Political board appointments ‘need to end’ in Australia

Deficiencies in Australian university governance made worse by state government selection of councillors, reviewer says

November 6, 2019
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Australian state governments should relinquish their right to choose university board members, according to a researcher who has catalogued the governing bodies of Australia’s 39 universities.

Thomas Barlow says state government control over university governance is “absurd” and “out of line with widely accepted standards” while also exacerbating a shortage of experience on councils.

With Australian universities mostly regulated at the state level, state and territory governments typically appoint four – and in some cases as many as eight – of an average of 16 governing body members, despite providing less than 2 per cent of university funding.

Dr Barlow’s report says this is “detrimental” as well as unjust, because “political processes create selection incentives that are very different from those that universities actually need”.

“Where a single government appoints multiple councillors, there will be a natural tendency towards homogenisation, both of values and expertise,” the report says.

Dr Barlow’s review found that governing bodies were massively overstocked with professional and financial services experience while lacking firepower in just about every other field.

Externally appointed members proved about 16 times more likely to have qualifications in law than in computer science, denying councils the deep insights they needed to address “the challenges and opportunities of the digital age”, he says.

The review found that the proportion of council members with business backgrounds was far higher than business faculties’ share of universities’ enrolments, staff numbers or research spending or output. By contrast, the percentage of trustees with credentials in technology and particularly health was well below these fields’ share of university teaching and research.

Likewise, the life and physical sciences’ prominence in research was not reflected in councils’ membership, although this shortfall was mitigated somewhat by an oversupply of vice-chancellors and executives with backgrounds in these areas.

“I wouldn’t have said this really mattered 20 years ago, and maybe not 10 years ago,” Dr Barlow told Times Higher Education. “But it matters now.”

Dr Barlow said international education revenues had given institutions and their councils “much greater discretionary resources” to mould research strategies that had once largely been shaped by the results of funding grant applications. He said career background helped to shape perspective, spawning “fundamental differences in the way [occupational] communities think, the way they act, [and] their ideas about the world”.

Meanwhile, universities’ escalating research intensity had raised the stakes for their governing bodies. “If you’re making a big decision about investment in astronomy or ecology, how can a governing board make a serious assessment unless it has some vaguely relevant expertise?” he asked.

Governance arrangements are largely working well, the report concludes, despite being “literally medieval” and seemingly “designed to facilitate obstruction”. The most obvious and easily addressed gap “is not the inertia of current structures but the surprising lack of diversity in expertise”, it says.

But while it does not advocate major structural change, the report recommends an end to state government appointments. Governments should “legislate for universities to incorporate, empowering them with a less political appointment process and ultimately giving them greater control of their own destiny”.

Dr Barlow conceded that this proposal faced stiff odds. “State governments are very unlikely to want to relinquish their capacity to offer perks,” he said. “But institutions will be better off without that imposition. They can then design exactly the boards they need to be as effective as they can be.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Interesting. Governments should use valid criteria for board appointments. I believe that as long as governments continue to fund universities they will expect to be able to appoint board members. It would be similar to private universities and universities in the medieval times. The benefactors/sponsors/donors tended to expect some sort of representation in governance which the beneficiaries might disagree with. The common thought is as long as you take the money you should be willing to put up with some of the strings attached. Not sure if the solution would be a professor owned university, similar to employee owned companies.

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