The Governance of British Higher Education: The impact of governmental, financial and market pressures

CGHE’s Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath outline what to expect from their forthcoming book on the governance of higher education

A Synopsis

Forms of governance, at both national and institutional level, critically shape the culture, creativity and academic outcomes of higher education. Governance, as defined in this study, is not just a matter of constitutional structures, but encompasses how decisions are made and by whom, how different levels of governance interface with one another, what pressures are exerted on policy by internal and external forces, and how institutions and their members respond to them. Historically, British universities have been considered among the most, if not the most, autonomous in Europe, a conclusion fully supported by the European University Association (EUA) Autonomy Scorecards (Estermann, Nokkala and Steinel 2011; and EUA 2017). In the classic study of British university governance, Power and Authority in British Universities (Moodie and Eustace 1974), a picture is drawn of a university system in which ‘the supreme authority … must therefore continue to rest with the academics for no-one else seems sufficiently qualified to regulate the public affairs of scholars’ (Moodie and Eustace 1974: 233). This assessment, which arguably remained true until the mid-1980s, must now be decisively revised, although the belief systems deriving from it remain buried deep in many universities’ cultures. This study will show how what was a broadly uniform governance culture running through the university system has fragmented under state, financial and market pressures, and how the state itself, with some important regional variations that did not exist forty or so years ago, has chosen to play a much more proactive role in the direction of higher education than could have been imagined in the mid-1970s. To emphasize this, the chapters in the book follow sequentially through changes in system governance to changes in institutional governance and, finally, to an assessment of the implications for the direction of higher education itself. The consequence of the fragmentation is a much more diverse and variegated governance context confronting an altogether wider assortment of risks and pressures in a more fluid economic and social climate.

Implicit in this study is the concept of ‘shared governance’, that is, a partnership between academic and lay governance or, drawing on our evidence, a partnership between lay involvement, the academic interest and the student voice. The study, therefore, seeks to explore the different layers of governance in British higher education from the nation state through to the various levels of governance within university institutions. What this reveals is a set of interrelationships that go a long way towards determining the climate of academic life and the strategic direction of the institutions.

Chapter 1. Introduction

The 1991 White Paper Higher Education: A New Framework (DES 1991) and the 1992 legislation marked, in hindsight, a very clear break with the previous governance culture of the British university system. First, it provided for the devolution of the previously unified British higher education system for Wales and Scotland, and abolished the Universities Funding Council (UFC), the brief successor body to the UGC, replacing it with Higher Education Funding Councils for England, Wales and Scotland (leaving Northern Ireland, always a constitutional anomaly, to the care of the Northern Ireland Office advised by the English Funding Council, HEFCE). Second, it gave the polytechnics and the Scottish Central Institutions full university status and legitimized a much more directive form of university governance for them, which, significantly, both reduced the policymaking powers of academic boards, as compared to pre- 1992 university senates, and increased the powers of vice chancellors to act as chief executive officers who reported to smaller governing bodies, themselves intended to act much more like company boards (Shattock 2006).

These changes, in themselves, would certainly have affected the stability of the higher education system, but they were also accompanied by a series of further developments that imposed interconnected pressures on both government and institutions. These pressures, not listed in any order of severity, represent a backdrop to any understanding of the reordering of the governance of the system and of the institutions within it that has taken place: the importance of reputation, the creation of a market, the rise in academic and financial accountability, the representation of higher education to government and the reorganisation of system governance. Individually and in combination these changes have been severely disruptive of the unified world of higher education which seemed to be predicted by the ending of the binary line.

Chapter 2. The transformation from a self-governed to a ‘regulated’ higher education system

This chapter describes how the state has extended its role, not just in policymaking in higher education but in the direction of the system, culminating, in England, in its management through an explicit market, which is controlled by a regulator, the Office for Students, and how the associated changes have impacted on institutional governance. It provides some historical background for system governance before 1992, and traces its evolution from higher education self-government, through the Higher and Further Education Act of 1992, to a system of control by regulation established by the Higher Education and Research Act of 2016. It suggests that state dominance in England has been accompanied by an increasing political or ideological underpinning, which can be seen in the creation of a private sector of higher education, the ‘alternative providers’, and in the regulations designed to encourage its increase and the number of its institutions.

Chapter 3. The impact of devolved government: Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England

Devolution has provided the opportunity for a greater differentiation of higher education, and for the development of four increasingly distinct systems, with England’s being by far the largest. A comparison of the four systems illustrates the extent to which the English system has been driven in a different direction from the rest, and makes it possible to assess the effects of policies based on the principles of ‘competition and choice’, as against those pursued in the other systems. It also shows how the political stalemate in Northern Ireland has disadvantaged the Northern Irish universities. It concludes that the impact of devolution has been broadly positive, in that the political, social and economic characteristics of the different nations have become more closely reflected in their higher education systems, but that issues of coordination, especially with England adopting such a different style of governance, have proved difficult to reconcile.

