The Imperfect University: 2013 collection

Because universities are still difficult, but still worth it

With the latest post, on Robbins, we are now up to a total of 18 pieces to date in the Imperfect University series. Covering a wide range of occasionally relevant issues I do hope there is something for everyone in here. And there is a question at the end.  Anyway, do let me know what you think – here are the posts from 2013:

The first chapter

A collection of the first series of Imperfect University posts from 2012

Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

A piece based on a conference presentation looking at changes in higher education in the past 50 years and what the future might hold.

Rational admissions

On why it is time to look again at a move to post-qualification admissions or PQA.

Know your history

A piece about the value of a well-developed sense of institutional history.

The end of internationalisation?

Why MOOCs really aren’t going to end universities’ international activities.

Free information?

On the problems with and impact of freedom of information requests.

What do we know about leadership in higher education?

Not a great deal seems to be the answer.

Truly transnational

A look at the dimensions of a genuinely global higher education operation.

Finally, from the top – The Imperfect University provides the original introduction to the series

More to follow in the year ahead. In the meantime, here’s a question. Is it time for an Imperfect University book?

Whatever the answer, will keep the series going.

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Developing the UK’s international education strategy

But the report strikes a few wrong notes.

Back in July 2013 the Department for Business Innovation and Skills published its International education strategy: global growth and prosperity. For some reason it passed me by, despite its ambition:

This strategy sets out how the government and the whole education sector will work together to take advantage of new opportunities around the globe. It aims to build on our strengths in higher and further education, in our schools overseas, in our educational technology and products and services, and in delivering English language training. The strategy covers:

  • our warm welcome for international students: explaining that there is no cap on the number of international students who can come to the UK, and supporting students when things go wrong in their home country
  • supporting transnational education: supporting British schools and colleges operating overseas, developing ‘end-to-end’ English language training, and strengthening quality assurance
  • leading the world in education technology: actively encouraging development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and launching a design call, through the Technology Strategy Board, on commercialising education technology
  • a new relationship with emerging powers: prioritising UK engagement with key partners, doubling investment in development higher education partnerships and expanding the number of Chevening scholarships for study in the UK
  • building the UK brand and seizing opportunities: developing a new ‘Education is GREAT Britain’ campaign, and the Education UK Unit will help build consortia to take up high value opportunities overseas

This will ensure we grow both our economy and our wider links with partners around the world.

All worthy stuff. But it doesn’t seem to have had a huge impact since its publication.

BIS intl doc cover

The following passage in the report though was recently drawn to my attention by Gayle Ditchburn of Pinsent Masons:

UK education institutions have a noble history, rooted in the charitable impulses of past generations. To this day, many schools, universities and colleges have charitable status. They consider that this is an important part of their identity, and they discharge their obligations willingly and diligently. Although this model has many strengths, it does not lend itself to rapid growth. The governance structures and obligations of charities, or of bodies of similarly ancient pedigree established by Royal Charter or equivalent instruments, were not designed to grow rapidly, or to run a network across the world.

Consequently, many higher education institutions are conservative in their approach to risk, in both the size and type of funding, viewing equity finance as a last rather than optimal resort.

2.13 It is for institutions themselves to decide their own structures. Some have found ingenious ways to combine profit-making and non profit-making arms. Others, such as the recently created University of Law, have amended their governance structures, establishing models that could be of interest to others. In some circumstances the current structures could mean that international opportunities are taken by other organisations with fewer constraints.

2.14 The challenge will be to ensure that decisions are not taken by default. A positive strategic commitment to remain at a certain size is one thing. A reluctant ossification and decline, caused by an inability to see how to change a structure that is thought to have outlived its usefulness, would be quite another.

It’s a damning assessment of UK universities and also quite unfair. Also, using the newly created University of Law as a prime example of change seems somewhat inappropriate. The reality is that where UK universities do want to take international opportunities they have been able to do so. Recent press reports suggest that some of these overseas adventures may have proved rather too risky but the case of the University of Nottingham, as just one example, shows how international success can be achieved without being constrained by traditional governance structures.

Current structures and governance arrangements are therefore no impediment and there are also many examples of universities seeking creative approaches to securing additional finance. So it really is an unfair criticism of universities and a rather unhelpful one in a document intended to promote international activity in the national interest.

Voting for Committees

Faculty Representation in Governance.

Voting for professors?

Voting for professors?


An interesting piece on faculty representation in governance the Chronicle of Higher Education. The argument is that faculty representation in governance structures is not always ideal:

Perhaps this will sound familiar from your campus: Some appalling, or just bizarre/confusing, initiative will come down the pike, and faced with faculty protests, the administration will say, “But there were faculty on the committee–this was vetted by the faculty.” In such events, it invariably turns out, a few faculty members had in fact been appointed to the committee, typically chosen by an administrator, usually (if ironically) in the name of faculty governance.

