De Montfort case underlines why good governance is vital

Investigation launched following Dominic Shellard’s departure highlights a disturbing example of how things can go wrong, says John Coyne

July 12, 2019
Governance, management
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De Montfort University’s response to last week’s conclusion of the Office for Students’ inquiry into its governance is a damning indictment of what was clearly a self-interested and dysfunctional regime. Contemporary governance buzzwords abound, but more discerning readers may apply rather more down-to-earth terminology to the regulator’s concerns about issues such as “the independence and rigour of some remuneration decisions”, “scrutiny for the awarding of consultancy agreements to some members of the Governing Body” and “ensuring members of the Governing Body met ‘fit and proper persons’ requirements”.

February’s abrupt departure of De Montfort’s vice-chancellor, Dominic Shellard, and remuneration committee chair Anthony Stockdale followed news that its chair of governors, Sir Ian Blatchford, had also resigned. But the headline-grabbing tale amounted to but the latest concern regarding the actions of UK university leaders, their remuneration and the governance framework within which they operate.

De Montfort’s cooperation with the investigation, as well as “the action it has already taken to address our concerns, and its clear plan for future actions” convinced the OfS not to make a formal ruling against it. However, the report – which I have read – outlines “weaknesses and failings in the university’s management and governance arrangements which were significant and systemic”, and gives the clearest and most disturbing detail yet regarding how easily the British university sector could be let down by its leadership.

The string of revelations about leadership failures and excesses is particularly unfortunate in an environment in which the Augar review of post-18 finance has recommended lowering tuition fees, the future of the disliked teaching excellence framework is up in the air and the concept of “value” is being debated. Of course, De Montfort’s misdeeds were confined to a small, detached inner circle at the highest level that proved capable of insulating itself from scrutiny and the public gaze; even those reporting directly to that senior tier may not have known, or been powerless to prevent, what was really going on. But the danger in the current climate is that the huge and talented body of academics and professional staff at the heart of institutions are damaged, dispirited and implicated in failings in which they had no part – and, indeed, often railed against without success.

Universities are quite straightforward organisations to lead, and they have simple structures and powerful governance codes – if these are used. They are filled with incredibly able, committed and passionate people; they have clear and supportive stakeholders and, of late, a comfortable financial environment in England. You would have to be truly complacent, misguided or stupid to fail in such a context.

Some may identify the problem as stemming from the “managerial model” and “corporate approach”, but this, too, would be false and simplistic. The core principles for leading an academic institution remain constant: sound values, clarity of direction and the effective harnessing of resource to support that intent. Labels don’t matter: what is important is that universities adhere to the best principles of intellectual optimisation: the creation of maximum impact from available inputs, to the benefit of stakeholders. However self-important their leaders may feel, all of universities’ vital educational, cultural and economic contributions derive from their communities of staff and students. So the creation of an environment within which talented people can produce extraordinary things is what really matters.

Among De Montfort’s students, scholars and staff, excellent work is being done, and the direction of travel, as judged from the university’s published plans, is probably broadly appropriate. At the crucial interfaces – teaching students and producing research – a TEF gold award, an above-benchmark outcome in the National Student Survey and a substantial outcome in the last research excellence framework suggests that the heart of the institution remained sound, whatever may have been going on in its boardroom.

Supporting the academic community who delivered these results should be central to what comes next, and will provide an early regulatory test for the OfS. Getting the governance that the community deserves should be the first priority. And all steps should be taken to ensure that any sanctions are focused appropriately: on the miscreants alone.

John Coyne was vice-chancellor of the University of Derby before retiring in 2015. He was previously a pro vice-chancellor at De Montfort University.

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Reader's comments (1)

Transparency. Accountability. 2 key principles that seem to be widely ignored in the governance of UK universities today.

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