Why governors must welcome staff

July 14, 1995

What is so different about university and college governing bodies that means staff are welcome on the former but often find themselves excluded from the latter? The Committee of University Chairmen certainly endorsed the presence of employees (and students) at the highest level of decision-making when it surveyed the scene for its recent Guide for Members of Governing Bodies.

"This representation is integral to the nature of governance in those institutions," the august chairmen said. "A governing body should approach the question of excluding such representation with very great care."

Staff making up a sizeable part of the governing council at old universities is an ages-old tradition and makes perfect sense. The role of staff at other higher education institutions is less well established but nevertheless accepted widely. Employees are now a feature of all former polytechnic boardrooms but not every higher education college governing body.

In the further education arena there is even more tension about the involvement and role of staff. While the Colleges' Employers' Forum is publicly agnostic on the issue, and its model code of practice for governance carries guidelines for employee responsibility, staff participation seems anathema to some.

The CEF model code is something of a straitjacket, with its emphasis on collective public unity whatever the debate behind closed doors. On the other hand this merely reflects an aspect of the market climate which prevails in the further education sector. Staff governors are transformed into employers when they sit in the boardroom and must be prepared to accept the responsibilities this brings.

But the success of an institution does not just depend on how well it keeps its business secrets and develops an efficient management culture. It has to be at ease with itself. Those who sneer that British industry rejects "worker directors" would also presumably ignore the fact that competitor nations abroad embrace this philosophy with some success.

The modern universities have several years of corporate independence in hand on the further education colleges and there is a trend emerging towards greater inclusiveness, namely at Greenwich and Middlesex with their moves to create a court system. Both recognise the need to report their activities to a broad regional constituency. The new universities are clearly learning from the way discontent at Huddersfield and Portsmouth was fuelled by poor decisions taken by a management cabal.

We now are beginning to see unpopular management regimes imploding in similar ways in the further education sector. At Cannington College the principal was suspended and forced to take early retirement after his "aggressive" style was linked to high staff turnover; and at South Bristol College, the principal was sacked for taking liberties with his expense account. A staff governor at Wilmorton College, Derby, played the key role in calling the board there to account.

Unfortunately the transformation from the old local authority culture to incorporated independence has been severely hampered by the lecturers' contracts dispute, which predates incoporation. The desire to exclude "worker directors" has much to do with the mutual suspicion which cannot be dispelled while the dispute festers. This us-and-them antagonism is the only reason I can fathom for resignation last month of Newcastle College's chairman and vice chairman in a row about the CEF model contract. Elected staff governors, while accepting they were not delegates, had simply pointed out they had a relationship with their constituency.

There are many respects in which further education colleges differ from public limited companies and two seem relevant in this respect.

First, the quasi-private sector which colleges inhabit is supported mostly by public money. In the old days local authority representatives would oversee how public money was spent. Staff cannot assume this role but they do provide a safety valve. Second there are few plcs with no one on the board (save the MD) who has come up from the ranks, with expertise gained from a thorough knowledge of its internal workings. College boards by law must have a majority of members from the business community and are almost completely staffed with "outsiders". It is not healthy that the principal is their only source of inside professional advice.

Meanwhile Lord Nolan is coming and he is quite fond of accountability. He may well agree that one of the best arguments for staff governors in schools, colleges and universities is that they can save the chief executives from themselves.

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