In Britain, a Call for Alumni on Boards

Report finds that history of "dispassionate" governance won't serve universities well in a new era.
March 31, 2011

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."

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.

"At moments of governance crisis, and holding no stake of dependency, independent governors can act to protect their professional or private interests and their reputation over those of the autonomous institution,” he writes in "University Governance: Questions for a New Era."

"Authority is better based in a body that actively and passionately represents the relative interests of the key university stakeholders," he adds.

The report comes in the wake of a spate of governance problems at universities in recent years, including London Met under its former vice chancellor, Brian Roper. Gillies, who in 2009 stepped down as vice chancellor of City University London after a row with its governing council, says that the shift in higher education funding requires a rebalancing of the membership of ruling bodies.

"[The shift] signals a move towards a more overt, more passionate balance in institutional governance and away from the dispassionate, 'independent' adjudication of matters … that is still found in current governance guides and much governance practice," he writes.

He goes on to argue that the people best placed to take on the role in future will be alumni, "as they now become the chief funding agent of most [English] universities … through their decades-long repayment of state-provided loans."

Gillies also says that a key lesson from the financial crisis is that members of governing bodies need expert skills to be able to scrutinize decisions effectively. But he adds that values are also very important, and "amateur" independent governors with less knowledge of university life are not always best placed to deal with the increasingly entrepreneurial outlook of the UK’s higher education institutions. Suggesting that governors might need to be paid for their services in future, he writes: "Better that than boards fail to exercise their responsibilities in a fully competent and dedicated fashion, and the entire ­institution be at higher risk."

His analysis comes days after the Higher Education Funding Council for England published a shared strategy for its relationship with governing bodies after a consultation with the sector. In it, HEFCE emphasizes that it "respects" the autonomy of governing bodies, but stresses that "governors are expected to fulfill their responsibilities, both individual and collective, in a proactive manner and notify HEFCE of an adverse situation in a timely manner."

However, Gillies notes that the National Audit Office recently identified a need for further clarification of this relationship given the sector’s changing financial environment.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the new governance report was "very timely," adding that there was a need to reassess the role of university governors "in light of the massive changes to higher education."

"The proportion of independent/lay governors is very high at many institutions and UCU has questioned how relevant their expertise is to higher education, which functions very differently from the corporate environments they have worked in," Hunt said.

"The main function of governing bodies should be to protect the academic independence of universities against interference by government and business. Staff representation on governing bodies has been eroded, as has the role of senates and academic boards. It is essential to strengthen the academic input to governing bodies in order to protect the distinctive ethos of the university and its independent role within our democracy."

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