New code for university governing councils published

A new code for UK university governing bodies aims to be a “bulwark against over-regulation”, as governance tensions rise in the sector

December 16, 2014

The Committee of University Chairs (CUC) today publishes a 25-page code, slimmed down from the 150 pages of the previous version, originally produced in 2004.

The code seeks to be clearer and more useable for an audience beyond just governing bodies.

There are revised wordings or new governance principles in a number of key areas, including the setting of vice-chancellors’ pay, transparency and ensuring decisions are free of “undue pressures” from donors or corporate sponsors.

But overall, the code does not offer major revisions in terms of its substance – in contrast with the more major exercise undergone in Scotland, where the Scottish Code of Good Higher Education Governance was published in 2013 following a government-commissioned review. The Scottish government is now consulting on university governance legislation that would require elected chairs and the inclusion of student, staff and union representatives.

The publication of the CUC code comes after a series of sudden exits for vice-chancellors – some amid tensions with governing bodies – and as the emergence of a higher education market changes the way universities behave.

“While members of the CUC will recognise many of the provisions of the code from previous versions, stylistically the code is substantially different, and it is now much more concise,” says Sir Nick Montagu, outgoing CUC chair, in his covering letter to the code.

Sir Nick, chair of council at Queen Mary University of London, also says: “In light of a growing demand for ‘consumer’ protection and transparency, I cannot stress enough the importance of actively providing assurance in contributing to the defence of the sector from further legislative or regulatory creep.

“We see the code as a vital guardian of autonomy and a bulwark against external interference and over-regulation.”

UK governing bodies are not required to follow the code. It applies on a “comply or explain” basis – meaning that if governing bodies do not follow parts of the code, they must explain why.

By “visibly adopting” the code, governing bodies “help to protect institutional reputation and provide a level of assurance” to students and society, the code document says. The code is to be revised every four years.

There is a new statement in the revised code that each governing body “must promote equality and diversity throughout the institution, including in relation to its own operation”.

Each governing body “should” conduct its affairs “in an open and transparent manner” and options they “could consider” include “publishing agendas and minutes of its meetings”.

The Scottish governance review, led by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, went further and recommended that “meetings of governing bodies should normally be held in public”.

Recent years have seen a number of controversies over donations, most notably at the London School of Economics in 2011, where a review set up by the institution found failures of governance, management and communication surrounding funding links with the Gaddafi regime.

“The governing body must ensure that its decision-making processes are free of any undue pressures from external interest groups, including donors, alumni, corporate sponsors and political interest groups,” says the new code.

On remuneration committees, which decide vice-chancellors’ pay, the code says that committee members “must consider the public interest and the safeguarding of public funds alongside the interests of the institution when considering all forms of payment, reward and severance to the staff within its remit”.

In a passage that may have relevance to future repeats of recent fallings-out between governing bodies and vice-chancellors, the code says governing bodies “could consider” the “formalisation” of a deputy chair’s role.

This role could “act as an intermediary with other members as may be required, and potentially can be helpful if there are significant differences of view within a governing body or with the executive”, the new code says.

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