Governing the Governors: how to get the university governing bodies we want

By William Mohieddeen

Let’s straighten one thing out – universities are absolutely marvellous things.  They are democratic institutes of higher learning. They offer a safe and engaging environment where we can further our understanding and challenge existing knowledge of the world in which we live;  where schoolchildren progress to become independent learners; where those from colleges can utilise the skills they have newly acquired to take advantage of freshly-made opportunities available to them; where the mature of our population can apply a seasoned insight into our society to challenge existing paradigms; and where home students study, interact and live amongst those from around the world, offering invaluable international networks on our doorsteps.  Students can engage in almost any form of activity and develop themselves socially as well as intellectually.

The responsibility, then, that university governing bodies have is an awesome one.  All of what makes a university such a vital keystone in civilised society rests, in one way or another, on the decisions and actions of Court – a task made all the more sensitive given that governing bodies are directed by usually only 20 or so people, chosen for their possession of those skillsets considered important to the university community.

Recently however, a spotlight has begun to shine on governing bodies in Scotland, and whether they are functioning in a manner that befits that awesome responsibility they have.

The Von Prondzynski Report on University Governance has kicked off the debate in spectacular fashion.  In my experience, the reaction from university executives has been one of trepidation (putting it mildly); to students’ unions, on the other hand, it appears a curious opportunity.  Students’ unions must now use this conversation as a catalyst to attempt to redefine how we see governing bodies, how they operate, and how they are maintained.

I don’t wish to use this comment to describe the report, or the implications that the recommendations may have. Fundamentally though, the onus is put on governing bodies (more specifically, university executive managements – in my experience this seems to be where the true power lies when it comes to governing body matters) to tackle the vision of true democracy at Court level: through greater participation of staff and students, recognizing civic community interests and ensuring gender diversity.  Although this is interesting, the discussions we must be having are not about the Von Prondzynski review or university governance alone.  This is the chance for students, staff, and the taxpayer to redefine higher education entirely. Should we achieve truly democratic, accountable and representative governing bodies, we will see the trickle down effect of the provision of education meeting the needs of students, industry, and the community.  So…

How can we ensure that university governing bodies are suitably effective, accountable and are representative of the community they serve? This is the simple question I found myself asking, and ultimately, the question every university, every student, and every member of staff should be asking of their respective Court.

Effectiveness

The role of Court may be defined as ‘to scrutinise the management of a university to ensure it fulfils its duty to the community’. However, a skim through the mess of University statutes highlights that Court effectiveness at one institution may mean a different thing at another.  The von Prondzynski review identifies the six different legal statutes that exist for universities in Scotland.  For the taxpayer, this means the £100million+ cash that Scotland’s universities receive is scrutinised and handled in six different ways.[1] For student unionists like myself, this means that no standard exists in student scrutiny of a university.

It is frustrating that when the question is raised of institutional duty to the community, university executive managements and governing bodies cry “threat” to institutional freedom. Should we continue to offer institutional freedom to universities to set their own standards of scrutiny, that freedom will then continue on the road to freeing up the HE market.  Personally, I find it difficult to see the Scottish Government continuing to swallow the situation of universities enjoying the “deregulation” of public and community scrutiny in six different fashions, when the cash comes from the one place. There is a tension that must be resolved one way or another, and for the sake of our HE sector, we cannot let that lead to a free market.

Accountable

Court effectiveness and accountability compliment each other nicely: one lends itself well to the other.  If a university governing body is robustly held to account, the effectiveness of its ability to scrutinise should be improved, not least because it will be forced to act in the interests of the university community.  All too often, the way university governing bodies make decisions is not as straightforward as it seems.

Should there ever be reserved business in university governing bodies?  Is it ever inappropriate for students to be on any sub-committee of Court?  Amusingly, the response I was given to raising the question of student representation on remuneration committees was that it would be inappropriate as the committee handled staff salaries – that’s the point!

If you ever need to make an example of any university when it comes to accountability, why not use Abertay. After all, the Scottish Government attempted as much.  After the double-suspension of an 18-year-serving, £222,000-per-annum-earning Principal and the Deputy Principal – who subsequently became the Acting Principal – as well as several Court members retiring their governing body positions in the wake, all without explanation, it came as no surprise to me that the Scottish Government tested the waters of forced merger at Abertay University.  The entire situation was held behind closed doors – inference, innuendo and suspicion were rife.  It is stifling not to know why conflict exists amongst those that run your institution.

