The dialogue below is taken from HEPI Report 119, the full version of which includes an excellent introduction from Professor Michael Shattock.
HEPI is the Higher Education Policy Institute and Nick Hillman is its Director.
It’s good to have this exchange with you. The role of university governors is beginning to get some critical attention, but it still seems neglected relative to the responsibility that it now carries.
I sense that Board members across the higher education sector feel pulled in different directions. On one hand, there’s a traditional idea of ‘wise elders’ meeting to offer some light-touch and well-mannered guidance on a university’s general direction of travel. On the other hand, there’s a regulatory framework that positions governors as legal custodians of multi-million pound, global organisations.
The Office for Students wants Boards to be accountable for upholding ‘public interest governance principles’, but what are those principles and how best can they be defended?
University staff who volunteer for governance roles are usually regarded with suspicion. I received condolences from some colleagues when elected! Maybe this follows a long tradition of academic misgivings about perceived compromises of ‘freedom’.
Back in 1918, Thorstein Veblen characterised non-academics who join Boards as ‘quite useless to the university for any business-like purpose’. I was reminded of this more recently when Peter McCaffery, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cumbria, suggested Whitehall departments privately regard the way in which universities are governed as ‘bogus professionalism’.
However, my main concern isn’t lack of know-how. It’s that university governance – and the corporate model upon which it’s generally based – seems detached from the day-to-day reality of many academics’ working lives.
In my experience, this gap is wider in the higher education sector than in the compulsory part of the sector, where the pressures of school teaching are perhaps better understood by governors.
As an ‘insider’, I sense frustration among colleagues that representation on decision-making bodies is usually limited to a handful of staff, and that Boards sometimes focus on the narrow market needs of their individual institution at the expense of the wider societal contribution that universities make. As an ‘outsider’, what do you think?
Thank you for starting this important conversation. My experience is different to yours. When I was appointed as a lay governor, no one commiserated me. Nor did they congratulate me. Perhaps the silence reflects how poorly understood the role of university governors is – far below knowledge about school governorship.
I am amused by Peter McCaffery’s words but they don’t resonate with me. When I worked on higher education in Whitehall, little thought was given to university governance issues. There were many reasons for this but perhaps the most important is that Whitehall looks for big problems to solve and university governance seemed at the time to be ticking over quite nicely. Admittedly, my Whitehall experience came before the really big rows on vice-chancellors’ pay as well as before Hefce had made way for the new Office for Students.
During my own experience as a governor at two universities, I have been very impressed by the professionalism and calibre of the governors, especially the chairs. Many other lay governors that I have come across have fitted well into that general definition of a good Board member: an intelligent person who asks ignorant questions. That is not meant to sound rude. Anyone who has ever been interviewed by the media knows that perceptive but unexpected questions can prove the most testing. An intelligent outsider’s perspective can teach an institution lots about itself – and, of course, new lay members rapidly stop being ignorant anyway.
But no one associated with higher education must allow the core strengths of the sector to hide the need for constant improvement. Nor should we respond so defensively to media coverage that we refuse to look in the mirror for flaws. I want to avoid sweeping generalisations, yet I do worry that the quality of governance in our sector may not always be as quite good as we like to think.
The regulation of higher education has been transformed in recent years, especially from the top via initiatives like the Higher Education and Research Act (2017), which puts far more onus on governors – including for self-reporting of problems. I am not entirely convinced, as I travel up and down the UK speaking to senior managers and governing bodies, that governance has changed as fast as regulation.
Perhaps it is naïve to think this could happen quickly but, unfortunately, the regulatory changes have occurred at the same time as other changes that have, in some instances, literally threatened the existence of long-standing universities.
Moreover, people with experience governing other comparable bodies that sit between the public and private sectors – for example, in the health sector – often claim change has come later in higher education than elsewhere.
