC, defended the committee's advice, arguing that boards should contain a majority of lay members to preserve their independence.

"In the governance code, we say that a governing body of no more than 25 members represents a benchmark of good practice, but we are not prescriptive about this," he said.

"It is open to any individual institution to have a larger governing body if it believes this is right."

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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