The governance of British universities: how we got from there to here

In the first of three blogposts, Professor David Midgley offers some reflections on The Governance of British Higher Education by Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath, and what it tells us about the recent history of the university


The question of how the state of health of a university’s core academic activities relates to the way it is governed is by no means a new one. Adam Smith, who is commonly quoted on how poorly motivated the teaching was at the self-governing University of Oxford in his day, went on, in the very next paragraph of The Wealth of Nations, to deplore the climate of fear prevailing in universities that were governed by an “extraneous” authority, leaving the humble academic with no effective protection other than “obsequiousness to the will of his superiors”. (He was probably thinking of universities in pre-revolutionary France.) When Graeme Moodie and Rowland Eustace investigated the operations of university governance in the 1970s, on the other hand, they were trying to establish exactly how the systems of authority within British universities at that time – many of which had only acquired self-governing status relatively recently – functioned in practice. They found that under the conditions of the 1970s the senate was typically the most influential decision-making body in a university, but that the tendency to delegate decisions to proliferating networks of committees made it difficult to determine precisely how decisions were arrived at.

It is a very different historical situation again that Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath (both currently researchers at the UCL Institute of Education) address in The Governance of British Higher Education. They are assessing the impact of government policies and legislation on the operation of British universities over the last decade, and since their research draws on 95 interviews conducted in 2016-17 with experienced academics and senior managers from a cross-section of institutions it may fairly claim to be the most extensive empirical study of the topic since the work of Moodie and Eustace. They also review developments since the 1980s in order to establish how the present situation came about, as well as what that situation entails, and why it is desirable to progress beyond it. The three sections that follow will therefore focus on each of those three aspects in turn.


How we arrived here

The process of change that higher education institutions in the UK have undergone in the last decade will be readily apparent to all who experienced it as post-holders in British universities. But The Governance of British Higher Education reminds us that the recent changes, radical as they were, need to be understood in the context of a sequence of developments reaching back over the previous thirty years, which relate to both the impact of government policies and the nature of institutional responses to those policies.

The story begins with the changes in the institutional culture of British universities that occurred in the 1980s, when the University Grants Committee (UGC), originally constituted in 1919, responded to government funding cuts by adopting the practice of differential allocation of funds according to the perceived quality of individual institutions. As Shattock and Horvath note, this dirigiste approach “damaged the trust in which [the UGC] was held in the universities and […] gave it a political salience that brought it into conflict with the government and its political priorities” (p. 43). That dual effect was subsequently intensified by the addition of the competitive approach to research funding entailed in the Research Assessment Exercise (initially introduced in 1986 and now replaced by the Research Excellence Framework), the step-by-step transition after 2000 to the full marketisation of HE via a funding regime for teaching based predominantly on tuition fees, and now also the move from quality assurance based on academic judgements to the assessment of (extraneous) teaching outcomes by the metrics of the (arbitrarily imposed) Teaching Excellence Framework.


Senates: the beating heart of university governance

In the domain of university governance, landmark changes occurred with the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992, which eliminated the binary divide between universities and other kinds of further and higher education institution, but entrenched significant differences in the way either type of institution was governed. The Act confirmed the unicameral authority of governing bodies at post-1992 universities (where it had been established by the Education Reform Act of 1988), with the vice-chancellor acting as chief executive officer and the functions of academic boards effectively limited to such mundane issues as course approvals, academic regulations and examinations. In pre-1992 universities, by contrast, the senates “remained the beating heart of university governance”, with governing bodies largely exercising “a ‘long stop’, ‘critical friend’ role” (p. 96). Over time, however, as these institutions responded to changes in funding structures, the demands of reputational aspiration, the creation of a market in student patronage, and the impact of the REF and the TEF, a much more differentiated picture has emerged: examples of bottom-up governance still exist, but there are also cases of top-down management where “a lay-dominated governing body takes the lead in deciding to raise entry standards and improve institutional REF scores” (p. 99), with many variations in between, in both pre-1992 and post-1992 institutions.

The impulse towards treating higher education as a market, and towards running universities like businesses, was signalled long before the wholesale commitment to these approaches that came with the Higher Education and Research Bill of 2016. The latter tendency – explicit in the Jarratt proposals of 1985 – was given additional impetus by the Dearing Report in 1997, while the former had been floated as early as 1991 in the White Paper “Higher Education: A New Framework” as a means of compelling greater attention to the “customer”. It was then taken up by both the Dearing Report and the 2003 White Paper The Future of Higher Education before it became associated, in the Browne Review, with the jejune doctrine that market competition on its own could be relied on to drive up quality.


Crossing the Rubicon

It is in a more specific context, however, that Shattock and Horvath speak of a recent change as the crossing of “an academic Rubicon” (p. 32), and that is the area of quality assurance. The 1992 Act had assigned responsibility for the quality assessment of teaching to a Quality Assurance Committee that was formally under the control of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and designed to be representative of the sector as a whole. Since assessments were made by a panel of academics, the authors argue, accountability was achieved, while the formalities of academic responsibility were preserved. In an effort to give governing bodies an “unambiguous identity”, however, the Dearing Report recommended that their brief should include formal responsibility for academic standards, a suggestion that was readily taken up by politicians. For Shattock and Horvath, the Rubicon moment came in 2016 when Hefce decided to endorse that recommendation, because this opened the gates to lay intervention in what had until then been exclusively matters of academic judgement.

This takes us to the heart of their findings about the current state of university governance.