Academic Governance

The CDBU believes that this is a timely moment critically to examine the state of the governance of UK universities.  The central issue, perhaps, is this: ‘Whose universities?’ – and just this question formed the title of a recent day-long CDBU symposium (11 July, 2023).

Over the past 30+ years, governance structures in UK higher education have changed considerably (following the Jarratt report in 1985).  Writing as long ago as 2011, Michael Shattock, perhaps the doyen of analysts in the field, wrote that ‘the balance has changed almost out of recognition’.  While there are differences between pre-and post-‘92 universities, the composition of both Councils and Boards of Governors has changed: Governors’ powers have been much extended while that of Senates has been reduced, management executive teams have been established and the voice of the academic faculty has been lessened. 

This whole area remains in flux.  It is, though, a complex area.  Key issues include:

  • The respective weight to be accorded to the different interests involved, especially between external and internal interests
  • Clarity and transparency as to the respective responsibilities of the different parties
  • Possible lessening of academic autonomy
  • Enhancement of governors’ understanding of the central activities of universities, especially teaching and research – and the training/ development of governors
  • The place of the academic faculty in academic governance
  • The role of students
  • Ways of achieving strategic and imaginative foresight in the development of universities in the C21
  • Matters of legitimacy and accountability.

The CDBU has a number of interconnected concerns, namely that (a) UK higher education has adopted business models for its governance arrangements, serving a narrow set of stakeholders (located very broadly in the economy and the state and according a severely diminished role to academics); (b) students occupy an ambiguous position; (c) governance arrangements endorse a top-down model of management; and (d) insufficient account is being taken of wider voices of society and the world.  In short, academic governance was running counter to movements in the public sphere and civic society – where an ever-wider array of voices are being heard on matters.

Four specific issues arise: (i) What agency is available to universities?  (ii) Might the voices of the academics and of the students be more encouraged? (iii) Which voices are to be heard? What of heeding the voiceless? (iv) Can academic governance be remodelled so as to promote collaboration rather than competition across institutions?

There are in addition two foundational matters that simmer under the surface of the debate:

  • The constitutional issue – who guards the guardians – or who governs the governors? From where do they derive their legitimacy? In whose interests should they act?
  • The adequacy issue – does the present set of models supply governance arrangements that are fit for the C21, that have a proper balance between the two functions of overseeing the present direction of travel and sighting new horizons.

It is a century after all that is faced with planetary degradation, increasing conflicts not only between the wealthy and poorer nations but within nations, populism, and a schism between those who have experienced higher education and those who have not.

The CDBU considers that the present governance arrangements are keeping a foot on the brake, limiting the massive reorientation that is required of our universities, when they should be assisting universities to be wise institutions, hearing a much larger array of voices from the world.

In the wake of these considerations, the CDBU believes the matter of academic governance is of profound importance and yet is not being accorded the attention that it deserves.  It is, therefore, a matter that those in the sector should go on engaging with, both individually and institutionally.



From the CDBU blog: