Proposals to make it easier for universities to reduce the size of their governing bodies are being drawn up by the Government.
The Association of Heads of University Administration and law firm Pinsent Masons have produced a revised version of Schedule 7A of the Education Reform Act 1988, which is due to come into force this summer. This would allow post-1992 institutions to set up smaller, corporate-style boards.
The existing schedule stipulates that boards of higher education corporations, which are distinct from traditional chartered institutions and include most post-92 universities, may not have fewer than 12 or more than 24 members.
The revised schedule allows the institution to fix the size of its board, stipulating only that members who are not employees of the university form the majority. It also removes provisions relating to categories of members, in particular the need for "co-opted members".
A new report on higher education governance by Allan Schofield, head of governor development at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, says some universities feel constrained by staff and student governors and would like to shrink their boards.
These universities "find the current membership of boards too large for effective meetings ... and see the membership of staff and students as a constraint on taking a rigorous strategic view", says the report, What Is an Effective and High-Performing Governing Body in UK HE?, issued this month.
Some institutions are considering adopting small governing bodies on a model "quite close in operation to the boards of private-sector companies", the report says.
The Carver model, as it is known, envisages a board of about seven members, with governance rigorously separated from management.
"With its explicitly managerial thrust, Carver appears to sit uncomfortably in governance arenas where collegial or representational board structures are the norm," Mr Schofield said. "Nonetheless ... some (universities) are now starting to innovate in this direction."
Some within the sector question whether boards with an external majority can ever be informed enough to provide an adequate check on the executive, he added.
In 2006, Michael Shattock, professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, noted that staff governors had been largely responsible for bringing governance problems to light, whereas lay governors remained unaware of the problems or were inactive.
The plans to reform Schedule 7A were outlined in November in a letter from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.