I led the Abertay Students’ Association campaign to prevent the forced merger of Abertay and Dundee universities, a decision that I still defend.[2] Abertay have yet to answer why it believes it was chosen as the test for a forced merger, and what it would change to ensure that it would not happen again.  A serious faltering of governance occurred at Abertay and the public will never know the details why.  If someone in the Abertay community wishes to know every shred of scandal that occurs within the institution, they probably should rethink their approach – no-one should want to be given a stick so that they can find a reason to beat those that run the university over the head with. The point is that if all university business was subjected to proper scrutiny and openness, the rumours and innuendo would subside. This is what students are really asking for. We must now make the case that universities should be opened up, not for us to throw our weight around, but to ensure that those in positions of management are operating in the interests of the university community.

Representative

Finally, how do we ensure that governing bodies are representative of the community? Firstly, we must identify the members of this community. A good starting point is to pin down the diversity of the student population.  The most pertinent metrics may be gender, age, race and field of study. It is important that governors have sound business and legal acumen and are able to read the shifting political landscape, but it is also vital that students are able to see themselves in their university governors.

I define the whole university community in three sections – institutional population (students and staff – both academic and non-academic), industry and the civic community.  Each has a legitimate interest in the performance and organisation of a university.  Firstly, industry should be regarded as a significant stakeholder in higher education. The needs of industry must dictate to some extent the skills and abilities of graduates.  Universities are expected to provide an environment where graduates gain a comprehensive understanding of specific fields of study; as importantly, where they can cultivate ambition, creativity and skill with which to drive industry forward. I enjoy debating with academics whether the purpose of universities is to get students jobs or to provide industry with employees.  Perhaps the answer is neither, but one certainly needs the other. University governing bodies tend to be filled with lay members who are regarded as key figures in a certain field, in part to ensure that universities are in tune to the needs of industry.

Our Campaign to protect Abertay University from forced merger revolved largely around us identifying the value of Abertay to the City of Dundee.  This is the civic community.  Students are not at university to solely study on campus: they live, work, integrate, socialise and invest in the community as much as any other member of the public.  They are very much of that town or city in which they are living.  Moreover, a university attracts industry, jobs and investment to a town or city based on the graduates they supply.  This investment changes the entire environment – jobs create jobs, industry and growth encourages social development.  The interest in universities that the civic community has is without doubt, and this is before we consider the increased investment of public funds that go into them.  The reforms we ask for must help us to better co-exist with the towns and cities in which we study.  The jobs we need may depend on it.

Finally, there must be appropriate representation of the institutional population.  As the conversation of institutional governance has unfolded, Liam Burns, President of the National Union of Students, has called for meaningful student involvement in decision-making to include the power to “approve or veto”. It is not clear, however, how this could practically be achieved.  I often find when sitting on any board – from Court at the top, to a small task group at the bottom – that deciding what to do in the company of executive management is akin to having “two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner”.  The Von Prondzynski report recommends at least two students on governing bodies. This number is far below that which would give students a substantive, not tokenistic, role on governing bodies.  Whatever approach two students may take on Court in order to present an argument on behalf of the students, there are still at least 20 others willing to dissent.  Two students on Court do not increase the student voice when they are both presenting the same case.  Two students on Court will be no more efficacious than one.

Answering the question on decision-making is something I am unable to do. However we may find a solution in pursuit of one of the Von Prondzynski report’s more contentious recommendations – elected chairs of Court.  The report leaves ambiguity over the electorate, an opportunity perhaps as it is something that is open for definition, rather than presented as an unanswerable question.  The question over elected chairs of Court is not who gets to decide, it is on defining why they are desirable, why it is worth the pursuit.

The answer may be the fulcrum upon which the debate on institutional governance tips.  Will the power to decide hand undue influence to the masses? Will openness and accountability be enhanced? Will the demands of the university community –institutional population, industry and the civic community – be met by robust governance? The writers of the von Prondzynski report have made their recommendations. The rest of us should now decide whether we agree with them. If we do, then we must demand that they are not buried in the backrooms of Hollyrood; if we don’t we should start coming up with our own answers. And quickly!

[1] One university senior manager highlighted to me that should this change, a barrier exists in universities’ statutes being handed over from the Vatican (Glasgow and St Andrews having their university status approved by papal bull).

[2] Though perhaps with some extra experience of working in university governance I would not be so quick to bluntly oppose the proposition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *