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Only academics can run universities effectively

Published on: 21 Jan 2021

Graduates in rowing boat with people in suites in the water

Source: Getty/iStock montage

At the end of last year, news emerged that the University of Cambridge's governing body had emphatically rejected a proposed policy that would have required staff and students to be "respectful" of each other's "differing opinions". Amid concerns that this would have inhibited freedom of expression, "tolerance" of different views will be required instead.

The vote was 1,378 to 208. Cambridge, like the University of Oxford, was founded by academics, and the two universities are still governed by their academics. Later British universities were established by philanthropists, who would lodge the government of their foundations with external trustees; today, they generally meet in a body called the university council. Within such institutions, academics are generally conceded a body of their own, which normally goes by the name of senate, yet the relationship between the two bodies is now always hierarchical, with council on top.

Yet that hierarchy is damaging, for – as we’ve known since Thomas Gresham first tried it – councils simply cannot govern universities. It was in 1597 that Gresham, a leading merchant and financier, bequeathed to his new college in the City of London a building so palatial that the early Royal Society met there. He also bequeathed it an endowment so lavish that it paid its seven professors salaries higher than those enjoyed by Regius professors at Oxford or Cambridge. With that start, Gresham College should have flourished, but instead it degenerated into insignificance. In his Brief History of Gresham College 1597-1997, Richard Chartres, the former Bishop of London, explained why: council.

The college, he wrote, was run by a group of lay external trustees who, as City of London bankers and magnates, knew nothing about the government of universities. Nonetheless, they imposed their rule on the college. And, that rule being academically ruinous, the professors resisted it. Gresham thus collapsed into decades of suicidal conflict between the trustees and the hapless scholars.

Hapless? Gresham’s early professors included such luminaries as Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and William Petty. As trustees of the Royal Society, those same scholars helped power it into an academic institution of stellar distinction. But as Gresham professors they were disempowered – and the college degenerated.

The same pattern was to be repeated in the 19th century, when universities were again created in England. Those new universities, which were initially founded as colleges, were run by trustees. They soon started to fail.

Consider the first of the civic universities, Manchester, which was founded in 1851 as Owens College. In his 1988 book, The Origins of Civic Universities: Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, David Jones recounted its early governance: “The parlous state of enrolments by the 1850s led to a series of faculty reports to the trustees…The recommendations of subsequent meetings [of the faculty] concerning changes in entrance exams and fees were immediately accepted [by the trustees], thus beginning, or rather transferring to a formal body, the tendency to faculty control.”

It’s not hard to disinter from Jones’ polite language what had happened. Owens had opened under the rule of its trustees and it had immediately started to fail, whereupon the faculty had presented them with an ultimatum: unless they stepped back, the college would inevitably close. Fortunately, the businesspeople of Manchester proved wiser than the magnates and bankers of Gresham College, for they did promptly stand back, yielding the management of the college primarily to the academics in a body they were to call senate – and, moreover, yielding a third of the places on the board of trustees, aka council, to academics. Whereupon Owens recovered. Leeds and Liverpool swiftly copied Manchester’s governance arrangements. Academics rule, OK?

Well, not quite. In his classic 1943 book Red Brick University, Edgar Peers, a Cambridge graduate who lectured at the University of Liverpool for more than three decades and wrote under the pseudonym Bruce Truscot, described how each successive vice-chancellor proved to be either a “council man” or a “senate man”. Under council men, Peers reported, the university declined, while under senate men it thrived. He concluded that red-brick universities (a term he popularised) were inferior to Oxbridge not because of their later foundations but because the scholars were not fully self-governing.

This analysis was widely shared. So when, after the war, successive British governments expanded their funding of universities, the academics completed the process that had started in Manchester. The state’s University Grants Committee (UGC), which distributed the money, was staffed by senior scholars, and – under its Model Charter – empowered senates as the universities’ major management body.