Why ironically? Because the mere presence of some faculty members doesn’t constitute representation. The administrative selection of congenial faculty for certain committees is just a form of governance-washing (cf.): You pick faculty members who you can be reasonably confident will go along with something, regardless of whether they have any particular constituency on campus or any particular expertise. (A colleague elsewhere describes this, a little unkindly, as the sycophant pool.) Presto: you’ve insulated yourself from faculty criticism, comfortable in the notion that you did the right thing by appointing some professors.

All university committees are pretty much like this

All university committees are pretty much like this

It’s an interesting argument. Should academic members of committees and working groups always be elected, either directly or through a representative structure such as Senate? I’m not convinced. In my experience such representatives are chosen to ensure that they will contribute meaningfully, they have relevant knowledge and expertise and are able to take a wider view. Elections take time and significant effort to organise and do not necessarily deliver any of these things. There really isn’t anything to be said for appointing committees of yes-people who aren’t going to contribute at all. In most cases appointments rather than elections mean that you get the right mix of academics involved. And you are able to bring in new people rather than just the usual suspects or the best known.

The Imperfect University: the first chapter

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

This year there have been a dozen posts in the Imperfect University series. Covering leadership, staff mobility, regulation, governance in Scotland and Virginia, not so revolutionary online provision, the CDBU and more regulation, there was I hope something of interest for many in here somewhere.

The Imperfect University

An introduction to the series

Who should lead universities?

What kind of people do universities need as leaders – is appointing a top academic enough?

More and more regulation

Despite the rhetoric we always seem to end up with additional rather than reduced regulation in higher education.

Reviewing higher education in Scotland

Comments on a recent review of university governance in Scotland.

Do we need a level playing field?

Some discussion on this frequently used argument.

Massive Open Online Confusion?

On why Massive Open Online Courses aren’t perhaps as revolutionary as is claimed by some.

Governance Challenges at the University of Virginia

On the removal of the President at the University of Virginia. Messy.

The Cult of Efficiency

A look at a book from 1962, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which offers a salutary warning about the hazards of imposing inappropriate models in education.

Graduation – a bit London 2012?

London 2012 crowd

London 2012 crowd


A comparison between graduation events and the feel good Olympics. With other observations about graduation.

Mobility Matters

Developing and moving professional services staff.

First for the chop

Why there really aren’t too many administrators in universities. Honest.

How not to defend higher education

Commentary on the launch of the Council for the Defence of British Universities.

More to follow in 2013.

The Imperfect University: the year to date

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

With the latest post, on why administrators really do matter in universities,  we are now up to a total of 11 pieces to date in the Imperfect University series. Covering leadership, staff mobility, regulation, governance in Scotland and Virginia, not so revolutionary online provision, the cult of efficiency and more regulation I hope there is something for everyone in here. Anyway, do let me know what you think – here are all of the posts for reference:

The Imperfect University

An introduction to the series

Who should lead universities?

What kind of people do universities need as leaders – is appointing a top academic enough?

More and more regulation

Despite the rhetoric we always seem to end up with additional rather than reduced regulation in higher education.

Reviewing higher education in Scotland

Comments on a recent review of university governance in Scotland.

Do we need a level playing field?

Some discussion on this frequently used argument.

Massive Open Online Confusion?

On why Massive Open Online Courses aren’t perhaps as revolutionary as is claimed by some.

Governance Challenges at the University of Virginia

On the removal of the President at the University of Virginia. Messy.

The Cult of Efficiency

A look at a book from 1962, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which offers a salutary warning about the hazards of imposing inappropriate models in education.

Graduation – a bit London 2012?

A comparison between graduation events and the feel good Olympics. With other observations about graduation.

Mobility Matters

Developing and moving professional services staff.

First for the chop

Why there really aren’t too many administrators in universities. Honest

More to follow in due course.

The Imperfect University: Governance challenges at the University of Virginia

University of Virginia: considerable turbulance at the top

A rather topical post for the latest in the Imperfect University series. There have been some extraordinary goings on at the University of Virginia. To the surprise of just about everyone the University’s Board of Visitors (its governing body) decided two weeks ago to remove the President, Teresa Sullivan, after only two years at the helm.  Full details of all official statements are available on the University’s website together with links to some of the major news reports on this. It’s a really messy business and must be hugely destabilising for the University.


