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International perspectives on governing higher education today

01 May 2019 | Dr Tony Strike, University Secretary, The University of Sheffield Those involved in governance as members of governing bodies, Secretaries, senior leaders or students are increasingly finding themselves in the political and public spotlight, dealing with a changing and complex regulatory context as the demands continue to grow and vary.


Those involved in governance as members of governing bodies, Secretaries, senior leaders or students are increasingly finding themselves in the political and public spotlight, dealing with a changing and complex regulatory context as the demands continue to grow and vary. This article shares details about a new book on this topic, ‘Governing Higher Education Today,’ from the perspective of one of its editors.


About the Book

International growth in higher education, the introduction of new providers and increased public and state interest in university structures, levels of fees and funding models, has made governance in higher education a vital and sometimes controversial topic.

Together with my colleagues Jonathan Nicholls, University Secretary at the Open University, and John Rushforth, Executive Secretary of the Committee of University Chairs, we have edited a book which looks at the contemporary governance challenges facing universities from a series of global perspectives. 

We consciously sought a series of differently located national voices that amplify each other by comparison, while respecting the differences on each continent. We hope as a result that ‘Governing Higher Education Today’ provides challenging perspectives on the longer-term dynamics and policy trends in a world market for higher education. Through international perspectives and case studies, the chapters consciously place the reader in other contexts including Europe, Africa, North America and Australia.

The English Experiment

It soon becomes clear how unusual and radical the English experiment in marketisation, competition and consumerism is; even compared, for example, to the chapter on Wales and Scotland. David Palfreyman, Fellow, New College, University of Oxford, sets out the experiment in his chapter. This political experiment deserves critical attention from those who can be neutral international observers of the consequences of it for the government, higher education providers and students in relation to cost, quality and societal impact. The comparative chapters also drive the reader to remind themselves that alternative forms can and do exist and so not to be uncritically captured by the rhetoric of the domestic politics of time and place.

International Perspectives

While some of the pressures on higher education in each country may be recognisable to a UK reader, the emerging national responses, which are likely to shape institutional governance in the next decade, are varied. The book is about the governance challenges facing higher education institutions around the world today and the new directions being taken.


With twenty-one contributors in all, we have drawn together international experts in higher education governance including, for example, Andy Shenstone, from AdvanceHE, who contributed a chapter on board effectiveness and effectiveness reviews. Andy shared his insights into supporting university governing bodies and executive teams in assessing board and senior team performance, effectiveness and cohesion; and their ability to respond to the impact of changes in government policy at a sectoral and institutional level.

The book opens with Chris Sayers, Chair of Northumbria University’s Board of Governors and Chair of the Committee of University Chairs, giving his perspectives on the role of a UK Chair of the governing body. Smita Jamdar, Partner and Head of Education, at Shakespeare Martineau LLP, provides an explanation of the legal framework for university governance in England and how to understand, comply and build on it.

Lessons Learnt

In editing the book we found that any search for universality may be a mistake, because what is defined as evidenced best practice or even as the best processes to reach chosen values can be a cloak for what is necessary, popular or fashionable in time or place. There is no universally agreed canon of governance values in higher education and expectations can shift through time.

Also, the character of ‘good’ governance lies in something other than its form and content; in its norms, values and cases. The answer to the question ‘what is good’ seems to lie in the active endorsement of relevant stakeholders to what is intended, acting in ways which are entirely consistent with those intentions, and the ability of the governing system to anticipate or respond to changing standards and expectations. Because societal expectations can quickly change those governing higher education today face the challenge of discerning the right choices in complex circumstances and steering their institutions in ways that demonstrably and sustainably achieve its core aims.

In Conclusion

From the chapter contributors who generously shared their perspectives it was clear that those charged with governance responsibilities, particularly in this age of transparency and accountability, give a great service to the world’s universities by bringing experience, expertise, insights and integrity to bear. Whether you sit on a governing body, work in a university leadership role or in a governance or policy team, teach or study higher education, we hope this new book provides a thoughtful yet practical guide to the future of university governance with international applicability.

About the author

Tony Strike is University Secretary at the University of Sheffield. He is member of the boards of the European Higher Education Society (EAIR) and the UK Higher Education Strategic Planners Association (HESPA). Tony edited Higher Education Strategy and Planning: A Professional Guide published by Routledge in 2017.

(The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author).

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