On the top-down governance structure of British universities

My university has decided to rebrand itself as “King’s London”, abandoning the name it has sported since 1828/. According to an email sent by the principal Ed Byrne, market research

“revealed that our current name was causing considerable confusion: is King’s a residential college, is it an academic college akin to the colleges of Oxbridge, or is it an educational institution of some other type such as a further education college? Internationally, there was further misunderstanding as ‘College’ is not a widely understood term in many countries”.

This decision has caused a massive uproar from the student community. The reactions on social media have been overwhelmingly negative, a petition to oppose the rebranding has gathered more than 11’000 signatures in about 3 days (KCL has about 25’000 students), and the facebook page against the rebranding now has 2’500 “likes”. In spite of the “wide consultation” that senior management claims to have carried out, most students and staff had never heard of these plans announced on Wednesday, and it has quickly turned into a big PR disaster only partly hidden by KCL’s stellar results in the Research Excellence framework. Now King’s may be “rethinking” its rebranding plans in the face of the massive backlash.

How can we explain this? Without singling out KCL (thanks to which I manage to pay my rent every month), I think that what happened with the rebranding of KCL is fairly symptomatic of the hierarchical system of governance of British universities. It also reflects the way companies are run in Anglo-Saxon economies as compared to Continental countries. This often results in erratic decisions implemented in a top-down manner, with little involvement from people directly affected by them, including students. In fact, their involvement in the governance of British universities is minimal, and their role is essentially constructed as consumers rather than stakeholders.

In comparative political economy, we usually differentiate between a “shareholder” and a “stakeholder” model of corporate governance. The shareholder model as practiced in the UK or the US gives greater power to shareholders (those who own firms) and little to stakeholders (e.g employees). The governance structure of British or US firms is hierarchical, with a greater concentration of power in the hands of managers, and top-down command structures that can react quickly to changing market conditions. The main way for shareholders (and employees) to exert power is through exit, either by selling their shares or quitting their job. By contrast, the stakeholder model as practiced in Germany or other Continental countries gives greater power to stakeholders, for instance via elaborate structures of employee representation (works councils, etc.). This makes decision-making structures slower but ensures a wider consensus among the the actors involved in the firm, who do have a voice in the governance of companies.

The way universities are run in different countries largely mirrors these differences. In Britain, power is concentrated within a fairly hierarchical structure of management with little veto power for other actors. One symptom of this is the strong role of vice-chancellors, whose stellar pay packages have attracted quite a bit of controversy lately, and the weak involvement of staff and students. In contrast, there is involvement from business actors from outside and a much larger layer of professional “senior managers”. The funding structure of higher education in Britain clearly creates these incentives for universities to be organised like for-profit endeavours, via the fierce competition for student income streams and research funding. For instance, the governing body of KCL is the college council, whose members are drawn from the professoriate, senior management and “lay members” drawn from private companies. The Chairman of the Council (and descendant of the founder of KCL the Duke of Wellington) Lord Douro is also the chairman of a luxury goods company, while other members are drawn from a variety of business backgrounds (e.g communications multinationals or the food industry). The college council only counts one student member, the president of the student union. To my knowledge, there is no institutionalised voice for junior or middle-tier staff, even if there are a number of consultative committees.

This structure differs sharply from my home university in Switzerland, where the Rector is elected by a University Council constituted by an elected body of Professors, junior staff (including PhD students), support staff (office managers, cleaners) and students, and which vets the members of the university direction designated by the rector. Obviously, this system makes decision-making much more cumbersome (change is very incremental, to say the least) , but it also ensures a great deal of consensus within the main stakeholders within the university. Similarly, students and junior staff are more involved in the day to day business of university. When I told my my colleagues in Britain that students and PhD students would be routinely involved in search committees for the appointment of new staff (I know it is also the case in the Netherlands), they would look at me as if I was coming from planet Zorg. Within this context, it is also difficult to imagine decisions such as the programme of mass redundancies that KCL carried out in its health school this year, or the said rebranding because of the number of veto points these plans would have to overcome. Now Swiss universities may not have the reputation of British institutions, but they nevertheless do very well in international rankings.

In a nutshell, British universities seem to be run more like companies, and companies prone to massive blunders, whereas continental universities are run a bit more like democracies (and perhaps subject to sclerosis). The concentration of power within British universities in the hands of managers and business people also probably underpins their obsession with ruinous outsourcing endeavours. The said rebranding, commissioned to Saffron brand consultants, is said to have cost the sheer amount of 300’000 pounds while financial issues have been the main justification for staff cuts.

What is perhaps the most interesting with these developments is that the explicit goal of recent university reforms was to “put students at the centre of higher education reform”. In the words of former Higher Education minister David Willetts (who recently joined King’s as a visiting professor)

Our changes to the financing system will also drive structural reforms in higher education. The force that is unleashed is consumerism. We would not have been willing to put in the extra funds and go through the political pain unless it was for the benefit of students and their educational experience. I recognise that the very term “consumerism” causes deep anxiety for some. But it is not a threat to the classic relationship between academic teacher and student – it is an opportunity to rebalance academia so that teaching gets its rightful place alongside research.

However, if these reforms have empowered students at all, it is precisely as consumers to whom brands are sold, not really as stakeholders or members of a community. A bit like the power I have on the operations of Tesco when I buy yoghurts.

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