Perhaps because I am not an ‘insider’, I worry less than you about the disconnect between academics and governors. For a start, I think the supposed disconnect is overdone: the input of academics at governors’ meetings (either as members or observers), at away days discussing strategy and in other ways is more common than might be expected. This helps to provide a map for those governors still trying to uncover the lie of the land. Lay governors come into close contact with the day-to-day life of academics in other ways too – for example, when chairing disciplinary review hearings.
Notwithstanding this, if I were an academic I am not confident I would worry too much about not knowing the finer points of the latest discussions among governors. They can be some way removed from the core responsibilities of teaching students and pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge so could sap time and effort from the more immediate responsibilities that would have brought me into academia in the first place.
You’re right to say that academics would much rather be doing teaching and research than pondering institutional strategy. But in the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in staff becoming more curious – and then better informed – about how their university is run. The pensions dispute is the obvious example, but there are other issues too, from capital expenditure to investment strategy. In my view, this is a good thing. But it does bring to the fore questions about who gets to govern our universities and what kind of values they bring to the table.
Take the current composition of most governing Boards in England. Having a lay majority is useful in that that universities are forced to justify their activities to people who come from different professional backgrounds and have different perspectives.
For me, it’s always refreshing to hear non-academic voices – university staff quickly become institutionalised, losing touch with how the sector is viewed from the outside. But the lay-majority composition has drawbacks too, especially where academics are framed in negative terms: as change-resistant, or ‘difficult’, or instinctively critical.
The job of the university lecturer requires a huge amount of flexibility and there’s pressure to be excellent at everything. Metrics track our every move. League tables pitch us against colleagues elsewhere in the sector with whom we’d rather be collaborating. Newer academics are under particular stress, often in precarious employment conditions. I’m not sure that Board discourses always fully acknowledge this wider professional context.
You’re unusual among lay members: you know the higher education system inside out because of your day job. But for most lay members academia remains shrouded in mystery. I think universities need to expose their governors to more routine institutional activities. Maybe induction should involve taking in a few undergraduate lectures, or attending some research seminars or eavesdropping on a departmental meeting?
I also wonder about representation. Local communities seem to have fewer Board members than in previous generations, but institutional activity can affect them fundamentally, for better and worse. And given that taxpayers underwrite what we do, I think it’s important for Boards to have representation from those who never went to university.
Then there’s the question of the student voice. Most Boards seem to have a token representative or two, but it can be incredibly difficult for those individuals to make themselves heard, surrounded not only by highly successful lay members but also by academic representatives who may well be directly involved with their teaching and supervision. The system marginalises students, not deliberately, but through top-down mechanisms that don’t always speak to their concerns.
There’s recently been talk of a ‘licence to practise’ for university governors, but the system remains largely dependent on goodwill. The Code of Governance, developed by the Committee of University Chairs in 2014, is useful. However, it captures little of the cultural expectations and challenges faced by Board members. The ‘critical friend’ role is fine, but governors mustn’t cross management lines. It’s a tight-rope for members to walk, not least because the sector can be damaged reputationally when an institutional Board is too hands-off.
There probably is not a person alive who would claim that university governing bodies are properly diverse. They do not accurately reflect the demographics of students and staff, let alone society at large. There is clearly a mountain to climb. Middle-aged white men like us are in a majority. We are often caricatured as ‘male, pale and stale’ and I plead guilty to at least two of these attributes.
The question is, as always, what to do about it. As with other realms of life, we need to advertise roles more widely, ideally in a centralised place (as used to happen) rather than wait for people to stumble across opportunities in the sector for themselves. I remember an experienced governor at the top of their own profession telling me their partner, another senior professional, was interested in becoming a university governor, but that she had no idea where to start looking. Too often governors are appointed over a drink after a tap on the shoulder. We need to employ headhunters to dig deeper.
But while the personal characteristics of governors is far from representative, a great deal of thought is typically put into the skillset of any governing body. Financial skills are especially important, such as for audit committee work. I am regularly contacted by people searching for names of potential governors with a background in policy, as many universities feel underpowered in that area.