So why has the Board decided to take this extreme step? According to the statement by the Rector on June 10:

the Board feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face. The pace of change in higher education and in health care has accelerated greatly in the last two years.  We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues that require hard decisions on resource allocation. The compensation of our valued faculty and staff has continued to decline in real terms, and we acknowledge the tremendous task ahead of making star hires to fill the many spots that will be vacated over the next few years as our eminent faculty members retire in great numbers. These challenges are truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVA.

We see no bright lights on the financial horizon as we face limits on tuition increases, an environment of declining federal support, state support that will be flat at best, and pressures on health care payors.  This means that as an institution, we have to be able to prioritize and reallocate the resources we do have, and that our best avenue for increasing resources will be through passionate articulation of a vision and effective development efforts to support it. We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.

We want UVA to remain in that top echelon of universities well into the 21st century and beyond. We want this to be a place that lives up to Mr. Jefferson’s founding vision of excellence. We want it to be a place that attracts the best and the brightest in scholarship, teaching, patient care, and community service.

To achieve these aspirations, the Board feels the need for a bold leader who can help develop, articulate, and implement a concrete and achievable strategic plan to re-elevate the University to its highest potential.  We need a leader with a great willingness to adapt the way we deliver our teaching, research, and patient care to the realities of the external environment.  We need a leader who is able to passionately convey a vision to our community, and effectively obtain gifts and buy-in towards our collective goals.

The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change.  The world is simply moving too fast.

This would suggest that the Board’s fundamental concern is that change in the University is insufficient both in scale and pace in order to meet the challenges it faces. And that the President therefore has to be replaced with a bolder leader in order to ensure such change happens. It really is a quite remarkable statement. Whilst such events are not rare in other sectors it does seem like extreme step in a higher education context.

Meanwhile, back to the action – The Washington Post reported on a demonstration in support of the ousted President:

Sullivan was forced out after a closed-door meeting of the board. The June 10 announcement that she would resign blindsided Sullivan and ignited a furor at Virginia’s flagship university, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. More than 2,000 people gathered outside the Rotunda on Monday to show their support for Sullivan, who gained wide popularity since taking the job in 2010.

U.Va.’s Faculty Senate and other groups had called for Kington and Rector Helen Dragas to step down as they severely criticized the board’s handling of Sullivan’s removal. Dragas and Kington joined in the behind-the-scenes effort to call for her resignation, and no board members have publicly discussed specific reasons behind the decision.

There is still a long way for this story to go and the New York Times has reported on some other changes on the Board:

In the continuing turmoil after the abrupt ouster of University of Virginia’s president, Teresa Sullivan, on June 10, the university’s vice rector, Mark Kington, and a prominent computer science professor have resigned — and some faculty members say there may soon be enough turnover on the 16-member Board of Visitors that Dr. Sullivan could be reinstated.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, who appoints the board, could fill as many as six seats on the university’s governing body on July 1. In addition to Mr. Kington’s replacement, he has the ability to replace the rector, Helen E. Dragas, whose term is ending. Another member is up for reappointment, two will rotate off the board and an appointment is needed to fill a seat created this year.

On Tuesday, when the board voted 12 to 1 to name Carl P. Zeithaml as interim president, there were two abstentions and one absence, so a shift of six would put the outcome of future votes in question. Furthermore, one member who voted for Mr. Zeithaml’s appointment has said he hopes to undo Dr. Sullivan’s resignation.

There does seem to be a view, at least among Dr Sullivan’s supporters, that these imminent changes to the Board membership could somehow lead to her reinstatement. These appointments though appear to be in the hands of the State Governor and it is not at all clear what he will choose to do nor what effect it will have. But the bigger question the Board will ultimately have to answer is how this radical change can be shown to be in the long term interests of the University. HE institutions are fundamentally concerned with delivering change in the long run and effective stewardship and a concern for real sustainability has to be at the heart of any governing body’s actions. It is simply not clear at this stage how this dramatic step will help UVa deliver its ultimate ambitions.

In considering the fall out from this affair Chronicle also carries an extensive piece and follows up on the specfic issue of appointing a leader who will deliver the kind of “strategic dynamism” which the UVa Board seems to think is lacking:

So what is “strategic dynamism,” and who are its practitioners? Quite the opposite of the methodical, long-term visions found in most universities’ strategic plans, strategic dynamism implies a near-constant “stirring of the pot” within an organization, explains Donald C. Hambrick, a professor of management at Pennsylvania State University’s main campus.

That could mean wild changes in asset allocation within a company’s investment portfolio or a radical alteration of a business’s marketing approach. Proponents of strategic dynamism value the potential rewards of substantial, fast-paced change more than the stability of a gradual strategic evolution, Mr. Hambrick says.

