When news (finally) broke that Dominic Shellard had resigned as vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, the reaction on social media was unprecedented. The sudden exits of vice-chancellors are not normally the cue for public outpourings of relief from some staff, or a Twitter autopsy on the supposed factors behind the demise. The De Montfort case has been explosive, but it is just one in a remarkable series of abrupt senior departures and suspensions at UK universities.
Some cases may be outliers, in which particular personal or institutional factors have been key. But many in the sector identify a clear underlying explanation: government policy on funding and, even more importantly, student number controls has ended an age of stability for higher education in England (with knock-on effects in Wales). In its place, ministers and policymakers have created intense competition for students, for research funding, for top researchers; with this has come pressure to raise external finance, needed to construct the buildings that will attract those vital student numbers. In the new market, performance is exposed as never before, and the financial complexity of universities is growing; governing bodies are under increasing pressure, and their trigger fingers are twitchy.
Only a small number of the UK’s universities have been hit by crises of governance, and the vast majority can point to a record of stability. But as the body count rises, the government and regulators may become eager viewers of the unfolding drama.
Michael Shattock, whose book The Governance of British Higher Education will be published later this year, highlights “the anxiety that is clearly being shown by chairs of governing bodies”. He attributes this in part to “the rumours about the Augar review and what it may say [in bringing] future austerity”. The government’s review of post-18 education, whose panel is led by Philip Augar, is ongoing – and is expected to bring tuition fee and funding cuts.
But anxiety about the review stems from deeper roots. For his book, Professor Shattock, a visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education and a former University of Warwick registrar, conducted research based on “large-scale interviewing” of governing body chairs. “In the old days, governing bodies wouldn’t take much notice of the latest Ucas figures on applications,” he said.
But now, with student number controls having been fully abolished in England by George Osborne in 2015, leaving some universities expanding while others lose huge chunks of their student numbers, chairs “regard recruitment as the killer risk”, Professor Shattock continued. “The question of recruitment is really getting to a significant number of governing bodies.”
Universities in Wales are also subject to this competitive pressure on student numbers, with data suggesting that many have lost students to expanding English rivals.
Aaron Porter, associate director for governance at sector agency Advance HE, agreed that “marketisation and fiercer competition means that university performance is more obviously exposed”. Governing bodies are thus “flexing their muscles a little more and taking decisive action where a university appears to have successive years of poor performance”, he added.
Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology at the University of Cambridge and expert on higher education governance, saw a key factor common to some, but by no means all, of the universities to suddenly change leadership. That is “mismanagement of the money – massive capital project overreach followed by trying to save money on staff with redundancies”, she said.
As public capital funding has dried up while competition to attract students has intensified, some universities, including De Montfort, have turned to bonds and other non-traditional ways of raising external finance. There is no evidence to suggest that such finance has been a direct factor in any of the vice-chancellorial exits – but undoubtedly, such finance adds to the complexity and pressure facing governing bodies.
There are three key elements to universities’ governance: the vice-chancellor and the executive; the governing body (a council or board of governors); and the academic board or senate (the former common to post-92 universities, the latter to pre-92s).
The Committee of University Chairs provides guidelines for governing bodies, which it revised last year. Importantly, the guidelines state that “the governing body must have a majority of external members, who are independent of the institution”.
Professor Shattock said that “more and more responsibility” is “being thrust on to these boards, and they are less and less able to cope with it”. While it is important to have external members on governing bodies, “they are not people who are familiar with what goes on in universities, for the most part”, he argued.
“I do think that the overall structure is fine, but the balance of power between the governing body and the senate or academic board has gone wrong,” Professor Shattock said.
The CUC’s revisions to its guidelines were driven by scandals over vice-chancellors’ pay, which is set by members of governing bodies who sit on remuneration committees. And if there was a case for saying that the current governance model is not up to the job, then the failure to rein in vice-chancellors’ pay, and not anticipating that this might damage public and political trust in universities, would be a big part of that case.