Incidentally, it is tragic that the Department for Education (DfE) discourage their civil servants from serving as university governors. The loos in the DfE are plastered with posters encouraging staff to become school governors. But university governorship is, weirdly, seen as a conflict of interest and actively discouraged or even barred. Yet we wonder why policymakers don’t always seem to understand our sector.
On metrics, I agree academics typically dislike being constantly measured and tend to think their work cannot be easily captured by a few headline numbers. But this isn’t the fault of non-academic governors. Governors with a background in other sectors might just as likely propose more rounded ways of assessing performance than believe academics can be easily squeezed into a REF / TEF / KEF triptych.
On student representation, I agree. Student members can feel overwhelmed and inexperienced. But when I am a visiting speaker at a governing body meeting, the student rep(s) will often seek me out afterwards and the conversations are usually incredibly illuminating. A good chair will draw a student out so that their experiences inform the work of the governing body as a whole. One remaining problem is the typically short tenure of a student governor and I am genuinely uncertain as to what can be done about that. The best chief executives of students’ unions know as much about their institution and how its students are faring as anyone: can governing bodies capture their knowledge more effectively in some way, I wonder?
I also agree we need to look for mechanisms to bring governors closer in touch. Perhaps the single most interesting thing I have done as a governor is to take part in semi-structured discussions on issues like mental health and student support services with students. I am not the only governor who has found such conversations provide a year’s supply of new points to make at future meetings.
Having greater civic engagement with university boards is a good idea but it is not a dealbreaker for me. Our universities are generally national and regional, not just city-based, so there are limits to the desirability of this in my view, especially when other areas of civic life may need more urgent support. The relationship can work the other way around though, with academics becoming part of their locality’s policymakers: try attending a local council meeting in either Oxford or Cambridge and you will hear many declarations of interest from serving councillors whenever university issues come up.
I think you slightly overdo the risk of governors stepping over the management line. Any competent chair knows when this is happening and can delicately point it out. It is a challenge for every organisation with a board of trustees and widely acknowledged in all sorts of contexts. The line is an important one, as is the line between governance issues and academic decisions, because it provides clarity on who should do what.
I didn’t know the DfE discourage their civil servants from acting as university governors. It is curious that so many major organisations (universities included) now press their staff to volunteer as school governors, but joining a university Board often still requires a furtive tap on the shoulder.
You acknowledge that more could be done to connect governors with the mass of students, but what about the mass of staff? Can the broad range of views from employees spanning multiple roles and disciplines be captured by a handful of volunteer representatives? I can’t help thinking that universities miss a trick by not drawing on the expertise of their own workforce more systematically.
Michael Shattock has been writing about governance in UK higher education for decades, and he points out that there are big differences in how different universities approach the process. My anxiety here is that academics at the more elite universities retain a relatively firm grip on governance, while those elsewhere in the sector see the balance of authority steadily tipping away from them. In an already hierarchical higher education system, the danger is that this results in yet more stratification.
Michael also points out that it’s not the state that has directly imposed changes on university governance structures; it’s more a consequence of relentless shifts towards competition. I do think that’s where misunderstandings can arise.
Lay governors from a private sector background are often fluent in the language of the market, and know plenty about keeping their customers satisfied. But it’s not easy for them understand why their views might meet with push-back from academics who just don’t think it appropriate that higher education is further commodified.
Having said that, one thing that is always good to see is conflict. From the outside, Boards give the impression of being united in their views, but beneath this veneer is often forceful debate and challenge. Because academics are trained to see both sides of an argument, and to reach informed and balanced conclusions, most would be reassured by such deliberation.
However, staff are sometimes informed of blunt outcomes without being privy to any underpinning rationale. I get the idea of ‘collective responsibility’, but it’s unfortunate when it runs counter to the spirit of courteous disagreement that fuels most academic enquiry. I’d like university Boards to prioritise transparency over confidentiality, where possible.
I suspect the proliferation of governors with a business background does help explain the explosion in senior staff pay. If you come from business and are put on the Board of a university with a turnover of a billion pounds a year, then you are bound to make some comparisons in your head with the salary of a CEO at a business with a similar turnover.
