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How is university governance changing?

  • 21 February 2020

Many people do not appreciate just how huge the UK university sector now is. Together, it is worth around £100 billion a year to the country and supports nearly one million jobs. Some of the larger individual institutions have income and expenditure well in excess of £1,000,000,000 a year.

Universities are generally autonomous charities. So ultimate responsibility for what they do, as with other charities, lies with their Boards (though academic matters are generally dealt with by Senates).

Governing bodies are made up of staff, students and ‘lay’ members, who provide an outside voice. Over the years, the average size of a governing body has waxed and waned.

Being a university governor has a lot in common and a lot that is different to being a trustee of another charity or the governor of another educational body, like a school. And the role does not stand still.

For example:

  • in England, the abolition of Hefce and the establishment of the Office for Students has altered the role of governing bodies – they are now even more responsible for their institutions, given the different relationship with the main regulator and have some specific new roles, like signing off on Access and Participation Plans;
  • meanwhile, in Scotland, the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016 continues to shake things up, with measures like elected Chairs.

Many of the areas of higher education that have been in the media spotlight in recent years, like senior staff pay, investment decisions (fossil fuels anyone?) and the appointments of vice-chancellors, are undertaken by governors, who typically have extensive experience in different sectors before taking on the role.

Oddly, while civil servants working on education policy are encouraged to become school governors, it has in the past been deemed inappropriate for senior civil servants to be university governors. This seems like a nonsense to me and it could be hindering wider understanding of universities inside Whitehall.

However, Michael Shattock, the former Registrar of the University of Warwick, defended this state of affairs in a HEPI paper last year arguing anything else would trample on autonomy: ‘the historical presumption has always been that the state should separate itself from any direct involvement with the management of individual universities in order to preserve their independence from state interference.’

The gradual metamorphosis of university governors is likely to continue. Their roles are more important than ever not only because of the changing expectations of regulators as well as the uncertainties institutions are currently facing but also because there is a need to ensure governing bodies become more diverse than in the past.

It is probably fair to say that, in general, the make up of governing bodies has not yet come to reflect either the diversity inside most universities nor society more generally.

In fact, this is just one of the issues about university governance that needs to be settled in the next few years. For example, should some or all university governors be paid? Are there are enough student representatives on governing bodies? How should institutions go about recruiting their governors? 

All these issues will be discussed at the second of our three 2020 parliamentary breakfast seminars with Advance HE, which takes place next Wednesday, 26 February 2020 on the topic of ‘Challenging the Status Quo – who governs the governors?’ Our guest speakers will be: Monica Chadha, Vice-Chair of Council at Queen Mary University of London; Jacqui McKinlay, Chief Executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny; and Chris Sayers, Chair at Committee of University Chairs.

We have already surpassed our target number of attendees but do let Emma Ma (e.ma@hepi.ac.uk) know if you would like to attend and we might just be able to squeeze you in. Or alse register for our March breakfast on university autonomy instead.

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