Chapter 4. The changing pattern of institutional governance

University governance has been significantly destabilized by changes imposed externally, then translated internally, and the balance is moving decisively in many universities towards a fully top-down organizational culture. The impact of increasing government intervention, particularly in England, the ‘laicization’ of university governance, the uncertainty of relationships between governing bodies and academic governance, the decline in the participation in governance by the academic community, the rise in the power of the executive and the increasing shift towards a ‘business model’ are described, to offer a backdrop against which institutional changes have occurred. In spite of this, however, our research suggests that, although the space occupied by collegial discussion of academic issues below the levels introduced by the new forms of governance, is narrowing, it is still possible to see universities as to some, though to a varying extent, as bottom-heavy organizations.

Chapter 5. University governance and academic work: pressures on innovation and creativity

This chapter links governance, and governance changes, with threats to creativity and innovation in teaching and research. It shows how the system divides itself between those institutions that remain driven by academic priorities and those institutions where the stress of concern about student recruitment encourages the dominance of marketing considerations at the expense of teaching based on interest and intellectual curiosity. It describes the UK research funding system and shows how the changes to the governance of research could come to weaken the dual funding system. The organizational separation of REF funding from teaching funding implies that effectively the state has distanced itself from concerns about institutional funding, consigning institutions’ futures entirely to the market. Moreover, the arbitrary removal of the cap on institutional numbers threatens the continuing development of research in less research-intensive universities by putting their financial viability in question as they lose student numbers to more advantageously placed institutions. Overall, this chapter argues that strengthened authority structures are endangering experimentation, creativity and innovation by reducing opportunities for internal debate, for open-ended discussion of policy issues and new thinking, the necessary adjuncts of good academic work. There is little or no space for what Stark et al. (2009) call the ‘organization of dissonance’.

Chapter 6. Globalization and higher education governance

This chapter opens with an account of the evolving architecture of global regulation and coordination, the EU Modernization and research agendas, the influence of international agencies and the impact of rankings. It suggests that the role of global governance is likely to grow. By contrast, our research indicates that, at the senior levels of national and institutional policymaking, British higher education remains largely unaware or uninterested in this development, their focus being much more directed towards the recruitment of international students, primarily for financial reasons, on the prospects for winning funding for research from EU sources and on their position in international ranking tables. Britain is a major contributor to the globalization of higher education, but its institutions do not incorporate it into their governance and policymaking frameworks and treat their international activities as a separable ‘add-on’, rather than as an integral component of their mission. The reputation of British higher education remains high internationally, but its focus on globalization simply as a market for exploitation places it at risk as competitor higher education systems engage more closely with the details of global regulation and coordination. The reluctance of British universities to give consideration to models from other systems, except perhaps the United States, may be attributable to local funding issues, but may also be an unwillingness to recognize how globalization is affecting higher education.

Chapter 7. The strategic implications of the changing governance structures in British higher education

This chapter draws on the research findings of the previous chapters to suggest ways forward to address some of the shortcomings in British higher education’s present system of governance. It is critical of the role of the state in creating financial instability in the system. It draws attention to what it sees as the imposition of a partisan politicization of policy in England, and contrasts the situations to be found in Scotland and Wales. The chapter goes on to argue that stronger unified representational machinery is required in England to maintain the independence of the university system. It suggests ways to bridge the separation of national responsibilities for research and teaching so that a more unified approach can be achieved for the management of the system. It is sceptical of the claims made for ‘for-profit’ higher education and suggests a pause in the authorization of any new institutions. In the light of the changes described, the chapter asks whether university governance remains fit for purpose in current conditions, and reviews the opinions of those interviewed. It is critical of the ‘business model’ of university governance, and some conclusions are reached about lay governance, the place of the academic community and the provision for the involvement of the student voice in institutional governance. It considers the role of the state in the governance of English higher education and argues that the failure to exercise a duty of care could have long-term damaging effects on the quality and international reputation of the system. At the same time, it urges institutions and national policymakers to engage more with the global governance agenda lest Britain, a keen participant in international higher education, finds itself isolated and outflanked by its international competitors.

Estermann, T, Nokkala,T and Steinel, M (2011) University Autonomy in Europe II Brussels: European Universities Association
European University Association (2017) University Autonomy III Brussels: European Universities Association
Moodie, G.C and Eustace, R.B (1974) Power and Authority in British Universities London: Allen and Unwin