But this sort of influence is hugely exaggerated in importance. Consider the pensions issue. Defined benefit pension schemes have essentially disappeared in the private sector. If lay governors had imposed their private sector practices on our universities, then the USS would have become a defined contribution scheme many years ago. It is too simplistic to think anyone who has helped run a large business cannot recognise that charitable universities are different.
A glance at my Twitter feed leads me to doubt your assertion that ‘academic research’ is typically fuelled by ‘courteous disagreement’. It can feel more like the old Newman and Baddiel sketch ‘History Today’. But I nonetheless accept your comment about transparency, at least up to a point. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, to coin a phrase.
There are many important issues that governors need to discuss though, such as restructuring, senior appointments and purchasing land, which could go badly awry if they were immediately and fully put in the public domain. So it is important we do not fall for demands for transparency that are really thinly-veiled attacks on the whole operating system of a 21st century university, especially if they also discourage good people from accepting Board positions.
Diversity seems to me to be a concept that is nearly always good, including when applied to education. So I have no principled objection to the idea that the roles played by lay governors, university managers and academics will be different at different institutions. It is, after all, nothing new. Our universities have such diverse histories that, to me, it seems odd even to entertain the idea that this is something we should worry about as a matter of principle. A single higher education system, yes; a monolith, no.
You’re right to say that not all academic disagreement is courteous. But my point was more that it usually takes place in public (in journals, on social media, and at conferences), whereas governance disagreement tends to take place behind closed doors. Decisions can then emerge from the Board that, from an academic perspective, seem not to be based on even-handed reasoning. It’s a bit like publishing a paper without the methods section.
Maybe where we disagree most is in terms of the extent to which academic involvement actually matters? Many university staff feel that the ‘comms’ are one-way and the ‘consultations’ insincere. To some extent, university governance is performed in a managed environment (more so than in schools, in my experience). I know that senior leadership teams can’t always operate in a democratic and open fashion, and that some choreography is occasionally necessary. But where two-way interaction is possible I think it’s important that it occurs as authentically as possible.
You mentioned earlier that perhaps headhunters would be useful in increasing the diversity of university governors, and I note that much of the recent coverage of Board issues has revolved around whether lay members should be paid for their contribution. I don’t have a strong view on this.
Lay members devote a generous portion of their time to governance work, and if a small fee recognised this, I think it would be a reasonable use of money. But it’s noticeable that some of the loudest voices making this argument are from private agencies that would, presumably, get a slice of the cake. I had no idea that these agencies existed, but there’s a growing industry around governor recruitment. It’s another market that, in my view, the sector doesn’t really need.
My underlying fear is that university Boards are being co-opted to enact market-driven ideologies (some of which you may support, but I know you’d also support the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom). Even if this isn’t the case, it remains very difficult for any group of individuals, however well-meaning and committed, to reflect the views of the incredible range of communities that universities now serve, and to act simultaneously as savvy market advisers and protectors of the public good.
I have shifted from being agnostic about, or even slightly against, paying lay governors to supporting the idea. It is, honestly, not because I am now one, and I am not necessarily arguing for payment for all. When the time spent serving as a governor is provided fully or partly by an employer, then a fee for attending would be to pay someone twice for the same job.
But how on earth are we to get the diversity we want if someone cannot afford to be a governor? Indeed, why should we expect a younger person, with not much to their name, to give up their time freely the way that a retired CEO with a huge pension and no mortgage might?
I also think people tend to take roles more seriously when they are being paid for them. It is easier to ease out underperforming people if they are not doing the job you are paying them for than it is if you are not paying them in the first place. So, in my view, a system of payments for at least some governors can’t come soon enough.
The role of a governing body is to protect their institution by reacting to the context in which they find themselves. So I don’t think a governor who recognises the reality of high fees / loans and no student number controls is somehow being ‘co-opted to enact market-driven ideologies’ any more than they would be co-opted to socialism if a left-of-centre government forced governors to take a new set of circumstances into account.