Whether one is a supporter or an opponent of the marketisation of higher education, it is undeniable that it has brought radical change to the way universities operate – and, arguably, governance has failed to evolve. But if a Labour government were to hold power in Westminster and replace tuition fees with a system entirely reliant on direct public funding, that would surely require another major shift in governance.
So how should governance evolve? One route ought to be “continued professionalisation”, suggested Mr Porter.
There is a debate within the CUC about the “need to pay governors to ensure that they spend more time doing it”, moving away from the “volunteer model”, he added. While paid governing body members would not be “a silver bullet”, for those universities struggling to extract the required “commitment” it “may help to professionalise the model”, he argued.
A different route – one that only has any prospect of emerging under a non-marketised system – would be to revive traditions of academic self-governance.
Matt Waddup, head of policy at the University and College Union, said that the time “has come for proper transparency in the key decisions being taken at the top table of our universities and a serious look at who is taking them”. “We need to have staff and student representatives on the major decision-making bodies if the sector is to start rebuilding trust,” Mr Waddup argued.
In 2016, the Scottish government passed legislation that ensured that chairs of university governing bodies would be elected by staff and students – and that staff and students would have guaranteed representation on governing bodies.
At Oxford and Cambridge, the only two English universities where academics and administrators still constitute the governing body, this community “has a stranglehold because it cannot be ignored by the management, and there are avenues through which its members can speak out publicly”, said Professor Evans. Extending academic democracy to other universities would mean throwing out principles about small governing bodies with external member dominance, which have ruled in higher education since they were advocated by the Cadbury Report on corporate governance in 1992, she continued.
Professor Evans said: “Which is the only community within an [institution] likely to be asking awkward questions? Academics.” But she then added, more sceptically, that “the proportion [of academics] with secure-till-retirement jobs is shrinking and the introduction of line management brings with it patronage and robber baron attitudes”.
Some would argue that the Conservative decision to turn polytechnics, latterly governed by their local authorities, into universities in 1992 ended a vital connection between regional economies and higher education.
In terms of the consequences of the spate of perceived governance crises, Professor Shattock thought the Westminster government would be unlikely to issue any sector-wide response. But “whether the Office for Students – which has got to prove itself in the public eye – is so sanguine – I’m not sure,” he added. There will be “a tendency to want to make examples where there has been some evidence of poor management”, he suggested.
The OfS has said that it is “looking into a number of regulatory matters relating to De Montfort University, following the university reporting an issue to us in the autumn”.
Meanwhile, some in government are pursuing a hostile agenda against universities and are eager to wield the ongoing post-18 review as a weapon. If a university is judged – fairly or unfairly – to have failed to run itself properly, then the political timing could not be worse.
More optimistically, this is a time when big questions are being posed about what universities are for. The civic role of universities in their towns, cities and regions must be renewed, not only to help revive the UK’s regions but to renew public support for universities, many argue. A good time, then, to ask: who runs universities?
Tough at the top: v-cs who left under a cloud
John Hughes announced in December that he would retire early in the same month after emails about his private life were sent to staff. The University and College Union branch said the following month that a private finance initiative scheme to build student halls had plunged the university into a “financial crisis”.
De Montfort University
Dominic Shellard’s resignation was confirmed last week. The Times subsequently reported that he had a “business link” to the chair of the remuneration committee. The chair of the university’s board had resigned in November. Several other members of the panel have quit.
University of Reading
Sir David Bell’s departure for the University of Sunderland was announced in July. It subsequently emerged that Reading had returned a £20 million deficit, largely because of its Malaysia campus, and The Guardian reported this month that the university had reported itself to regulators over a £121 million loan.
Swansea suspended Richard Davies in November, along with three other staff members. The suspensions were linked to concerns over the university’s involvement in a £200 million development. The university said this month that it had made a “formal criminal complaint” to police – but offered no details about the nature of the complaint.