Lessons from the new kids

November 20, 1998

Eastern Europe could inspire the UK to break from its Victorian governance patterns and its large bureacuracies, argues Dennis Farrington.

The Council of Europe's legislative reform programme has been working in 21 new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe since 1991. The programme's work reflects the council's aims of securing democratic institutions and practice, especially in regions prone to conflict, and promoting fuller integration into European structures. It has supported the process of reform of higher education and research as this is embodied in a legal and regulatory framework.

The council has a broader membership base than the European Union, a longer history and far less funding. The United Kingdom was a founding member in 1949, so we should reflect on what we can learn from the council's efforts in this field.

The programme's experts have been drawn from several countries and from different professional backgrounds. I have been helping mainly to formulate and comment on primary legislation: others have worked on regulatory systems for funding, management of research, quality assurance and vocational education.

Legislative reform in this area is not the most glamorous activity. It has been a process of influencing new ways of thinking at parliamentary, ministerial, official and institutional level.

The principles normally found in the region's post-1990 primary legislation are that institutions of higher education should be legally autonomous, governed by bodies that embrace democracy, managed by persons accountable to those governing bodies and given academic freedom in teaching and research. As far as possible decisions about internal organisational structures should be devolved to the institutions. Public institutions provide higher education services in exchange for public funding for which they are held accountable. The state's influence may be found through appointment of external members to governing bodies, by provisions for the accountability to public authorities of individuals charged with managing public funds, by requirements for regular reporting, for financial audit and other controls.

The framework laws in general provide that all institutions should submit their academic activities for scrutiny by quality assessment bodies in which they have confidence.

This is all very commendable but, unlike the UK, none of these countries can afford to spend money intended for higher education on large funding and quality assurance bureaucracies. They need to watch every penny and to ensure that the system provides value for money. The programme principles need to be put into operation in the most cost-effective way.

Tapping students to make up the shortfall in funds diverted to bureaucracy may be one way forward - but surely only as a last resort. Abroad, I am frequently asked why we have funding councils and what value they add to the process of educating students. I can only answer by trotting out the old, increasingly theoretical, arguments about autonomy, buffer bodies and so on, preventing that direct political interference that is now usually outlawed in Central and Eastern Europe.

Now that we have incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into our law, such interference is theoretically impossible even in the UK. So why not just get the mandarins to dish out the funding with a much cheaper academic advisory body? Bring back the University Grants Committee?

Another element in the laws of Central and Eastern Europe concerns the structure of governing bodies. As institutions in the UK become less autonomous and more accountable, a governing body's freedom of action becomes more limited. This does not detract from its collective responsibility to govern effectively and efficiently. To do so, the governing body must have adequate mechanisms for monitoring and reviewing the management's performance because the governing body is accountable. This implies that the governing body should appoint or elect and, for what the law prescribes as good cause, dismiss the management.

There are a number of examples of countries advised by the programme that have some element of external representation on their institution councils. But why in the UK should it be dominated by outsiders?

Of course such persons bring business, finance, human resource management and other relevant expertise, plus an ability to challenge insiders' views of non-academic proposals and developments, and it is expected that they will be committed to the institution, not to their own agenda or that of some external group. A body dominated by staff and students but including "non-executive directors" would fit well with the principle of democratic governance espoused by the programme. Taking reform one stage further would be to abolish the traditional UK senate.

There is arguably no need for a separate body if the council is no longer dominated by lay members, and in some subject areas lay members may have a useful "academic" input. I sometimes despair of the opportunities missed by Lord Dearing to undertake a truly radical review of our higher education system, which has suffered from so much disjointed development in the past 15 years.

Looking east, however, can perhaps offer some ideas to shake us out of our adherence to Victorian patterns of governance and to creating battalions of bureaucrats. It might actually enable more funds to be spent on teaching and research. What a novel thought.

Dennis Farrington is deputy secretary of the University of Stirling.

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