by Phil Pilkington
There has been widespread discussion and outrage about the pay and reward of Vice Chancellors and their accountability to their governing bodies. In addition, there is discussion about the need to provide greater support for the lay members who govern universities, and the related need for the reform of institutional management to be less dependent upon an individual’s abilities as manager-leaders in a complex environment (‘less analogue and more digital’, Mark Leach, WonkHE).
A recent concern was whether ex-VCs should be encouraged to join the governing boards to provide some empathetic support for the management, and perhaps an independent but expert view of management in HE for the benefit of lay governors.
Another complaint has been the lack of gender balance and BAME representation on Boards of Governance, with women comprising 32% of board members (Sherer and Zakaria, 2018). There are other critical matters: civic engagement and the relationship with the local community; disproportionate pay increases for VCs and the consequent demoralisation of staff; the worsening conditions of all employees in pay and ‘contracting out’ to global corporations; calls for the democratisation of universities; and strategic engagement with political change. Issues such as freedom of speech, Prevent, institutional autonomy, public understanding of science to international partnerships and more are all directly or indirectly connected to the nature of governance. The governance of US universities is said to involve the triple duty of fiduciary, academic and moral responsibilities; there may be no limit to the responsibilities of governors.
A recent colloquium on governance focussed on the need for creativity in the global market of higher education and the needs for science innovation and pedagogic development (University Governance and Creativity, European Review, Cambridge, 2018). Whatever the limited pool of talent available for the lay governance of universities the UK stands strong in the league table for sectoral autonomy, scoring top at 100% in the European University Association (EUA) review in 2017. This is nonsense. Or rather, the concept of autonomy is nonsense for universities. It is an enlightenment concept out of Kant as a condition for moral agency and the categorical imperative. ‘Independence’ may be a better term to be used for organisations, but independence from what or whom? No organisation (or person) is context free or without history.
Explanations of university autonomy often appeal to von Humboldt and/or Newman; both had contextual arguments for independence from. In the first case, independence from crazed minor princes in the Holy Roman Empire or a Prussian king seeking fame as an enlightened autocrat making whimsical appointments; in the second, independence from the strictures of a bone-headed clergy in Dublin. (Interestingly, public state universities in the USA have senior appointments made by the state governor, boneheaded creationist or not.) Given the constraints and historical conditions for universities the question arises: is the governance what is needed? A related question then is what are universities dependent upon?
The EUA review of degrees of autonomy is flawed in assessing governance as either unitary or binary. In a unitary model the board of governors receives a strong or determining input from a senate or academic board. In the binary model the academic receives instruction from the governance/ management. The UK is assumed by the EUA to be a unitary model, but any academic input is strongly mediated by the management/executive, which to a large degree determines the agenda for the boards of governance and also sets the conditions for academic performance and structures. How can autonomy be graded? In the same way we might ask: how can uniqueness be conditional?
The end of the public sector higher education (PSHE) sector ended not just the polytechnics (and the soon to be promoted colleges of HE), it ended an accountability regime linked to local democracy. The Education Reform Act 1988 not only abolished that mechanism for local accountability (and, for good measure, the architecture of accountability with the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority and regional advisory councils), it put in place a system for the self-replication of governing bodies once Secretary of State Kenneth Baker had approved the initial tranche of governors. 30 years later we have a uniform system of accountability dominated by a specific professional outlook and culture.
A sample of the experiences of governors, if we ignore the small minorities of academic and student governors, is salutary*.
There are minor differences in board membership between Russell Group and post-92 institutions, but the similarities seem more important. The striking feature of governing bodies is the preponderance of accountants, or rather senior executives of the major accounting firm. In my sample one Russell board has four members with current or recent professional experience with the big four accountancy firms. This is not unusual; another Russell has three members similarly engaged. ‘High powered’ accountancy skills are of course useful in overseeing a £multi-million business such as a university.
However, the political and social values that go with the high-level accountancy skills are now intricately connected to external political discourse and practice: the governor who advised on the privatisation of the railways, or the advisor on the HBOS-Lloyds merger; the advisor to the government on deregulation in HR, the directors (regional or national) of the CBI. There are others: financiers, bankers, corporate lawyers, big pharma directors, entrepreneurs in a range of consultancies, a smattering of retired senior civil servants and even a lead figure in the Student Loans Company. Any concern about the impact of the REF and TEF on academic staff would be overridden by a priority to ensure that targets are delivered.
The values and ethos of the individuals who comprise the governance of universities are not left outside the boardrooms. Why would they enter governance if they did not bring with them the normative values of their competences? And such competencies, if they can be described as such, carry with them a world view of how others should be and do.
Post-92 governors are less elevated; not as many MBEs, OBEs or knighthoods as the Russell Group. And there are more public sector roles such as youth justice, charities, health service executives, housing associations, media executives and senior local government or police service officers. There are some interesting outliers in the post-92 sector with senior women executives in industry, but – albeit to a lesser extent – the bankers and senior accounting partners are still there.
