(Reprinted with permission from Higher Education, written by Jennifer Garvey Bone.)

The pace and scale of change in British higher education in recent years has been presided over by the councils and governing bodies of universities and colleges in a context in which governance and government have been live topics on the public agenda. Governing Universities: Changing the Culture? provides an excellent base of evidence for consideration of these issues in higher education and powerfully illuminates ambiguities. The extent to which the whole enterprise currently depends upon confidence between individuals is thrown sharply into focus.

The project examined the composition and operation of governing bodies throughout the higher education sector and explored power relationships, in particular those between governing body or council, the executive, and the academic board or senate. At the heart of the inquiry is the analysis of the role of lay governors and the exercise of their authority and responsibility. The book illustrated the tension between the governor as “trustee,” essentially in reactive mode, providing the assurance of propriety, and the governor as “director,” with the expertise and personal knowledge of education sufficient to challenge the judgment of senior management.

Governors are unpaid; they accept appointment because they believe they have something to offer. They have a well-informed interest in higher education, but would not lay claim to specialist expertise that would demand a considerable investment of time. They necessarily find themselves dependent upon senior management for both information and advice. Even in financial matters, it is not a simple case of the straight translation of business acumen from one context to another.

What is abundantly evident is the extent to which the effective operation of the whole system is dependent upon the good will, availability, and sensitivity of key figures among governors, in particular those who chair major committees, and their interaction with the senior staff with whom they are predominantly in contact.

The research also points to the relatively narrow segment of the community from which governors are drawn. Membership is predominantly white, male, and middle class. The book’s concluding agenda for action argues for governing bodies that are more representative of the community at large; for tackling their “democratic deficit” through more open means of recruitment; and for open government in governing-body practice, which would end, for example, the exclusion of staff and student governors from certain functions.

A good case is made for change; but on the basis of this research, no change seems likely to eliminate the core dependence of effective governance upon the quality of the working relationships of the key personnel.

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