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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 September, 2003, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
Who is running universities?
Modern universities are big-budget organisations that need to have a clearer approach to how they are run, says Steven Schwartz, vice chancellor of Brunel University and head of the government's inquiry into university admissions.

The word "governance" is really just a euphemism for "Who's in charge?" In most organisations, this is not a difficult question to answer.

But in universities - institutions that take pride in their democratic traditions - authority is often diffused across many committees.

In many UK universities, governing councils are representative bodies made up of employees, students, city council members and other stakeholders. This mix can lead to conflicts of interest.
Steven Schwartz

This is not surprising. The word "universitas" originally referred to self-governing guilds of masters and students.

Hundreds of years later, academic staff and students continue to have a significant say in the overall management of the institution.

But today's universities have thousands of employees, budgets in the hundreds of millions, huge estates, overseas ventures, hospitals and spin-off companies.

How a university manages these resources is not simply a matter for staff and students, but also for alumni, the business community and the government. Public accountability is essential.

After months of controversy, the Combined Code of Corporate Governance, led by Derek Higgs, has gained the support of both business and investors.


The code tackles under-performance, offers guidance on attracting, retaining and motivating directors and stresses the importance of independence, expertise and impartiality.

Although intended to apply to public companies, Higgs' work is also applicable to universities. Like businesses, universities must also attract the best staff, reward good performance and ensure that the institution's best interests are always placed at the heart of strategy.

In many UK universities, governing councils are representative bodies made up of employees, students, city council members and other stakeholders. This mix can lead to conflicts of interest.

Moreover, unlike a commercial board of directors, council members need not be versed in the intricacies of running a university or the functions therein.

In the US, some of the prestigious private universities have small boards of non-executive directors who are predominantly recruited from outside of the organisation and have expertise in university management. This arrangement is rare in UK universities.

Outside experience

If we are to compete internationally and work closely with industry, it is time UK universities learned from Derek Higgs's recommendations.

Why not have a majority of independent non-executive directors on university councils? Why should we not learn from their experience, skills and knowledge gained in other environments?

Isn't it time our council members participated in induction programmes and had the opportunity to develop their management skills? With the right members, the right training and good leadership, councils will play a crucial role in helping our institutions to reach their strategic objectives.

In an increasingly competitive world, universities, and the public, deserve the best governance they can get.

What are universities for?
06 Jun 03  |  Education
Improving university admissions
20 May 03  |  Education

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