Two-tier system should replace ‘ramshackle’ university governance

Higher education expert to argue that current system falls between two stools and ‘will not do’. Melanie Newman reports

February 8, 2010

Current university governance arrangements are “ramshackle” and should be replaced with a two-tier system in which separate “courts” represent staff and student interests.

That is the view of Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University. In a speech to the University of Portsmouth on 9 February, Professor Brown will say that the corporate model of governance that has been promoted by the Government since the 1980s “will not do” for higher education.

Under the corporate model, governing boards are as small as possible, have a lay majority (ideally with business expertise), limited staff and student representation and are distanced from universities’ work.

The drive towards this structure has resulted in unaccountable governing bodies that are “on the one hand, not small, expert or time-committed enough to be able to take effective decisions, but are, on the other hand, not large and democratic enough to be properly representative of the institution and its stakeholders”, Professor Brown will say.

Under his proposed alternative, three courts representing staff, students and external members would appoint up to six members to a “supervisory board” responsible for the overall performance of the institution.

“The vice-chancellor would have to report annually to these courts on how their particular interests were being secured in the institution’s development,” he will say.

Professor Brown will also advocate setting up a single watchdog for the sector, which would combine the regulatory functions of the Quality Assurance Agency, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

This body would have the right to remove “some or all of the supervisory board”.

The professor will argue in his speech that this model would reflect universities’ interests more accurately, provide clearer accountability and deal more effectively with cases where governance “gets out of kilter”.

Commenting on whether governors should be accountable to a higher body, Sir Andrew Burns, chairman of the Committee of University Chairs, recalled the rhyme: “Big fleas have little fleas, upon their backs to bite ’em, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so, ad infinitum.”

“We could have infinitely more layers of accountability, but do we really need that?” he said. “Hefce has a new regulatory role under the Charities Act – that is one check on governors. The other is the composition of the board.”

Sir Andrew added that governors would welcome “more dialogue” with Hefce.

“Hefce needs to brief chairs on the talks they have with vice-chancellors and managers,” he said. “Governors are unpaid volunteers, but their reputations are on the line and they are responsible for what goes on in universities. There is scope for improving the understanding and expectations of that role by both sides.”

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