Controversial decisions at some universities has put governance in the spotlight
University governance has never been a topic to grab the headlines. But events in some Scottish institutions of late have shone a light on the issue and now unions are demanding reform.
As autonomous institutions – that receive large sums of public money – the question of who runs universities is a complex one. It shot to prominence earlier this year when the University of Glasgow brought forward controversial proposals to cut a raft of courses including modern languages, nursing, anthropology and social work as part of plans to save £20m over three years. The move sparked a bitter row between the university management – personified in Principal Professor Anton Muscatelli – and staff and students. Following the public outcry these changes have been scaled back and the decision delayed until 22 June. More recently the University of Strathclyde has been in the limelight, with its plans to axe courses in music, community education, geography and sociology that could see 25 jobs lost. The moves have even prompted renowned linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky to question the university’s motives.
Hardly surprising then that staff and student leaders believe the time is ripe for reform. Last month, lecturers’ unions, University and College Union (UCU) Scotland and the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) took the campaign to Parliament where they lobbied MSPs to bring forward a review of the management and governance of universities and colleges. The unions argue that events of recent months demonstrate that university management is not properly accountable to the students, staff or indeed public they serve. The voices of these interests need to be strengthened in the decision-making process, and power further devolved from the top.
“We’d like to see a strengthening of the governance system,” says UCU Scottish Official Mary Senior. “At the moment it’s not really performing its function; it’s not doing proper checks on what the senior management team is doing; it’s simply rubber stamping decisions. And we have some very big concerns that in some universities the staff concerns haven’t been taken on board by the courts.”
University courts or governing bodies are a key focus. Unions believe that in many institutions the courts – akin to boards of management in a company – are failing to hold the senior management team to account. The EIS calls for courts – 48 per cent of which are made up of lay members with some representation from elected staff and students – to be made more transparent and have greater student and staff representation.
“We’d like to see the membership of university courts to be widened, with a greater staff and student membership, some possibly appointed by either the local community or the Scottish Government. We would like to see some meetings being held in public, and with all minutes published. These should not be secretive organisations,” says David Belsey, EIS National Officer for Further and Higher Education.
“We would like to see a greater sharing of information regarding all aspects including financial of the court’s work. We would like to see a more collegiate style of governance and management, in which the senior management teams at the universities are not so isolated from the staff that deliver the work.”
Following a review of university governance in Wales, Belsey urges the Scottish Government to follow suit. “The Welsh study concluded that universities need governors with greater independence from senior managers and that some court members saw their role as being no more than a cheerleader and ambassador for their university”
John Markland, vice-convener of the University Court at the University of Edinburgh, however, defends the standard of governance at Scottish universities. The former chief executive of Fife Council and Chair of Scottish Natural Heritage says the voices of staff and students are fundamental to the decisions of the Edinburgh court. “I don’t think any organisation these days can afford to do anything without listening to the people it’s providing a service to.”
Universities Scotland also points out that staff and students make up about 40 per cent of the membership of university courts. Director Alastair Sim says: “Staff and students rightly have a central role in the governance of universities and are well represented on governing bodies; occupying around 40 per cent of seats around the table on average. University governance also draws benefit from the experience and diversity of lay members of court, who are drawn from a wide range of leadership backgrounds in business, public service and the voluntary sector.” The body has had constructive talks with the unions on this issue, he adds, and is listening to their proposals.
But according to NUS Scotland President Liam Burns, students must be represented not just on courts but also “where the decisions are actually made” – in the senior management groups.
“Going into a time where public funding is tight, having students as partners is going to pay dividends for everyone because you avoid these flash points that we’ve seen over the last couple of months,” says Burns.
And judging from the sounds coming from Education Secretary Michael Russell, calls for reform may well get a sympathetic ear. The SNP manifesto promises to “modernise university governance” as part of a Higher Education Bill. Though so far quiet on the Strathclyde proposals, in the run-up to the election the Cabinet Secretary was vocal on the Glasgow dispute, urging the principal to delay the decision until after the poll. And to the dismay of many university heads, he even mooted the idea of directly elected principals.
Russell was responding to an idea raised in a submission by a group of 200 academics at Glasgow who opposed the moves to cut provision at the university. Thomas Munck, Professor of Early Modern European History at Glasgow and a member of that group argues that too much power is currently concentrated in the hands of the principal. Elections might force the chiefs to act in a more consensual way, he believes.
“I see no reason why you couldn’t elect the principal,” says Munck.
“I would prefer to have principals who are elected, on the basis of a four or a six-year period of office, to give a sense that they represent a body of people, whether it’s public interest or the taxpayer or the academic community.
“If you are elected, perhaps you have to work more on a compromise and consensus basis and that seems to me a good thing. I don’t see any attraction in having a person who can make very radical decisions about change without actually having to report to anybody other than court.”
Indeed university heads are elected in a number of European countries including Italy, Croatia and Poland. Principals here, however, argue that such a system would lead to poor leadership where the tough decisions are ducked. The evidence they claim, lies in the fact that none of these countries has universities in the top 200 of the THE [Times Higher Education] World University Rankings.
As universities manage a 10 per cent cut to their public funding this year, difficult decisions will have to be made. Whether governance reform follows or not, they would be wise to ensure their students, staff and communities are fully engaged in that process.