Shared governance – can universities move on from a top-down management system?

Professor David Midgley concludes his discussion of The Governance of British Higher Education by Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath


Like other analysts of the current situation, Shattock and Horvath bring out very clearly the deleterious effects of marketisation and the senses in which these have been exacerbated by the removal of the student numbers cap and the policy of refusing official support to any institution that gets into financial difficulty. The impact of competitive student recruitment varies from one institution to another, but in many cases marketing and programme planning have been taken out of the hands of academics, while the burden of administration on them has simultaneously grown: “The accretion of top-down management,” the authors find, “mostly arising from increased demands for accountability, is in danger of stifling individual initiative and originality” by subordinating them to an institutional management agenda (p. 147f), the nature of which is largely determined by agencies of the state like the OfS (p. 186). The financial insecurity that the “disequilibrium of the new student market” inflicts on institutions can also inhibit the development of promising new research (p. 138), while the incorporation of the research councils into UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), combined with the separation of teaching from research under the regulatory prescriptions of the 2017 Act, looks likely to diminish the range of available sources of research funding (p. 134f).


The mushrooming of committees and back offices

The interviews revealed a particular managerial blind spot with regard to global developments and the governance issues that potentially arise from these. Shattock and Horvath devote a special chapter to this issue too. In a remarkable parallel to the findings of Moodie and Eustace in the 1970s, they found a “mushrooming of specialist committees and back offices” tasked with interpreting multi-layered, multi-modal relations and the various regulations that these generate, but not officially recognised as “part of institutional governance” (p. 175). At the same time, perceptions of what “governance” meant tended to be obscured by the notion of higher education as an export industry and of the UK system as a “landscape” ordained by the government, to which the influence of developments in Europe and the world at large did not apply (p. 177f). This too is an area in which Shattock and Horvath suggest that the considerable experience of UK academics with diverse forms of international collaboration could contribute much to the understanding of the implications of emerging practices and of the need for their harmonisation at international level, and thus to the development of good governance in practice.

The most hopeful sign the authors detect is indeed the evidence that a traditional academic culture – characterised by open discussion and a collaborative pursuit of effective solutions to educational challenges as well as research problems – persists beneath the carapace of a predominantly top-down management system. Their argument is essentially that – in the interests of the future vitality of British higher education – that creative force needs to be liberated from a business model of governance that is overly hierarchical in its approach to decision-making and excessively regulated towards prioritising accountability and precaution over risk-taking. The conclusions they draw from their survey are indeed highly persuasive:

the more research-active a university is, the more likely it is to have a higher level of academic participation in governance and the more likely it is to be innovative, to teach and research creatively and to rely more on the individual professionalism of the academic community than on management authority and an enormous burden of regulation. The British higher education system needs to be trusted more to govern itself in the best interests of its core business of teaching and research or it will lose those qualities that have given it its success. (p. 152)

Their key proposal for averting that danger is to restore the power of academic boards, in both pre- and post-1992 universities, thus replacing the business model with a recognised system of “shared governance” (p. 202).


Rekindling the sense of academic citizenship

This concept is not new, but it may fairly be said to have enjoyed a more secure tradition in the USA than in the UK. In the American context, as Shattock and Horvath note, lay governance tends to be perceived as the “moat and bridge” that protects the academic community while also connecting it with the wider public, while the term “trustee” implies, as they put it, “a more long-term concern for the interests of the institution” than the British “governor” (p. 130). They note how remarkable it is that the Higher Education Governance Code promulgated by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) – an organisation which began life as an association of chairs of university governing bodies as they existed before the legislation of 1988 and 1992 – only briefly refers to the role of senates and academic boards, and “conveniently forgets to mention that Britain’s two most successful universities in world league table terms are entirely academically self-governed and have no lay governing bodies at all” (p. 200). While that comment perhaps reveals a naive underlying assumption about the extent to which Oxford and Cambridge (which are not represented on the CUC) have been shielded from the effects of the managerial culture that has taken such a firm hold elsewhere, the general case for a bicameral structure, in which the executive would report to the senate or academic board as well as to the governing body, is well made. It rests on the notion of shared governance as “a sui generis form of governance appropriate to institutions of higher learning whose core business is teaching and research” (p. 200f). The implementation of this proposal would, as Shattock and Horvath see it, “rekindle the sense of academic citizenship that may have been lost in the developments of the last two decades” and stimulate academic performance by providing “the conditions in which good academic work can thrive” (p. 201).

A review of this book that appeared in Times Higher Education in January 2020 suggested that only a government committed to renouncing the use of universities as instruments of social and economic engineering could be expected to grant the restoration of academic autonomy in the sense that Shattock and Horvath have in mind. Insofar as such a move would require substantial changes to the current legislation governing higher education, government support would of course be entirely necessary. But it is equally evident that, in addition to their revealing diagnosis of the manifestly counterproductive tensions with which English universities in particular are currently riven, the authors of this book demonstrate very persuasively that meaningful participation by academics in the governance of the institutions in which they serve is an essential precondition for the future resilience of the higher education system of the UK.


The Governance of British Higher Education is published by Bloomsbury.