In 1970, Noel Annan, the provost of UCL, presented a paper to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (as Universities UK was then known) in which he asked: “Is there a university in the country where [the council] is not a dignified rubber stamp? The true governing body is the senate…Even council’s finance committee does little more than set the stage for cutting the cake…We cannot and should not want to return to the days when council really governed. We prefer self-government by the academic staff.”

This was a culture that could be called both liberal and utilitarian (because it delivered). The late Geoffrey Burnstock, as head of the department of anatomy and developmental biology under Annan, could tell his staff: “Scientists are creative people exactly like artists. I am going to treat you like an artist. You can do anything you like – anything short of anarchy. My main job is to keep the bureaucrats off your back.”

Thatcherism, however, aborted that culture. Mrs Thatcher had tired of student sit-ins, of what we would now call the widespread no platforming of Tory ministers and of academics abusing tenure to avoid working. She blamed these problems on the academics themselves, whom she saw as socialist enemies within, so she set businesspeople to crush any idea of universities as cradles of workers’ democracy. The UGC was therefore replaced by the higher education funding councils, which were staffed by businesspeople. A series of reports, moreover, asserted that best university practice should emulate private for-profit industry: councils should model themselves on the boards of companies, like banks.

Yet the problems that dismayed Thatcher were most grievous not in the universities but in the polytechnics (see, for example, the multi-authored 1975 book, Rape of Reason, which describes the degradation of the North London Polytechnic). And the polytechnics had no senates. Rather, they were already run by businesspeople and other local leaders.

Thatcher was eventually to suppress the turbulent universities, yet this was effected not by her newly empowered councils but, instead, by the mass unemployment she engineered. That sobered many a potential radical.

Nonetheless, as part of her war on the universities, Thatcher and her acolytes cut the income per student, which fell by 45 per cent between 1981 and 2000. Although universities were not responsible for the fall in their incomes, the contrast between struggling universities and the health of the rest of the economy drove popular narratives of academic business incompetence, which flattered the businesspeople on their councils. They were also frightened into seeking control, since, as trustees, they bore personal liability.

Margaret Thatcher pointing to a graduate

If university councils were to achieve the goal Thatcher had set, they needed a fifth column. Councils can’t physically run universities: they need a corps of collaborators to do it for them. The government provided this in the form of administrators.

In 1971, Eric Ashby, a former vice-chancellor of Cambridge, could write in his Any Person, Any Study that “there was no administrative estate in the British universities” – that is, academics led the administration, and non-academic administrators served the academics as civil servants. It was that civil service culture, Lord Franks wrote in his famous 1966 report on Oxford University governance, that allowed the “democratic control by academics” of the institution.

But the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act did for that culture and for that democratic control, because it didn’t so much turn the polytechnics into universities as turn the universities into polytechnics. Universities had always been autonomous, whereas polytechnics had been regulated by the Council for National Academic Awards, yet now all universities were placed under the oversight of the Quality Assurance Agency, enmeshing them in a quagmire of regulations they could negotiate only under the direction of a vast corps of all-powerful administrators.

And that corps has only grown. Sue Shepherd, a sociologist from the University of Kent, showed that between 2005 and 2012 alone the numbers of administrators in the pre-1992 universities increased by no less than 40 per cent (cited by Michael Shattock, the doyen of university governance, in his Working Paper No. 13 for the Centre for Global Higher Education, 2017). British universities today do not so much possess an administrative estate as constitute one that, in collaboration with the trustees on council, relegates academics to the role of employees.

All this might have been acceptable had the universities been improved as a result, but were they? In a 2018 paper for Higher Education Policy, Terence Karran and Lucy Mallinson of the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of Lincoln reported a strong correlation between university excellence and academic autonomy: the more power that senates retained, the better a university was at teaching, research and scholarship; the more power that councils and administrators had grabbed, the weaker was the university.

But was that cause and effect, or only a correlation? It is here that the University of Buckingham, where I served as vice-chancellor from 2001 to 2014, provides what amounts to a longitudinal study.

