Should more alumni take governance roles?

A new report on governance: “University governance – questions for a new era”

This is an interesting pamphlet from HEPI written by Professor Malcolm Gillies who has clearly been on the receiving end of a fair bit of governance. One of his core suggestions which is picked up by Times Higher Education is that alumni should play a bigger part in governance.

University governance must be overhauled to address the problem of “dispassionate” independent board members who protect their own interests at times of crisis rather than those of the institutions they serve, according to a new study.

Under changes proposed by the review, alumni would be handed a central role as government reforms necessitate a move towards governors that have a direct interest in their universities’ well-being.

The Higher Education Policy Institute report on the future of governing bodies, authored by Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, says that alumni have the “greatest lifelong stake in the institution’s reputation and its protection”.

Professor Gillies argues that the old arm’s-length “common-sense” approach to governance detailed in sector guides needs to be updated, as independent board members lack the incentive to act in tough times.

One of the arguments in favour of this proposal is that student/alumni funding will, for many institutions, become the single biggest source of their income in the near future and therefore it is right that they play a greater role in the governance of their university. However, there are some possible pitfalls with this approach. Whilst the commitment of alumni to their university undoubtedly ensures they are ready and willing to contribute in all sorts of ways, they may also bring all sorts of baggage with them from their student days which might be unhelpful. In addition, their views on certain policy issues may be excessively coloured by their own student experiences or they may tend to have a slightly rose-tinted view of the past which leads them to be somewhat averse to necessary change. Alumni can though bring a distinctive perspectve and, as always with governance it’s about getting the right balance.

One other particular point in the report is the suggestion that government, because it is providing less funding, will be less interested in university governance and will have a reduced legitimacy. I’m really not sure that this will be the case as, for all of the rhtoric, government inevitably and inexorably seeks to regulate and direct higher education more and more, regardless of the level of funding it provides.

A timely report though.

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