Without proper information and an understanding of wider concerns, governing bodies will continue to make poor decisions, argues Professor Norman Gowar, former principal of Royal Holloway, University of London

 

News that some universities are in financial difficulties should come as no surprise. It was entirely predictable. Most followed the same policy of chasing students to rake in profit from the fee increase. They thought the best way to do this was to improve the ‘student experience’. The nonsense of NSS and TEF encouraged this but most chose also to invest in marketing and massive building programmes, some to accommodate the growth they thought they should pursue, some as part of a marketing exercise. There was less investment in what really matters – the teaching and administrative staff at departmental level who actually engage with students.

Publicity about the level of vice chancellors’ pay has now drawn attention to the numbers of highly paid senior central administrators as priorities shift away from the coal face. No doubt we will soon be hearing horror stories about complex and dubious financial instruments taken on to fuel the building boom.

Not so widely discussed are issues of governance. Governing bodies cannot and should not be concerned with day-to-day running but they must share responsibility when things go wrong. But to exercise their responsibilities they need to be reassured that the information they receive and the choices presented to them have the widest possible support of the community and that the pros and cons revealed in such consultation are presented together with preferred recommendations.

 

The axe will fall in the wrong place

With a shift from collegiate leadership to centralisation and top-down management the advice given to governing bodies is likely to be over-influenced by the views of a small cadre talking amongst themselves with their own group dynamic. The tragedy is that having taken the wrong strategic direction, the axe looks likely to fall on the very staff who have been neutered and unable to influence policy. Ironically they are the people who can restore fortunes by excellence in teaching and research. For many universities the fee increase could have been used to dramatically improve student staff ratios. This would directly enhance the ‘student experience’ and go to the heart of what a university is about. It would also please governing bodies by seeing a move up the league tables. But I wonder how many were given the chance to consider alternatives. This would have still left room for some much-needed improvements in the estate. It is extraordinary that with huge increases in income, debt to income ratios have risen. Keeping them constant would have been prudent whilst still giving plenty of flexibility.

 

Vice-chancellors’ salaries should reflect the job they do

Governance issues have also arisen over the issue of vice-chancellors’ remuneration.  The problem is not only the composition of remuneration committees but the new managerial approach encouraging comparison with chief executives in the commercial world. Far better to reflect the actual job by grounding vice-chancellors’ salaries in the academic enterprise they lead and base them on fellow academics’ pay – say as a multiple of the average professorial salary.  There is little evidence that the skills or levels of pay appropriate in the commercial world are relevant to a university’s leadership.  One cannot help noticing that the nation’s most senior police officer is paid considerably less than most vice-chancellors and I guess that running the Met is a more challenging job.

When things go wrong governing bodies must be held to account but to do their job they need to be properly informed and understand the views and needs of the entire community in order to decide how best to guide the university in the head winds of changing government policy. Only then can they apply their wisdom from wide experience and in particular their specialist expertise to ensure probity and sound financial policy.