There’s another thing about executives who embrace strategic dynamism: They’re totally in love with themselves, Mr. Hambrick says. In 2007, Mr. Hambrick co-authored a study that found a strong correlation between a chief executive’s level of narcissism and his or her penchant for making frequent changes consistent with strategic dynamism.

The study used five indicators to measure a chief executive’s narcissism, including the prominence of the executive’s photographs in a company’s annual report, the frequency of the executive’s name in company news releases, the disparity between the chief executive’s compensation and that of the company’s second in command, and the frequency with which the chief executive uses first-person-singular pronouns in interviews.

“Having a narcissist for your CEO and engaging in strategic dynamism carries risk,” he continues. “It’s almost axiomatic that if you engage in strategic dynamism and take a big risk, you’re going to have extreme outcomes.”

There is no shortage of criticism that higher education moves too slowly, and there are plenty of trustees and pundits who would say a dose of strategic dynamism is just the kick in the pants the industry needs.

A previous post discussed the issue of who should lead universities and the UVa case gives us a different angle on this. Dr Sullivan is, by all accounts, an outstanding academic with significant experience including four years as provost at the University of Michigan and as executive vice chancellor of the University of Texas system. It seems though that the UVa Board has determined that it needs someone other than an academic. Or perhaps just a different kind of academic.

Will Dr Sullivan be reinstated? Will the University Board appoint a narcissist to replace her? Who knows. However, the turmoil this change has caused will continue to impact on the University for some time to come. It is difficult to predict what the long term consequences will be but in the short term at the very least it is a huge distraction for staff and things aren’t going to get any easier until this matter is resolved.

One footnote to all of this. US press reports on this issue commonly refer to the “ouster” of the President. I find this usage bizarre and for some days thought there was a specific individual being identified as the person who did the ousting rather than the ouster being the event itself.

The Imperfect University: the story so far

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

I’ve managed six posts to date in the Imperfect University series to date. Covering leadership, regulation, governance in Scotland, not so revolutionary online provision and more regulation I hope I’ve managed to offer something a bit more substantial here. Anyway, I’d be grateful for any feedback on the series and in the meantime thought it would be helpful to provide links to all six pieces here for your convenience:

The Imperfect University

An introduction to the series

Who should lead universities?

What kind of people do universities need as leaders – is appointing a top academic enough?

More and more regulation

Despite the rhetoric we always seem to end up with additional rather than reduced regulation in higher education.

Reviewing higher education in Scotland

Comments on a recent review of university governance in Scotland. Not pretty.

Do we need a level playing field?

Some discussion on this frequently used argument.

Massive Open Online Confusion?

On why Massive Open Online Courses aren’t perhaps as revolutionary as is claimed by some.

Plenty more in the pipeline.

David Willetts on internationalisation via sharing university statutes

An interesting idea?

At the recent HEFCE Annual Conference the Universities Minister, David Willetts, delivered a wide-ranging speech which included a couple of interesting points on internationalisation:

Since becoming universities minister, I have worked hard with UUK’s excellent international office and of course the British Council in forging partnerships with other countries: with China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and – in the past fortnight alone – Turkey, the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Malaysia and Indonesia. This week in London, I have already met my Chinese counterpart, and today I am meeting he science minister from India. There is a lot going on. In Turkey, for instance, I witnessed the real potential for a “system-to-system” offer – with students able to study in either country, sharing of educational technologies, academic exchanges and degree validation. The Science Without Borders initiative with Brazil is path breaking.

In Indonesia, I agreed a joint communiqué on education to develop our links with Indonesian universities – promoting two-way student mobility, institutional leadership and knowledge transfer. The likes of Nottingham University already have solid connections to Indonesian institutions. There’s room for more productive associations – in Malaysia, for example, which has more overseas British campuses than any other country.

My department is working with UUK, UKTI, the British Council and others to support our excellent universities – and private companies working in the education sector – to seize these opportunities. It means attracting overseas students here. It means more overseas campuses. But it has to go further and be a full offer from the range of players that make up British higher education today – from architects and trainers of administrators through to external examiners and shared post graduate study. We are still only scratching the surface. This is one of Britain’s great growth industries of the future. The deep respect for our universities across the world is a reminder of what we have achieved here and what more we can do in the future.

All very positive but does remain rather at odds with the Government’s visa policy. One point which was made by the Minister, which does not appear in the published speech, I found rather interesting (and not a little bizarre). Referring to one of his visits, possibly to Kurdistan, Willetts reported that he had been approached by an academic who was seeking to establish a new university. As a starting point, the Professor had downloaded the charter and statutes of Lancaster University and was using them as a blueprint for setting up a regulatory framework for the new institution. The Minister was clearly taken with this idea and thought that it might be a good thing to take copies of a university governance template on future international missions.

