How might we run universities?

In the last week or so, there has been a lot of talk about universities, much of it, directly or indirectly, around governance. The high pay of Vice-Chancellors, and the obscure workings of university remuneration committees, have shocked people outside higher education, though they come as no surprise to those of us in the sector. Clearly, university governance has failed to run universities in a way which the public accepts as reasonable, and university “leaders” have failed to defend the autonomy and values of the sector. What might decent university governance look like?

  1. Universities to be run day-to-day by an executive committee with collective responsibility
  2. All executive posts to be held by staff on secondment from a substantive academic role, to which it is expected they will return
  3. Vice-Chancellors and Deans to be elected by appropriate constituencies
  4. Executive staff to be paid their normal academic pay, plus a supplement for increased responsibility
  5. Chairs of governing bodies to be elected
  6. Meetings of governing bodies to be public

The rationale for these suggestions comes from the idea of a university as a self-governing autonomous body of scholars (staff and students) where the governance arrangements should reflect the objective of disinterested inquiry.

At present authority for day-to-day running of a university lies with one person, the Vice-Chancellor, who is in principle accountable to a governing body, called Council in most universities. The Vice-Chancellor will then advised by people who form a de-facto executive committee, but who have no formal responsibility or accountability for what they say: this can lead to senior staff having little independence of action, especially in universities (such as Bath) where the Vice-Chancellor sits on the remuneration committee which decides the pay of those managers. Having the university run by a committee with explicit collective responsibility would change the system of governance from a highly centralized elective dictatorship (such as the French presidency) to a collective structure (such as the UK’s cabinet system).

The committee should be made up of people on secondment from academic roles, and some proportion of them should be elected. The first reason for secondment is that it sets the expectation that senior managers will return to the conditions they are creating, aligning their interests with the interests of the university community. It would also impose a social pressure if managers knew they would have return to working in a department where staff had cause to remember what they had done as managers. Secondly, it gives those managers an important measure of freedom if they can simply walk away from the executive committee (on the cabinet analogy, like a minister who steps down rather than support a particular measure) and return to teaching and research. The reason for electing Vice-Chancellors and Deans to the executive committee (though the elected members need not necessarily be a majority) is to give democratic legitimacy to the post-holders and, especially in the case of Deans, to give them the confidence to argue for their faculty at executive level, knowing that they have the support of their constituency.

Executive pay should also be based on the principle that managers’ interests should be aligned with the university’s. By linking managers’ pay to general staff pay, the managers remain “one of us” rather than being absorbed into a culture of high pay and higher demands.

The last two ideas come from the Scottish government’s review of higher education governance. If the governing body is to function properly, it must work transparently. This could most easily be done by holding meetings in public (i.e. with a live webcast) with any genuinely confidential issues dealt with separately, and by electing the chair of the body.



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