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The Governance of British Higher Education – a book review

18 Oct 2019 | David Williams David Williams reviews The Governance of British Higher Education: the impact of Governmental, Financial and Market Pressure by Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath. The authors examine recent changes to HE governance and find the actions of the state are central to understanding why and how institutional governance has changed.

Over seven chapters, the book traces the evolution of higher education policy, focusing on the period since the passage of the Higher and Further Education Act 1992. The book’s authors are highly critical of the role that government has played in the system of higher education that has emerged in England, arguing that the changes have had a profound impact on university governance, not least by reducing the influence of the academic community.

As the first publication in the Bloomsbury Higher Education Research series, the book’s findings are based on almost 100 interviews with policy makers, representative bodies, and individuals from a representative sample of 12 different institutions located in the constituent nations of the UK. At each institution, researchers aimed to interview the chair of the governing body, head of institution, a senior administrator (eg registrar/secretary), three academics with different levels of seniority and disciplinary fields, and the president of the students’ union or senior student officer. The interviews were conducted in 2016-17.

Governance at the institutional level cannot be separated from governance of higher education at the national level. Further, it is important to avoid too narrow a view of governance, understand there are different layers of governance and acknowledge ‘shared governance’.

Chapter 2 charts national policy changes in England and the transition from a self-governed to regulated system. The Higher Education Research Act of 2017 is the latest, albeit critical, step on this journey. The changes have not been driven by the needs of higher education.

The authors argue that the replacement of the Higher Education Council of England (HEFCE) by the Office for Students (OfS), signals the point when governance of the system passed to the responsible government minister. Autonomy at the level of the system is now in the hands of government. Universities have operational autonomy, but no longer have substantive autonomy. There is an absence of consultation with the sector, the disempowerment of institutions and instability of funding.

Devolution and the divergence of the systems of higher education in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is examined in Chapter 3. These offer valuable comparisons to the system in England. For Wales, a greater consensus to changing the number of institutions, and a rejection of the idea of higher education as a market, is identified.

Examining institutional governance, the ‘bicameral’ structure of governance historically found in pre-92 institutions, is separated from the unicameral authority of the governing body in post-92 institutions. Historically, pre-92 institutions have been characterised by academic decisions resting with senate, and the ‘business side’ with the governing body. National policy changes in England have impacted this division. There is now considerable overlap between the practice of governance found in the two groups, albeit with significant intra-group differences.

A critical point of change to institutional governance was the externally imposed requirement placed on governing bodies to seek assurance on academic standards and quality. Consequently, governing bodies face a renewal of the question of where is the line between management and governance?

The evolving context means many pre-92 senates have lost influence, although they are not necessarily ‘powerless’. By contrast, the role of senate (or academic board) in post-92 institutions has always been advisory to the vice-chancellor. While the level of participation by academics in governance for some pre-92 universities has been maintained, it has always been largely absent in the post-92 sector.

Unlike England, the lack of pressure on governing bodies in Wales and Scotland to exert control is noted. This said, other factors affecting institutional governance include the growth in the average size of institutions, the growing complexity of university business and the need to make quicker decisions. Infrequent meetings and membership size play a part in reducing the role of senates. This is reinforced by the governing body being given ‘unambiguous’ authority (ie CUC Code), with little sense of ‘shared governance’. Linked to these developments has been the rise of the executive. This extends to the appointment of Deans of colleges/faculties. Typically, the Vice-Chancellor now makes (often external) appointments to these positions (traditionally in many pre-92 institutions filled by election from the academic community). The tendency is for the power of ‘central management’ to grow. The impact of the ‘market’ has further reinforced the power of central management, not least in institutions, where student recruitment is key to survival.

While the direction of travel is clear, the relative balance of power needs to be examined, institution by institution. For some, senates retain considerable power, in others the executive is pre-eminent, while in others still the governing body is dominant.

In chapter 7, it is proposed that the role of the state might be characterised as having a duty of care towards the sector, and, if so, the record is very mixed. It is not just increasing intervention by ministers, but instability in funding. The result is to render longer term institutional planning difficult, bringing an increased sense of short-termism. Recent policies are also ‘ideologically charged’, bringing the prospect of further instability should the party of government change.

The overall assessment of the market for higher education in England identifies significant flaws. Far from the benefits advanced by its advocates, it has weakened a whole category of institutions, failed to free them from the hand of government, or brought the promised new entry competition to improve quality and standards.

On governance, “although not altogether satisfactory the current arrangements were best left unchanged.” For higher education, the authors make it clear that the business model of governance does not work. The bicameral structure of governance should be retained but made to work better. This could include increasing the representation of senate on governing bodies and reducing the size of senates to allow “manageable discussion and responses to take place.”

The Governance of British Higher Education is a clearly written book offering the reader a detailed understanding of how the higher education systems have evolved. It highlights the factors that have driven, and are driving, changes to governance.

The book is less convincing on how to move institutional governance forward. Although reference is made to the factors that render some senates less effective, no acknowledgement is made that a perceived lack of effectiveness might have been, for example, a factor in placing new demands regarding academic assurance on governing bodies. Concerns about effectiveness have been a reason why some institutions have sought to review the working of their academic governance.

The authors believe higher education “needs to be trusted more to govern itself”. Many would concur, but this means governance in all institutions needs to be sound, thereby ensuring government cannot point to problems in individual institutions to suggest systematic failure.


David Williams is a member of the team which is responsible for the content of the governance section of the Advance HE website.

Advance HE’s Annual Transforming Governance for a new normal: Governance Conference 2020 will take place virtually on 20 November. Find out more and book your place.

More information about our work to support effective governance in higher education, including our Governance Development Programme, can be found here.


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