I’ve not looked at the Lancaster statutes but if they are anything like those of other universities of a similar vintage and even if the charter, statutes and ordinances had been modernised in the past few years they are unlikely to offer the ideal model for a new university. The Willetts idea is, I am sure, well-intended but statutes and ordinances will be the product of a series of negotations, local and national (in the case of the Model Statute relating to academic terms and conditions), and will have been modified and adapted over many years. There are some good examples out there but statutes don’t lend themselves to being copied in quite the way suggested. Nevertheless, having a Registrar and Secretary or similar on international missions who is able to advise on governance may well be a useful idea.

The Imperfect University: Reviewing Higher Education in Scotland

Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland 

As we have seen in the previous post in this series on regulation, governments, although they will often talk the language of freedom and autonomy, cannot help but get themselves involved in the regulation of higher education. However, Scotland is different and higher education in Scotland is different. And it is unsurprising that the Scottish Government, with control over higher education policy, will wish to continue to follow an alternative path to England. But it looks like it may be unable to stop itself pursuing further regulation of universities. Hence the Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland which has been produced by a Committee chaired by the Principal of Robert Gordon University (who has also blogged on this topic). It is a bold report which seems intended to reinforce the differences with England and to require greater accountability. But if you are looking at this from a university perspective, it seems to be a rather directive set of recommendations which, if enacted, would be a significant constraint on institutional autonomy. So we will have to wait and see if the Scottish Government can resist the invitation to get involved in more regulation of universities.

It is not entirely clear what problems these recommendations are intended to solve or how they will advance excellence in teaching and research at Scotland’s HE institutions. Moreover, the evidence base considered (as listed in the Bibliography) seems rather narrow: whilst the articles in the London Review of Books by Hotson and Collini represent interesting contributions to the higher education debate on changes in England, it is perhaps surprising that they are referenced as source material here. The other point of note is that the Committee was a small one with what appears to be very limited input from the universities.

Some of the recommendations are fairly innocuous but some of them seem quite remarkable and far reaching even in the Scottish context where there is much less conceptual and regulatory distance between government and universities. The full list of the recommendations can be found in the Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland.

The cornerstone of the proposed reform is a new all-embracing statute:

The panel therefore recommends that the Scottish Parliament enact a statute for Scotland’s higher education sector setting out the key principles of governance and management and serving as the legal basis for the continued establishment of all recognised higher education institutions.

The new statute should be drafted as a measure that will rationalise and simplify the regulatory framework of higher education governance; it might provide for:

  • the conditions applying to the establishment of new universities;
  • the key structures of university governance and management;
  • the role and composition of governing bodies and academic boards;
  • the role and appointment of university principals;
  • the drawing up of a code of good governance for Scottish higher education;
  • the status of student associations;
  • the principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

However, the statute should continue to embrace diversity of mission and of operation, and should reinforce the principles of university autonomy and of academic freedom

The details of each of these are set out in the recommendations but this is a really striking proposition – essentially it is an attempt to impose some order and coherence on Scottish HEIs but for what purpose is far from clear other than wanting things to be a bit neater and to regulate new entrants. Moreover, by setting out statutory requirements in each of these areas this would seem fundamentally to challenge the espoused principle of university autonomy and also constrain diversity of institutional mission.

Let’s look at the specifics of some of these recommendations:

2.4 Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy

A definition of academic freedom should be incorporated in the statute governing higher education, based on the definition contained in Ireland’s Universities Act 1997, and applying to all ‘relevant persons’ as under the existing 2005 Act.

Scottish universities and higher education institutions should adopt a similar approach and that each institution should adopt through appropriate internal processes, and present to the SFC, a statement on its implementation of the statutory protection of academic freedom.

Is there a problem with academic freedom in Scotland? It really isn’t clear why, given the statutory protections which already exist, you would want to extend this much further unless it is to include it as a requirement for all academic staff, whether or not they are in universities (although how they would be defined if not is unclear), and to ensure that any new universities were mandated to build in such guarantees. But to impose such requirements on universities, regardless of how well-intentioned, does represent a challenge to their autonomy notwithstanding the fact that the funding council already has a responsibility to have regard to academic freedom.

2.5 The Role of Governance

Governing bodies should be required to demonstrate that their deliberations and decisions appropriately observe the four objectives the panel has set out for university governance, and they should regularly review their own performance against these.

The fundamental principle of a collaborative approach wherever appropriate should be enshrined in the Scottish university system through making the fostering of collaboration between universities a task for the Scottish Funding Council.