Buckingham has long been run as an academic democracy – with great success. By 2015, when the university was named the Times/Sunday Times Teaching University of the Year, it had topped the National Student Survey (NSS) for many of the previous 10 years. It had expanded three-fold over that decade and created the first independent medical and education schools in the UK since 1919. Yet 2015 was also the year Sir Anthony Seldon, a former headmaster, arrived as the new vice-chancellor.

Seldon believed that senates should be bypassed by strong executives, and twice during his tenure, in 2017 and 2019, the Royal Charter was modified. The original 1983 statutes had read that senate should “regulate and control, all teaching, courses of study...degrees…admission of persons to courses of study… [and] all University examinations…” But the 2019 statutes read that senate was to “recommend to the University Executive all academic policies, regulations and procedures...examinations… [my italics]”. Thus was senate disempowered of its core function.

Furthermore, Sir Anthony – who stepped down last year – believed in strengthening council by streamlining it, and whereas the original 1983 statutes had provided for 39 members, by 2019 that had been reduced to 22. Today, the website states openly that council is senior to senate.

In addition, a new chairman’s committee, consisting of the leading members of council and the executive (with no elected members from senate), was created to oversee the activities of the entire institution. This, in the words of the website, is obliged only to report its decisions to council.

Yet these governance changes coincided with a set of failures at Buckingham. In 2019 (nominally 2020), the university fell in the Sunday Times’ ranking by 49 places, from 43rd to 92nd position, only to further fall to 108th in 2020. The year 2019, as Times Higher Education reported at the time, saw Buckingham "drop out of the top 10 [in the NSS] despite being one of the highest rated in previous years". Furthermore, after years of being in surplus, the university reported in its latest published accounts (for 2018) that, on an income of £37.6 million, it had generated an operating loss of nearly £2 million. And donations have dried up.

Moreover, entry standards have been lowered, degrees have been inflated (in 2010-11, Buckingham awarded 53.7 per cent of its graduates firsts or 2:1s; in 2018-19, it was 69.4 per cent), and decisions were taken that no autarchic senate would have approved: students, for example, have had to pledge to eschew marijuana. Thus has Buckingham amply confirmed the Karran and Mallinson thesis that councils govern worse than senates.

University councils introduce the wrong business model: namely, that of the for-profit company. Businesspeople inhabit a world where companies grow centrally, like balloons, needing only inflation by capital and management to grow smoothly and uniformly. But universities grow like cauliflowers, with each peripheral floret expanding in its own way. This is because universities deploy not financial but human capital, and humans grow best when they are individually empowered.

In the for-profit world, staff are motivated primarily by money, and management report not to those staff but to external investors. So most of the organisational tropes beloved of business schools (vision statements, mission statements, strategic plans and so on) are either a form of accounting to those investors or sticks and carrots with which to drive or bribe staff into doing what they’d rather not be doing.

But universities have no external investors of capital, and nobody becomes an academic for money. So whereas employees in industry and commerce really are employees, personnel in universities are working largely for personal fulfilment. If they are treated by a council as employees, they will lose their motivation. Bonuses are particularly damaging of collegiality.

Too many councils, moreover, introduce the wrong goal, namely growth, because that is a goal with which many businesspeople are comfortable. Universities that select their students, rather than recruit them, are often small by design. The California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which has been associated with 74 Nobel laureates, has only 2,200 students, and one of the best teaching colleges in the world, Williams, has only 2,100. Growth for its own sake is not a goal that a senate would choose lightly, and few academics would trade quality for quantity, but in recent years many a council in the UK has pushed to recruit: entry standards have been lowered, degrees have been inflated, marketing has been fetishised, buildings have been built and money has been borrowed.