Returning to the comparison with schools, is it significant that university governors have not been subject to the same regime of ‘professionalisation’ and ‘accountability’ as their school-based counterparts? Policy now seems to be nudging higher education more in that direction.
I accept there are good reasons for this – massive and complex institutions can’t be operated by academic rota – but it’s vital that incoming lay governors understand what’s going on at the local level. Governing bodies tend to meet in their institution’s grandest surrounding, and the danger is that they soon become isolated from the day-to-day struggles and mundane resource issues with which staff must cope.
Managing academics is difficult: we tend not to be motivated primarily by income and we tend to view our employers with wariness. So it can’t be simply assumed that because someone has been successful in the private sector or as a social entrepreneur that they have the insights needed to make a university perform better.
I admit there’s sometimes too much exceptionalism in the way that higher education is discussed, but I do think the challenges are very different to those sectors in which the main goal is to gratify shareholders. The danger is that if UK universities are run just like any other business, they lose the very qualities that have made them so historically successful.
For me, there are significant core issues to address in university governance. Should we assume the corporate Board model is always fit for purpose? Can the often divergent directions in which Board members are drawn ever be compatible? Can universities learn from schools about more inclusive governance? In what ways should (and shouldn’t) Boards be empowered by government? My fear is that we’ll only get round to thinking fully about such questions when the sector reaches breaking point.
There is a saying that is used heavily by civil servants: ‘Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good’. I worry you are falling into the trap of listing the problems of the current governance model (alongside some of the positives), without really explaining what a better one would look like and how it will come about.
I fully accept some of your criticisms. As someone who regularly speaks to governing bodies, it always seems strange when meetings take place in a country house hotel somewhere miles from campus. A better model is to move meetings around so that one might be in the oldest part of the university, another in a new satellite campus and a third in the students’ union or hall of residence.
But I think the current governance model works to the extent that it is a conversation between insiders and outsiders. There are problems from having too many or too few of either, if the external expertise is not sufficiently tempered by the academic expertise or vice versa. While some Boards were unwieldy in the past, I worry that the general trend towards smaller boards risks creating imbalance as well as ensuring insufficient (internal and external) experience is on tap.
No one is saying life is perfect at the moment. Governing bodies should be more diverse, capture the student voice more and become somewhat more professional. But, compared to what we have, the European model of running universities as an arm of the state is much worse, in my opinion, because of the limited room for manoeuvre that it gives proud long-standing institutions that want to protect their future by innovating.
You assume a ‘breaking point’ is coming. Perhaps it is. It looks likely that it is for a small number of institutions, at which point managers and governors will be in the firing line but so will policymakers and regulators. More institutions will struggle if we move to a system in which the Treasury are expected to foot the entire costs of educating students – taxpayers tend to have higher priorities than higher education and most students accept good-quality mass higher education is best delivered through a mixed funding model.
The predictions of failure that echo endlessly around our sector remind me of my academic research on a fringe politician: he spent so long waiting for a crisis that he was certain would happen that he spun out of the mainstream to the extremes before spending decades in the wilderness. No doubt this analogy would break down if considered too closely. But I am sure many outside observers would find it bizarre that some people want our well-funded, open, diverse, high-quality and ancient university system to be subjected to the upheaval of a revolution in the unproven hope that there might just be something a little better to be discovered around the corner.
I’m not sure I’m about spin out into the wilderness, but I take your point about there being no perfect alternative to the current model. Without lay governance, it’s unlikely that consensual academic democracy would organically emerge in its place.
But I do believe that university Boards would be better placed to respond to an increasingly complex and difficult policy environment if they engaged differently with staff and operated less opaquely.
Your earlier point about practice changing less quickly than regulation is well made. But if university governance is ever to catch up with policy – and if public, academic and student confidence in the sector is to be improved – further dialogue is surely required.
On that, I wholeheartedly agree – indeed, I would say it is long overdue.