Three of the four objectives set out here seem entirely reasonable being concerned with stewardship for the long term, ensuring mission delivery and making proper use of public funds but the fourth – “ensuring stakeholder participation and accounting to the wider society for institutional performance” – seems, although worthy, somewhat at odds with institutional autonomy. Similarly, enshrining collaboration through funding arrangements may limit universities’ freedom to act independently and, although it will often be entirely reasonable for them to collaborate, surely this should be through choice or incentivisation rather than compulsion.

2.9 The Relationship with Further Education

All Scottish universities should not only include responsibilities to their region, alongside their national and international objectives, in their mission statements, but also seek ways to engage proactively, for the benefit of students and the Scottish education system as a whole, with further education institutions and any new governance structures that may be put in place.

Of course all universities will wish to address their regional responsibilities but to regulate this and insist on some form of activity with FE seems, once again, somewhat challenging to institutional freedom to pursue their agreed mission.

3.1 Appointment and Role of Principals

The heads of Scottish higher education institutions should be described as the ‘chief officer’, and that the job title should continue to be ‘Principal’.

There should be widened participation in the process for appointing Principals, and core to this approach should be the reform of the way in which of appointment panels are set up and operate.

The appraisal of Principals should involve external governing body members, staff and students.

3.2 Remuneration of Principals and Senior Management

Further percentage increases beyond those awarded to staff in general should not take place until existing processes have been reviewed and, if appropriate, amended.

Universities should ensure that any payments that may be perceived as bonuses are either abolished or at least transparently awarded and brought into line with the scale of ‘contribution payments’ available to on-scale staff.

Remuneration committees should include staff and student members. The work of the committee should be transparent, and in particular, the basis upon which pay is calculated should be published. While the Framework Agreement, determining pay scales for university staff up to the grade of professor, is a UK matter, the Scottish Government should investigate whether it might be extended north of the border to include all staff including Principals. There should be a standard format for reporting senior officer pay, and the SFC should publish these figures annually.

The SFC should investigate how the principles of the Hutton Report are being or should be applied to universities in Scotland.

Whilst it is not, arguably, terribly important what the Principal is described as it is not at all clear why the Irish approach has been proposed here nor why it is any of the government’s business what universities call their chief executives. More importantly though why should the appointment of Principals and their appraisal and remuneration be the subject of additional legislation? And doesn’t this again reduce institutional autonomy given the safeguards already in place in university charters, statutes and other statutory instruments?

Presumably this is all a response to a perception that Principals are overpaid and the wider societal concern about senior staff pay and bonuses. And there is a view here that all of this is necessary to secure staff engagement and to deliver institutional success. But once again should it not be a matter for the university and its governing body to determine?

4. Role, Composition and Appointment of Governing Bodies

Meetings of governing bodies should normally be held in public unless the matters under consideration are deemed to be of a confidential or commercially sensitive nature; these exceptional matters should be established through clear guidelines.

4.1 Chairing of Governing Bodies

The chair of the governing body should be elected, thus reflecting the democratic ideal of Scottish higher education (recommended by a majority, one member dissenting).

The chair should receive some form of reasonable remuneration (recommended by a majority, one member dissenting).

Again, the issue of autonomy and the constraint on the ability of the governing body to determine its own operation. The proposals around the election of the chair of the governing body are among the most surprising in the report (which is not short of surprises). The argument is that “the democratic ideal” of Scottish HE, which seems to be exemplified by the election of Rectors at the ancient universities, is to take precedence in the arrangements for appointing a chair of governors. Whilst some institutions may welcome this, it is questionable whether this is really the best way to deliver the leadership of the governing body which universities require. And the transaction costs and uncertainties would be significant. Remuneration decisions should, again, be matters for institutions themselves.

4.2 Membership of Governing Bodies

Positions on governing bodies for lay or external members should be advertised externally and all appointments should be handled by the nominations committee of the governing body. Each governing body should be so constituted that the lay or external members have a majority of the total membership.

There should be a minimum of two students on the governing body, nominated by the students’ association/union, one of whom should be the President of the Students’ Association and at least one of whom should be a woman. There should be at least two directly elected staff members. In addition, there should be one member nominated by academic and related unions and one by administrative, technical or support staff unions. The existing system of academic board representatives (called ‘Senate assessors’ in some universities) should also be continued. Governing bodies should also have up to two alumni representatives.

The existing practice in some universities of having ‘Chancellor’s assessors’ should be discontinued.

Each governing body should be required to ensure (over a specified transition period) that at least 40 per cent of the membership is female. Each governing body should also ensure that the membership reflects the principles of equality and diversity more generally, reflecting the diversity of the wider society.

Governing bodies should be required to draw up and make public a skills and values matrix for the membership of the governing body, which would inform the recruitment of independent members of the governing body. The membership of the governing body should be regularly evaluated against this matrix.

