The spirit of subservience: how the change in governance has affected academics’ autonomy

Professor David Midgley continues his look at The Governance of British Higher Education by Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath


The impact of the developments described in section I has been far from uniform. In addition to the differences in governance structure between pre-1992 and post-1992 universities that were entrenched by the 1992 legislation, significant variations have emerged in the way pre-1992 universities in particular have adapted organisationally to changing circumstances. Factors influencing their governance procedures include the nature of specific funding opportunities and the particular conditions obtaining in the various constituent parts of the UK, as well as the financial imperative to recruit students under the present funding regime, which has led to a substantial growth in the size of some universities. The situation that Shattock and Horvath depict is one in which it has become difficult for institutions to determine exactly where the boundary between governance and management should run. In the words of one vice-chancellor they quote, a “challenge to good governance” arises when there is no scrutinising body strong or skilful enough to hold the executive properly to account, and there is a tendency to assume that the way around any problem is to adopt additional business practices (p. 104). Meanwhile, the spirit of subservience encouraged in ordinary academics by such ways of operating is succinctly summed up by the observation of “a lecturer at a Russell Group university” that there are “people higher up in the university” who make the decisions, responding to whatever conditions the government decrees (p. 68).

In their analysis of processes of governance, the authors distinguish between three levels of autonomy: the system level, the institutional level, and the individual professional level. Against the claim that, under the terms of the Higher Education and Research Act of 2017, the autonomy of universities has been preserved, they repeatedly report evidence that institutional autonomy has become effectively limited to operational autonomy, which is itself “circumscribed by the new Framework Regulations”, while “governance at the system level, which was formerly mediated by the HEFCE as a designated intermediary body, has passed into the hands of the minister because the OfS [Office for Students], at least as designated, is no more than a regulator unless the minister chooses to use it in some other way” (p. 67 – emphasis added). As for the autonomy of the individual academic, that has become attenuated in ways that the authors consider likely to inhibit the future potential of HE institutions in the UK.


Alternative providers: the sharp end of sharp practices

Shattock and Horvath have particularly trenchant things to say about the record of the “alternative providers” that governments of the last decade have been so keen to promote. They note the National Audit Office report of December 2017, The Higher Education Market, which issued a warning that the government ignored, namely that, rather than driving up quality, market competition would tend to create a two-tier system in which weaker institutions would merely fulfil the borderline requirements of “economically viable recruitment and teaching quality” (p. 55), thus reinforcing “the social class differentiation between students at higher- and lower-ranked institutions” (p. 56). They also highlight the extraordinarily lax conditions that alternative providers are required to meet by contrast with the “stringent” provisions of the Regulatory Framework for the OfS regarding other aspects of the operation of universities (p. 60). “Questions of internal governance have been ignored,” they add, and “governing bodies are dominated by owner interests,” while most staff at such institutions are “employed on short-term or easily terminated contracts, and have little say in academic governance let alone in institutional strategy” (p. 63), making this the sharp end of the sharp practices that have afflicted universities in general with the debilitating effects of casualisation in recent years. Curiously, such new providers are bunched in London, with none at all appearing in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.


Scotland asserts its independence

A separate chapter of the book is devoted to developments in the devolved territories, not only because there are significant differences in the political background situation that need to be taken into account, but because the practical differences in governance that emerge provide a basis for meaningful comparison with the position of universities in England. Scotland has sternly resisted both the introduction of tuition fees and the acceptance of teaching-only universities, and the strong historical reputation of its universities has enabled it to assert its independence of England (only 6% of Scottish students choose to study at English universities); but the resistance to tuition fees has prompted Scottish universities to compensate for the resulting funding shortfall by competing vigorously for international students, including English students who bring their £9,000 fee with them, while academic performance is constrained by a bureaucratic burden of accountability that is not dissimilar to England’s. Both Wales and Northern Ireland urgently need investment in education to remedy historical disadvantage, and while Wales, with its strong tradition of public support for education, has found ways to mitigate the negative social impact of the student loan scheme, the Northern Ireland Executive has focused its attention more at school level with the result that Northern Ireland universities, faced with budgetary reductions, have resorted to reducing student intakes, which has depressed the proportion of Northern Ireland applicants admitted to a university to 75% by comparison with 85% in England (p. 90).


Cohesion and resilience

The authors acknowledge that developments in England exert an inescapable influence on higher education in all parts of the UK because they affect 83% of the student population as well as being instigated by the UK government. But in the light of that, the differences are all the more instructive. Both the Scottish and the Welsh HE systems show greater “cultural cohesion and resilience” (p. 88) than their English counterpart, and in the case of Wales this has meant that when rationalisation was required it could be handled in an orderly fashion through collaboration between institutions. The fact that all Scottish universities are expected to be research-active has made for “happier and better-balanced institutions” than in England (p. 86), and the sense of a cohesive academic community is also sustained by the fact that course reviews are carried out in a spirit of mutually beneficial quality enhancement rather than assessment against benchmarks. In Northern Ireland, as in England, the tendency towards tighter central control of decision-making has been reinforced by pressures to recruit international students, but Shattock and Horvath also found clear evidence there that “the essential principles of academic autonomy have been maintained”, leaving staff with “freedom to manoeuvre”, and confidence that new initiatives could still come from faculty level (p. 92).

This brings us to the key aspect of their recommendations for improving the current position of UK higher education.