Power to the people

July 4, 2003

Manchester merger plans threaten democratic university governance, warns Paul Cammack

The University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and the University of Manchester are due this month to agree to dissolve themselves to create a single new university. However, I am among many on the university court who feel the merger should not go ahead unless proposed new statutes are dropped. We believe these are a threat to good governance and have serious implications for the management of British universities.

Like most old universities, Umist and the University of Manchester are governed by a council (of 30) with a lay majority, alongside a much larger court (of 230) of appointed representatives of local government, learned societies, local and regional associations, professions and businesses, as well as largely elected university staff and former graduates. While the council is the governing body, the courts retain the power to propose to the Privy Council amendments to charter and statutes that establish the framework within which councils govern.

This arrangement is becoming unusual since the Dearing report recommended in 1997 that courts should have the power only to comment and advise. But Manchester's managers want to out-Dearing Dearing. They propose a substantial lay majority of council alongside a reduced elected contingent of academic staff, and they aim to strip the power of court to a minimum, even ignoring Dearing's suggestion that it should have the power "to invite the governing body to review a decision".

This is dangerous, not only because the Dearing model of governance reflected a high point in Thatcherite managerialism, but also - and principally - because the government's white paper on the future of higher education suggests that the Privy Council's power to approve amendments to university statutes might be dropped. This raises the unhealthy prospect of councils being answerable to nobody and being able to amend the framework of governance at will.

Our fears of an entirely unconstrained council have been heightened by the abuse of the merger process to pursue a managerialist agenda, and the limited and grudging response to consultation.

They have been amplified by the continued insistence that the courts in each institution vote only on dissolution and not on changes to statute, and by carefully managed approaches to the Privy Council aimed at pressuring the two courts into acceptance that their powers must go.

It need not be like this. The white paper's emphasis on freedom, diversity and strong local links points in a new direction, and one that provides an opportunity to think creatively about a form of governance suitable for a great civic university in the 21st century. It points towards the transfer to university courts of the power of the Privy Council to approve amendments to statutes, not to the removal of this power.

Such a court, with wide community representation, could play a vital role without threatening the authority of council as the governing body.

It could take forward the agenda of diversity and strong local and regional links. It could be the guardian of the balance between the missions of teaching, research, access and interaction with the local and regional community. It could create and develop a sense of local ownership that would encourage local benefactors. Most of all, it could ensure that proposed changes to the constitutional framework within which the governing body worked would come under proper scrutiny from informed local stakeholders.

We should go further. Lay members of council should be elected by the court to avoid the danger of councils becoming self-perpetuating oligarchies. Lay majorities should sit alongside substantial numbers of elected representatives of university staff, able to provide them with a broader view of issues than that presented by senior management.

These principles are imperilled by the proposals on the table in Manchester, to the detriment of the future governance of the sector as a whole. Diversity and devolution are the orders of the day. University courts are ready-made assemblies of vital local and regional interests, fit for the purpose of taking forward the agenda laid out in the white paper.

They should be empowered to do so, and encouraged and equipped to play an active role of support and guardianship, not obliged to surrender the powers they have.

This should not and need not threaten the proposed merger. All that is required is for senior managers to drop their managerial agenda, seek and respect the views of court, and petition the Privy Council accordingly.

Paul Cammack is professor of government, University of Manchester.

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