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University Governance

Michael Shattock and Aniko Horvath, The Governance of British Higher Education; the impact of governmental, financial and market pressures, Bloomsbury, 2020, pp. 198.

In 1969 Mike Shattock and I both took up posts at the University of Warwick. He was Academic Registrar and, later, registrar, a role he redefined as managerial and strategic. He steadily came to be regarded as an expert on university governance. I, on the other hand, was a recognisable type from his book, a backwoodsman, a teacher and writer whose knowledge of and interest in the overall governance of the university system were at very low levels. This can be illustrated by reference to the list of ninety eight initials and acronyms for organisations and governance listed at the beginning of this book: I could fill out the full names of fewer than a third.

This was possible in my generation because university structures had been little changed for generations and had acquired a “time out of mind” quality. We were an “academic community”, self-governing and self-regulated, represented by a senate of senior persons who made such collective decision as needed making. There would be a council involving “lay” members, but in normal times the served merely as a “rubber stamp”. In Oxford and Cambridge colleges there was a kind of Athenian democracy with a governing body consisting of all the fellows. The financial aspects of university affairs moved slowly; there was a continuity of genteel comfort, nothing for one to worry one’s little academic head about.

There then descended upon the system a co-ordinated and irreversible body of changes which turned out to be far more radical than anything the likes of me had ever imagined. In old age I have been left “bemoaning the lost Eden of academia” to borrow a phrase used by a sub-editor in highlighting one of my articles. The financial dimension of change was the most immediately felt. It started with “cuts” but then came the possibility of earning money from fees (initially from overseas students) and from research grants and favourable research assessments. For the institution there was the chance of moving onto higher financial levels, but also a new threat of financial disaster. For the individual, if he or she were a successful researcher or a high-flying manager, there were new possibilities for seriously high salaries but there were also lower incomes and less job security for many. It’s difficult to fulfill the idea of an “academic community” under those circumstances.

In no particular order of importance: Universities are more in competition with each other; at the top level this is a contest for rankings, prestige and research money while at lower strata it is a competition for applicants (see all those advertisements on buses and stadia). If anybody believed Sir Keith Joseph’s idea, promulgated in the early 1980s, that this would make them more independent that belief can’t have lasted very long because they are all more subject to government diktat than they ever were before. I may not have been much interested, but I did see immediately that this was bound to be a consequence of external research assessment.

Internally, universities are much more hierarchical and have evolved a variety of new roles and bodies to direct policy which leaves senates looking like Soviet legislatures. (Warwick actually set up a “steering committee” nearly fifty years ago to make decisions more quickly that senate could manage and there are now many varieties of such executive committees.) “Lay” figures have grown in importance everywhere and in some cases are paid for their contribution whereas the UGC in its early years was militant in penalising universities which allowed too much influence to non-academic figures. It is paradoxical in some ways that the word “lay” is used in this context; it reflects the ecclesiastical origins of academic life but is now used to refer to business interests.

These are some of the main lines of argument put forward in this book. As summarised so far they are not surprising and offer the kind of synthesis that many people who have worked in universities would broadly suggest. But it is good to see it properly researched with a combination of Shattock’s breadth of experience and Horvath’s wide selection of interviews. There are other findings which are less fully understood. One is that in almost every respect UK universities, which used to maintain strongly similar practices, are now extremely diverse in both practice and nature. In administration there are universities which are close to traditional patterns and universities which are essentially run like companies. Some have a student body drawn from all over the world, others draw a majority from the city in which they are situated. It is also the case that devolution, coming at a time of intense pressures for change, has led to the university systems of the four nations of the UK developing more distinctive national characteristics.

I cannot resist the observation that there is a very direct parallel between what has happened to universities and what has happened to sports clubs, an object of my own research. In the days of what I call the “amateur hegemony” clubs were a haven of apolitical stability. Like universities, they had a known way of doing things which had lasted generations. They were affiliated to national associations, but were run by committees which had a massive degree of autonomy. Then along came leagues (which didn’t exist in rugby or most cricket till the 1980s), Sports Council policies and funding and lottery money. If you were running a club you found yourself both in a highly competitive situation and much more subject to outside control. You might try to ignore the changing world, but you could be sure the rival so-and-sos down the road would jump on bandwagons and steal your members. It’s all very similar.

I expected when I picked up this book that I would have a considerable measure of disagreement with it. The senior author, after all, was management – innovatory management at that – and I was determinedly unmanageable. The one reaction I had maintained throughout was a determined opposition to research assessment. In this context it is interesting to note that one of the anonymous interviewees quoted here remarks that his or her university research assessment committee was always referred to as “the Stasi”. The overview of this here is that fear, short-termism and bureaucratic sclerosis have seriously damaged the quality of the intellectual product: “The sense that the conditions for the pursuit of high quality academic work have worsened and are continuing to worsen is widespread”. (P. 104) And it is not as if other aspects of university life have improved: the “customers” repeatedly say that they don’t like being customers and they see their qualifications as having rapidly declining value. The authors acknowledge that the most successful universities are those which have changed least, mainly Oxford and Cambridge.

A wide consensus exists that existing trends are damaging the university system. Sadly, the authors note that there are few ideas among senior personnel about what might be done, let alone a consensus. But their insistence that we rebuild the idea of an “academic community” – an idea which has gone underground rather than away – is surely correct. There is no possibility of a return to a broad parity of institutions so solutions can only be “elitist”. Faith in new, “for profit” institutions (a pet project of David Willetts) seems laughably optimistic. The only hope is for a return to calm and autonomy in some elite institutions. This would probably require a government which was prepared to abandon the use of universities for social and economic engineering projects, perhaps even a government which “revered” university autonomy as governments in previous periods were said to do.

Lincoln Allison

(This review appeared in Times Higher Education in February 2020.)