In July 2020, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicted that the universities that entered the Covid crisis with pre-existent debts would be the vulnerable ones, and on 10 December 2020, John Morgan reported in Times Higher Education that up to 40 British universities are in financial distress. In response, Albert Schram, the former vice-chancellor of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology, tweeted: “Manifest failure of strategic foresight and inadequate risk management. What have these University Councils and V-Cs been doing all these years?” To which the answer is: gambling on growth where no senate would have gambled.

And councils introduce governance failure. In 2002, Michael Shattock noted in Higher Education Quarterly: “Where improprieties and breakdowns have occurred, they have centred on governing bodies and the executive...and not on the academic community.” Twice in recent decades, for instance, a chairman of council at Buckingham has been required to resign.

The myth that academics are incompetent businesspeople was exploded at the very beginning of the enterprise. In his Politics, Aristotle tells how Thales, an early scientist who predicted the solar eclipse of 585 BCE, was “taunted for his poverty, so one year he determined by astronomical observations that the olive crop would be good. Then, it still being winter, he raised some capital and bought the rights to all the presses. Later that year he rented out the presses at a good profit, thus proving that philosophers found it easy to be rich if they chose.”

More than two millennia later, academics have continued to demonstrate their latent commercial, administrative and political chops. Isaiah Berlin, for example, left Oxford only once during his long career, to spend the war in British intelligence in Washington DC. In a letter of November 1944, he noted how, at a time of supreme national crisis, the government had recruited academics to run much of the country: “This has been very much a dons’ war – with Franks and Maud practically controlling the home departments in London, and everybody else in tactical positions.”

Oliver Franks, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, was seconded to the Ministry of Supply – a key wartime ministry – and by 1945 was its permanent secretary. John Redcliffe-Maud, dean of University College, Oxford until 1939, joined the Ministry of Food during the war, eventually becoming permanent secretary at first the Ministry of Education and then the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

John Maynard Keynes (King’s College, Cambridge) was the real wartime chancellor of the Exchequer, while Arthur Salter (professor of political theory at Oxford) headed the wartime British Shipping Mission in DC. Meanwhile, William Beveridge (formerly director of the London School of Economics) was transforming Britain’s health and social security.

Academics, moreover, have transformed the modern world. The biochemist Hans Krebs would explain how research was the quintessential entrepreneurial activity: Germany’s chemicals industry had been powered to global dominance by the academics who forged it. They thus anticipated how today’s world has been transformed by the academics who created the high-tech, biotech and vaccine industries.

So the idea that academics need to be told by businesspeople how to run their own universities is absurd. No one doubts that doctors can run their royal colleges, or that barristers can run their Inns of Court, so – when those doctors and barristers teach as professors in universities – do they really need to be put into leading strings by local businesspeople?

One of the minor miracles of the modern world is that Oxford and Cambridge – with only a fraction of the endowments of the great independent US universities – now frequently top THE’s global league tables. Would they do better if they were run not by the academics themselves, but by local businesspeople? In the early 2000s, the Higher Education Funding Council for England thought so, and its chief executive, David Eastwood (now Sir David, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham), worked with the Oxford vice-chancellor John Hood (now Sir John), the Oxford chancellor (Lord Patten of Barnes) and Sir Victor Blank (chairman of Lloyds Bank) to push Oxford into remodelling its governance on conventional lines. But Susan Cooper (no honour), a professor of physics, successfully led the resistance; Oxford remains self-governing and (to reiterate) now sometimes tops THE’s rankings as the best university in the world. It should rename itself Oxford Cooper University.

Yet there are too few Susan Coopers in the universities at the bottom of the league tables. Following Karran and Mallinson's discovery of the strong correlation between academic autonomy and university excellence, the market is about to reveal a strong correlation between academics’ autonomy and university survival. To adapt Warren Buffett’s quip, now the tide’s gone out, we’ll see which universities have been swimming in council trunks.

Terence Kealey was vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham from 2001 to 2014. Since 2015, he has been a research scholar with the Cato Institute, Washington DC.