Running with an open mind

January 13, 1995

A vigorous debate has started around questions of university governance and accountability. The debate is particularly sharp in the new universities and colleges, where the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act removed any obligation from institutions to have accountable and elected staff and student governors, or independent governors with any knowledge of education provision.

At a local level the work done by campus unions and the National Union of Students at Huddersfield, Portsmouth and elsewhere has brought matters of concern to light and reminded everyone that the views of staff and students are of fundamental importance.

But events at these two institutions should not be viewed in isolation. The same concerns have surfaced again and again, leading to the setting up of the Natfhe whistle-blowers' hotline, and to an increasing number of staff morale surveys and expressions of lack of confidence. It is clear that the current model of governance in the new universities and colleges is inherently unsatisfactory and fails to protect against bad practice.

We need a debate about new models of governance and accountability, that take into account the character and needs of the higher education system. Natfhe will argue vigorously for greater staff participation, for instance. We do not want a return to a kind of cosy collegiality, which depends on the notion of staff with security and time to spare, and which can result in an unwritten privileging of certain kinds of status. Playing by the old rules led, in some cases, to entrenched personal interests, inward-looking academic politics and institutional inertia. What is needed is a new model for academic and institutional governance which builds on the principles of democracy, participation and accountability, in a systematic manner, and on the best developments of recent years.

Many of the new universities and colleges have developed dynamic relationships with organisations and individuals with a host of interests and expertise. We should not assume intrinsic conflict between independent governors on the one hand, and staff and student interests on the other, but should be looking for a creative partnership between educationists and interest groups.

Part of the problem is the tension between the process of higher education and how institutions are run. Some tension is healthy, but for an organisation to run at its best its governance and managerial culture need to have a degree of match with the overall culture of the organisation itself. Instead we have universities and higher education colleges increasingly run on the model of British Government -- quasi-paranoid, secretive and terrified of ever admitting error or fault. The belief in the need for secrecy and confidentiality, and the fear of exposure to a wider audience, is so ingrained in parts of our establishment that it appears dangerously radical to espouse a serious commitment to openness.

The rules, which set out who can participate, and how and what accountability should exist at the various levels of governance and management, should be redrawn. Some of these things need to be addressed specifically in relation to the new universities and colleges, whose instruments and articles are constrained by legislation which could be amended. But no one is naive enough to believe that problems of accountability, secrecy and "closed-door" decision-making are confined to that sector. However rare real abuses are, they are not the monopoly of any one part.

The debate needs to extend beyond the need for some staff representation on governing bodies. All institutions would benefit from an examination of machinery and procedures designed to test the extent to which a range of voices are heard from inside and outside the university. The process by which people become governors, stay in office and are replaced, needs to be opened up and a system of regular terms of office, open nominations for governors, and properly scrutinised appointments established. Then institutions need to look seriously at how representation is translated into participation.

Working for an educational institution is different from working for a business corporation. The measure of success is not profitability, the use of funds is a matter of legitimate public concern. Staff should not be expected to have their institutional employer as their sole loyalty -- there must be an equal loyalty to students, to research and their academic discipline, and to the integrity of higher education itself. Natfhe is calling for a number of specific amendments to the legislation covering the instruments and articles of new universities and colleges, and for a code of practice to be established dealing with participation, openness, publication of minutes and accounts and the setting up of machinery to deal with malpractice. We challenge institutions: to stop being scared of open decision-making, to involve a wider range of people in their running and above all to listen to, and trust, their staff.

Liz Allen is head of higher education at Natfhe, the university and college lecturers' union.

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