Expenses available to those who sit on the governing body should include any wages lost as a result of attending meetings.

Senior managers other than the Principal should not be governing body members and should not be in attendance at governing body meetings, except for specific agenda items at which their individual participation is considered necessary, and for those agenda items only.

4.4 Training

All universities should be required to ensure that governors – including external governors, staff governors and student governors – are fully briefed and trained, and their knowledge should be refreshed regularly in appropriate programmes. Each governing body should be required to report annually on the details of training made available to and availed of by governors.

5.1 Composition of the Academic Board and Appointment of Members

In line with existing legislation applying to the ancient universities, the academic board should be the final arbiter on academic matters.

Apart from the Principal and the heads of School (or equivalent) who should attend ex officio, all other members should be elected by the constituency that they represent, and elected members should form a majority of the total membership. In establishing the membership of the academic board, due regard should be given to the principles of equality, and the need for the body to be representative. This includes a requirement to ensure that there is significant (rather than token) student representation. Overall, academic boards should not normally have more than 120 members.

All terribly prescriptive. Whilst it is hard to argue with any individual item, these really should all be matters for institutions themselves to determine.

(And 120 members is probably not the ideal number for effective decision making at Academic Board level.)

7.3 Avoiding Bureaucratisation

The Scottish Funding Council should undertake a review of the bureaucratic and administrative demands currently made of higher education institutions from all government and public agency sources, with a view to rationalising these and thereby promoting more transparent and efficient regulation and governance.

7.4 Code of Good Governance

The Scottish Funding Council should commission the drafting of a Code of Good Governance for higher education institutions.

Given the prescriptive and far-reaching nature of most of the recommendations, a Code of Good Governance would seem to be an unwelcome addition – and it will look a bit more like a rule book than a guide. However, step one in the review of bureaucratic and administrative demands recommended here would usefully be to consider most of the proposals preceding this one in the document!

So, a pretty extraordinary document. The responses from the Scottish universities so far seems to have been rather muted. The Times has recently reported on some more vocal opposition and concern about “meddling” in university affairs:

Last night, Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman said it appeared there was “widespread and growing” concern about key proposals in the Von Prondzynski review.

She said: “There are two main fears, firstly, that universities are being pushed into radical reform when there is no evidence to suggest that there is a serious problem with the existing structures of university governance and, secondly, that some of the proposed reforms are more about the Scottish government’s desire to diminish the autonomy of universities in favour of increasing the power of ministers.

“On both counts, I think the universities are absolutely right to be concerned.”

Kim Catcheside has published a column on the report in the Guardian Professional, in which she notes that:

Behind the scenes, universities may be concerned about the possibility of political interference but are cautious about speaking out. Mary Senior from the University and College Union told The Scotsman: “It is fair the Scottish government expects certain standards to follow this generous settlement, but it must be very careful not to be overly prescriptive or directive about the learning, research and teaching that goes on in universities.”

Quite an indication there in the comments from UCU of how far reaching these proposals are. Will this report enhance the quality of Scottish higher education? We will see. It will certainly exacerbate the already marked differences between English and Scottish university operations, funding and governance. It is undoubtedly a stimulating document and reflective of many of the challenges facing universities but it is difficult to disagree with the concluding comment made by Liz Smith in the Times piece above:

“The Scottish government is going down a dangerous road of reform which is both interventionist and bureaucratic and which threatens the independence of our most successful academic institutions.”

LSE and Libya: The Woolf Inquiry

Woolf reports on LSE’s Libyan Links

And it’s a compelling read:

The Woolf Inquiry was set up on 3 March 2011 following criticism of LSE’s links to Libya and the resignation of the Director, Sir Howard Davies. The terms of the Inquiry were as follows:

An independent inquiry to establish the full facts of the School’s links with Libya, whether there have been errors made, and to establish clear guidelines for international donations to and links with the School. Lord Woolf is to make recommendations to the LSE Council as soon as possible. He is to have total discretion as to how he conducts the inquiry, and as to the matters on which he is to report.

At the same time, the academic integrity of Saif Gaddafi’s PhD was referred to the University of London under the Procedure for Consideration of Allegations of Irregularity in Relation to University of London Awards. The Gaddafi PhD was awarded by the UoL before degree awarding powers were transferred to LSE, and had to be assessed carefully in accordance with UoL procedures. In order to ensure that a comprehensive picture was reached, the Council of LSE decided that Lord Woolf’s report and the University of London Panel decision should be released at the same time.

As a result the Council of LSE is now making the full Woolf report public and the full report of the Inquiry can be found here. The University of London’s report on Saif Gaddafi’s PhD has been passed to the LSE but this does not seem to have been made public. There is no suggestion though of any actions being taken in this regard.

