University Governance deconstructed… then constructed again…

If something has a Wikipedia entry that’s difficult to understand, it’s bound to be an intricate, complex, and rarely explained subject.

University governance is one of those subjects. Rarely looked into, examined or explained, (outside of academia at least) the systems behind tertiary education are definitely behind closed doors for the majority of the public.

“The concept of governance for postsecondary education predominantly refers to the internal structure, organization and management of autonomous institutions.”

In short (and slightly simplified), university governance is the way in which a university operates, taking into account its management structure (employee food chain) and the way a higher education institution is run by both its internal bodies (most often the court, council, senate and convocation) and by national/local government or commercial (‘buffer’) bodies, such as Higher Education Funding Council for England.

So, to start…

A university is seen as “a statutory body, charity or non-profit corporation
with no government participation and control linked to national strategies and related only to public funding
“. For example, some universities are exempt charities (details here) and all universities have varying degrees of contact with government and corporate organisations, both for business and educational issues.  But, all universities follow similar patterns when it comes to internal structure.

Internal Management…

Although roles and positions may vary from institution to institution, the basic structure, as outlined by each University’s charter, is (with gracious thanks to Bristol University for being awesome and open with their information online) made up of;

  • The Council: essentially, the governing body of the university that debate issues of “policy, financial affairs and a wide range of other business“, made up of academic staff, students and ‘lay-people’ (elected by the court, or in the case of lay-people, appointed by external bodies). They are around 30-strong, and meet around six times a year. They may be advised specifically by categorised committees who are tasked with covering a certain subject, like finance or research.
  • The Senate: the main academia-concerned body, held to account by the council and responsible for all matters associated with teaching, including research and examinations. University Deans, chancellors and students make up some of the 100-strong cast that meet around five times a year.
  • The Court: concerned with the “strategy and management” of the university, with a focus on monetary issues. It’s normally much larger (550 in Bristol’s case) than Council and Senate, and made up of “representatives of local and national bodies, benefactors of the University, staff, students, local MPs and members of Convocation“. They meet annually.
  • The Convocation: is a massively bigger body (including all university graduates), which runs through a ‘standing committee’ and meets yearly. They elect 100 members of the Court and one member of council, and can raise issues directly with Court, Senate or Council.

Subject areas are broken down into faculties, with a Dean as the chair of the board who normally reports issues upwards for discussions. Which leads on to…

Employee food-chain…

To not go into too much detail, I will summarise the top of the chain.

There will be a team of Chancellors (Head, pro, vice and pro-vice chancellors) elected by Council with various administrative and formal duties, presiding over the university.

These will be followed by Deans of various subject areas, department heads, etc with individual roles who will report to Chancellors and if necessary raise issues with the Council and Senate.

External Management…

Managing structures themselves have become increasingly complex to establish a means of organizing an equally complicated system of intraorganizational, interorganizational and governmental relationships

So, in short, complex internal structure to co-ordinate complex external structure. Brilliant.

Our Higher Education System is organised by a ‘buffer’ body: the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). As academia put it, “the most common model is for the MOE (Ministry of Education) to pass all matters relating to funding and operational management to the buffer body, while retaining central control over functions, such as national strategy and the overall size and shape of the higher education (HE) system”.

This means that higher education institutions can be run and monitored by an organisation that is relatively independent, working solely in the financial and educational interests of each institution and the country’s institutions as a whole. It also regulates the activities of higher education institutions, and promotes autonomy (due to the reduced links to central government).

As Appendix VI here shows, UK institutions benefit especially from this, as they each have relative independence when it comes to decision making, particularly around issues like level of tuition fees.

To summarise, and again, sorry for quoting Wikipedia, but it’s done fucking brilliantly;

“Generally, institutions are recognized as autonomous actors with varying degrees of interdependence with, and legislated commitments to the external stakeholders, local and national government”

And that, I believe, is University Governance. Cracked from a nutshell, clawed at, then put back together with glue. In a nutshell.

(Please, if there are any shakey references or amendments, comment and get in touch)

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