Universities are operating "closed" and "incestuous" processes for the appointment of governing body members which raise important questions about accountability, the Nolan committee on standards in public life was told this week.
The establishment of nominations committees in institutions to encourage open and explicit selection criteria has resulted in few changes from the "rule-of-thumb" practices of the past, despite assurances from university heads and chairmen that such committees would prevent the creation of self-perpetuating governing bodies, researchers have found.
Evidence based on the research findings presented to the committee by Peter Scott, director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Education at Leeds University, showed that while the proceedings of nominations committees were formally noted, they were a closed book.
"Forthcoming vacancies are not advertised: instead reliance is placed on informal networks of contacts and acquaintances among existing members," a report on the findings of research based on four case studies and a survey of 28 institutions concludes.
Brian Fender, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told the committee that a growing convergence between the governing structures of "old" and "new" universities would guard against self-perpetuating bodies. New universities had had little strong staff input, but now they understood "that is not the best way of getting the best out of the university".
Professor Fender suggested that it would therefore be inappropriate and highly undesirable for new forms of governance to be prescribed and imposed across the sector, such as forcing new universities to adopt the governing structures of the old.
But Professor Scott's report concluded that "more weight should still be attached to the differences, rather than the degree of convergence, between the two cultures of governance in higher education".
Independent, or "lay" members of new university boards in particular were found to be operating in an "accountability vacuum", with no one to whom they needed to report. These members also effectively appointed their successors. Lay members also relied on senior managers for advice and information, so that "if, for any reason, senior managers go awry, council/governing body members may pick up problems too late".
Professor Fender said instances of irregularities were rare.