Lord Woolf’s chunky 188 page report covers four main areas:

  • Saif Gaddafi as a student at LSE
  • The donation to the LSE
  • Range of links between LSE and Libya
  • The activities of LSE Enterprise

The central conclusion is reported to be shortcomings in institutional governance:

The School established, in an incremental and piecemeal fashion, a relationship with Libya. Before a global company embarks upon a relationship with a foreign partner, a due diligence assessment should be conducted. No similar exercise took place in this case. The links were allowed to grow, unchecked and to a degree unnoticed, until their effect was overwhelming. In October 2009, the LSE’s council resolved that the links should be monitored carefully in future. That monitoring came too late. By October 2009 the relationship with Libya had been well established.

In addition, the history of the developing connection between the LSE and Libya has exposed a disconcerting number of failures in communication and governance within the School. The errors which I detail in the remaining chapters of this report exceed those that should have occurred in an institution of the LSE’s distinction. The pattern is such that I am driven to the central conclusion that there were shortcomings in the governance structure and management at the LSE.

Woolf’s main recommendations, which are not huge in number, cover the following topics:

  • the establishment of a Code of Ethics and a committee to oversee it
  • procedures around PhD admissions and progression
  • rules on donations
  • incidental links with Libya

As Times Higher reported it some weeks ago:

The Woolf report is not wholly critical of the LSE, and it partially exonerates the institution in some areas.

It finds that despite the failings, LSE staff acted in what they believed to be the best interests of the school.

A £2.2 million contract to train Libya’s elite civil servants was “clearly of merit” and went through stricter due diligence than the £1.5 million donation, the report finds.

However, it was brokered by Dr Gaddafi while he was still a doctoral student. To prevent such a situation recurring, Lord Woolf recommends that the LSE expand its policy of not accepting donations from current students to cover transactions such as commercial contracts.

A notorious video-link lecture by Colonel Gaddafi in December 2010 in which a message from Sir Howard told him that he was “most welcome”, and the dictator proceeded to denounce claims that Libya masterminded the 1988 Lockerbie bombing as a “fabrication”, was deemed to be legitimate, as students were free to question him.

There was also no criticism of the decision to allow Dr Gaddafi to give a Ralph Miliband Programme lecture at the LSE in May 2010.

The LSE has accepted all 15 of Lord Woolf’s recommendations and a subcommittee of its council will now look into how it will implement a code of ethics.

It does seem therefore that all of the recommendations will be followed up properly by the LSE. Some of the details around Saif Gaddafi’s PhD are quite striking (not least his ability to function as a full-time student whilst playing the part of an international envoy for Libya). But I think the thing that I find most surprising in the report is that given the very detailed critique of the shortcomings in the various decision making processes leading up to the acceptance of the large donation from Libya, Woolf’s specific recommendations on governance don’t seem to go very far, essentially amounting to the establishment of a new code of ethics and a committee. Having said that, there has already been significant change at the LSE, including the departure of the former Director, so perhaps there is much in train.

Overall  though it really is an extrordinary report and well worth reading.

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.

Cambridge avoids extra accountability (for a while at least)

“Cambridge dons retain control of university”

According to the Guardian, Cambridge has fended off pressure to change the composition of its Council to include a lay majority. The extent of the additional accountability requirement which has been agreed seems to be an annual meeting between the chair of the Audit Committee and a Hefce officer:

The ancient university has agreed to provide more information to account for the public money it receives from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) — more than £181m in the coming year — but has resisted pressure to have a majority of external members on its governing council. A review by Hefce of how the university accounts for public funds concluded: “We are able to place reliance on the University of Cambridge’s accountability information. This will be strengthened by a new annual process that has been introduced to provide additional assurance on the use of public funds, given that the university does not currently have a lay majority on its council.”

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However, the funding council appears satisfied that a “modest extension of its public accountability” — essentially a meeting between the chair of the university’s audit committee (an external member) and a Hefce officer — will meet its needs. Asked if Hefce had reached a face-saving compromise, a spokesman replied: “We recognise with both universities that governance reform will take some time. In the case of Cambridge, in recognition of the fact that the university does not feel able to move to a lay majority on its council at this time, we have agreed that we will undertake an additional annual assurance visit specifically to gain additional comfort about the use of public funds. We will operate this mechanism for three years and expect the university’s governance reform to continue moving forward in that time. At the end of three years, we will review the effectiveness of the annual assurance exercise.

Looks like a pretty good outcome for Cambridge this. The additional requirement seems extremely light touch and it will be interesting to see if anything emerges from these meetings and whether the university is pushed into making more substantial changes in the next three years.