The concern for diversity – there is some ethnic and gender diversity in the post-92 group, less so in the Russell Group – is diminished by the uniformity of seniority and positions of power that all board members have in the private or public sectors as CEOs, partners, and chairs of boards, with what is likely to be a uniform ideological outlook on the world. It has been suggested that remuneration (£20K pa has been mooted by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC)) would encourage more to volunteer their time and expertise on boards of governors, but the current incumbents are similar to those great and good who always seem to have volunteered in the past; they can afford to volunteer, others will be providing the work/value while they sit on the boards.
Remuneration would be appropriate if the board members needed the money to enable them to attend board meetings. The suggested amount from the CUC is more than annual wages for many.
Halting the self-replicating nomenklatura of these boards would be difficult, requiring an external intervention to put forward board members of a different character and set of values; perhaps those who are antithetical to the interests of the Student Loans Company, to privatisation of public services and the burdens taxpayers suffered with the banking crisis of 2008. But there have been interventions on board membership before – in the 1988 Act which ended ‘donnish dominion’, thanks to the groundwork in the Jarratt Report. Some may protest that this would be an attack on institutional autonomy, but autonomy is not an unqualified condition of the success of universities in the UK, notwithstanding the glowing report from the EUA.
The CUC code of conduct requires governors to have the interests of the HEI at heart, but governors’ perceptions, values and interests will determine assessments of current and future positions. Given the monoculture and common discipline background, there may not be enough disagreement. Such uniformity calls for more creativity in governance. The focus will be on the operational imperatives of performing well within the current context, a context of ‘academic capitalism’, with a well-known critique which may not be accessible in governance or top down management. The lineaments of such a regime are: funding via student enrolments; quality assurance regulatory systems; marketisation; the OfS regulatory framework; financial viability standards; league tables; branding and consumerisation of education.
The freedom of the market is an ideological position: the market is externally created and freedom for action and conscience is limited by the external impositions. These conditions are not only handed down by the OfS but from ‘advisory’ instructions from government on an annual basis to consider participation rates, schools links, the green agenda, grade inflation, freedom of speech (yet again), consumer rights for students, et al. The fiduciary responsibilities of governance leave little room for manoeuvre and no prospect of supererogatory action. The advisory, regulatory and the bigger socio-economic conditions, from mobility and debt aversion to the international market for students, predetermine the scope of governance.
In contrast to the UK’s HE market superstructure there is a telling edict in the EU Lisbon Treaty, which has lofty expressions of modernisation and the knowledge economy but also asks universities to contribute to the advancement of democracy. We will not have to worry about that anymore. Given the experience of many lay board members in being directly engaged in engineering the market conditions which prevail for universities it would be surprising if boards did not find a normalcy, a correctness in the prevailing conditions. The other responsibilities of governance for academic and moral matters as expected in the USA seem simply preposterous.
Beyond the need to broaden the experiential background of governors, we can also question the constitution of boards. Current expertise can be useful for audit, financial oversight and stress testing business planning (although the big four accountancy firms have had some remarkable involvement in corporate failures in the recent past), but to duplicate this at full board means a loss of opportunities for the more discursive. The current uniformity also explains why, notwithstanding the managerial links of performance to executive leadership, high levels of pay for VCs are not considered exceptional by remuneration committees – they share the same atmosphere.
Reform of governance structures means that some of the axioms in mission statements should be considered as governance issues. If universities are ‘communities of scholars’ then why is the governance of that community in the hands of corporate accountants, financiers and directors of privatised public assets? If universities are to play a role in partnership with the local community in the civic mission then what of the governance implications with that community?
Finally, how can the academic/senate discourse connect with corporate governance? This is not simply about which will take priority: first we must ask, can they talk to each other? The simple hierarchical format of governance ‘works’ in terms of financial viability (more or less) and international status and delivery (more or less) but that should not be confused with overall efficacy. Other historical conditions contribute to the success of the HE sector – or rather, parts of the sector, as some struggle to survive in the market, or exit.
There is talk of the need to devolve managerial leadership, not always a happy experience if distant and indirect corporate performance targets give way to local bullying. Weakening governance by having the not so great and the good might not alter the dynamic of executive leadership; management might become even more powerful and autocratic. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, too often, challenging and questioning the executive is rare.
The deeper problem is to disperse governance from the hierarchical to a more clustered and broader stakeholder approach. Beware the unanalysed ideological values that we all bring to bear on decision making. Let’s ditch the concept of autonomy which is a historical accident in semantic terms and begin some creative discussions on what creative governance should look like.
Sherer, M and Zakaria, I (2018) ‘Mind that gap! An investigation of gender imbalance on the governing bodies of UK universities’ Studies in Higher Education 43(4): 719-736
*I looked at 12 universities, six Russell Group and six post-92 universities. Some governing bodies are known as Council, some have changed their title to Board of Trustees, but all have the same legal responsibilities for the institution. The Committee of Universities Chairs (CUC) has produced 3 advisory reports on remuneration of senior staff, one advisory report on Prevent, and on student’s (sic) unions.
Phil Pilkington is Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, a former CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union, an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE.