Roger Brown: What does the London Met disaster teach us about university reform?

Roger Brown:  What does the London Met disaster teach us about university reform?
Roger Brown is professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University

The current model of governance in higher education is not fit for purpose, says Roger Brown, and there will be more casualties if we don't act quickly

The crisis at London Metropolitan University, where the vice-chancellor resigned after the university was told to pay back £36m for mis-reporting student drop-out rates, is only the latest in a series of recent cases that have involved the departure of a vice-chancellor (others include City University, East London, Imperial College, Lampeter and Leeds Metropolitan) after internal ructions.

The London Met case illustrates some of the fundamental weaknesses in the system of governance in universities. These include an inability to properly monitor and interpret information about institutional performance; over-reliance on, and an inability to exercise proper control over, the vice-chancellor as chief executive; too close a relationship between the vice-chancellor and the chair, leaving individual governors feeling disempowered; a failure to engage with academic staff; and a failure to work with key external stakeholders on behalf of the institution.

But these are far from new problems – many were also features of an earlier series of crises in the mid- and late-90s at Glasgow Caledonian, Huddersfield, Portsmouth, Southampton Institute, Swansea Institute and Thames Valley.

In fact, the government has only itself to blame. Since the mid-80s, successive governments have espoused a preferred model of university governance with the following characteristics: the governing body should be as small as possible; it should be superior to the senate or academic board; it should have an external majority, preferably from business; staff and student representation should be limited; the governors should be distanced from the work of the university. The underlying belief is that effectiveness and efficiency are both likely to be served by a lean, independent governing body that is able to take decisions quickly and dispassionately, rather than being driven or distorted by academic issues or interests.

Ironically, our two most prestigious universities, Oxford and Cambridge, have both resisted this model. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has proposed changes to the agreement that governs its financial relationship with institutions that would, in extremis, enable it to require a governing body to appoint a new vice-chancellor or make another senior executive the "accountable officer". But these proposals are at best a palliative. So what is to be done?

First, governing bodies have to be made more representative. One way of doing this would be to create a two-tier structure whereby "courts" of staff, students and local communities appoint members of an upper-tier board to supervise the executive. The supervisory board would commission external, expert advice on how well the university discharges its key functions. The use of this information to enhance provision would be periodically tested by institutional reviews covering not only academic matters, but also governance, management and use of resources. The reviews would be conducted by a single regulatory agency that would combine the functions currently discharged, wastefully, by Hefce, the Quality Assurance Agency, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the Office of Fair Access, the Training and Development Agency for Schools and others. As well as a general responsibility to oversee university governance, the new agency would have a particular remit to inquire into, and protect, academic judgments.

It has been clear for many years that the present model of university governance is not fit for purpose and never will be. Without fundamental reform, there will be more London Mets. We have been warned.

The Guardian, 13/04/10