British universities and the prevalence of 'bad governance'

As universities embrace their for-profit role they have adopted practices which would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Marie-Bénédicte Dembour
7 March 2015

A demonstration at Sussex University.

If students don’t protest, they are blamed for being apathetic. If they do protest, they increasingly face immediate and harsh repression. Just witness what has happened recently at Birmingham, Sussex and Warwick. Enrolling the police, seeking repossession orders, and/or excluding students seems to have become the order of the day.

Such handling of student protests is a cause for concern. It should go without saying that disproportionate or, worse, arbitrary repression is not acceptable in a democracy. However, we should also be aware that the problem may run deeper than disciplinary proceedings going astray. Its real root may be pervasive practices of governance that negate democratic principles of due process.

An illustrative case

This point can be made through a recent decision by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA). Superficially this decision is ‘just’ about unfair disciplinary proceedings in the wake of student protest. At close reading, what also surfaces is that principles of transparency and accountability were not applied as one would have expected.

This decision followed the complaint of four Sussex students who had participated in a one-week occupation of their university’s Conference Centre. This report considers one of those students. In December 2013, he had been summarily suspended and excluded. However, this measure had provoked such a backlash against the University authorities that he had been promptly reinstated. The ‘proper’ disciplinary proceedings which ensued collapsed when the student’s lawyers pointed to the lack of independence which characterised the disciplinary panel. The University instituted a new panel. These new proceedings were constituted under a different section of University regulations, so that the student could no longer be legally represented. These proceedings resulted in the student being sentenced with a University caution in March 2014. The student tried to appeal his caution, but the University ruled that the appeal could not be heard.

At this stage, the student turned to the OIA, which found in January 2015 that the University had not followed a fair procedure when considering whether to suspend this student. Moreover, the decision to suspend was found not to have been reasonable. Other defects in the proceedings which ensued were noted.


One might be forgiven in thinking the lessons to be drawn from this OIA outcome concern the way universities handle student protests. This aspect is assuredly important. However, to me, another issue lurks behind it, which is arguably even more serious. This is the style of governance applied by senior management in some universities.

In the case reviewed above, the OIA implicitly but repeatedly castigates the University for its lack of transparency. This is illustrated by the following findings:

  • - the student was suspended without being given any precise information as to the allegedly strong prima facie evidence supposedly warranting his suspension/exclusion (para 29);
  • - members of staff who needed to be consulted on the appropriateness of the suspension/exclusion were not put in a position to make an informed decision, as they too failed to receive this information (para 34);
  • - the student was not informed in good time of what next steps had been decided, even after these had been decided (para 70); his queries concerning the nature and the effect of the caution remained unanswered (paras 71 and 72).

With such a record of lack of transparency, it may not come as a surprise that the University was not completely transparent with the University community about the OIA outcome. It mentioned the outcome on its website, but in a way which suggested that the University was rather satisfied and pleased with it.

The student concerned specifically asked the Chair of Council, the University’ highest governing body, for the OIA outcome to be sent to all the members of Council. The University decided instead that it would be appropriate and sufficient for its lawyers to ‘brief’ Council. A number of Council members objected to this way of proceeding and requested for the outcome to be circulated to all members of Council. This was refused over and over again. It is difficult not to conclude that members of Council were hindered in performing their job, even if the increasingly pressing terms used by some members of Council led senior management to relent and the document eventually to be circulated (less than twenty-four hours before the ‘briefing’ of Council took place).

Good and bad governance

This case should not be seen as a one-off: it reflects pervasive governance practices. The withholding of documents may combine with a determination to obstruct communication, including between members of the same governing body who, for example, may not even be provided with each other’s email addresses. Another common strategy is to strictly adhere to procedures when this is convenient (e.g. refusing to inscribe an item for discussion on the agenda if the request for this comes late), but to disregard the procedures when they do not serve senior management’s interests (e.g. labelling as obsolete the procedure provided in the regulations in order to have amended on the spot the order in which items are discussed).

Promises are made in order to ‘move forward’ but then forgotten, which buys time and possibly allows storms caused by any particular controversy to abate and feelings to get diffused. This type of governance requires careful control of the historical record that is being constructed: minutes of meetings, for example, are typically kept short, with dissent and/or unflattering facts not mentioned at all. Last but not least, processes of governance are being transformed away from giving the university community any say as to how decisions are adopted. Management becomes resolutely top-down.

Talking of ‘good governance’ has become commonplace. However, we must also talk about ‘bad governance’. It is astonishing to see how easy it has been for bad governance to take hold in some British universities. One or two decades ago, the tactics reported above would have been dismissed as being impossible - or at least, utterly exceptional. One fears, however, that this is the new reality for a growing number of academic institutions.

It is extremely difficult to resist bad governance from the inside, given the intimidation, subtle or more expressly directed, to which any sign of resistance gives rise. Obviously the lack of documentation which characterises the processes increase the difficulties faced by the most principled, stubborn and intrepid.

Those who are not subjected to this type of governance do not quite believe that the situation is as serious as what those subjected to it report. The new reality seems almost unbelievable. Surely we live in a democracy. Surely if the existing minutes of an important meeting in which you were a key participant are not conveyed to you, you can just ask for them. Surely if you feel that students are treated unfairly, you can point this out without fear. Surely if you observe that a proposed action appears illegal, it will be abandoned or at least carefully reviewed.

These are assumptions which no longer always hold true. This, to me, is the central significance of the OIA outcome reviewed above. Because of this, we would be mistaken in believing that what went wrong in this case will be put right by the University offering an apology, paying compensation, and reviewing its procedures related to student discipline. What is needed goes far beyond the specific recommendations made by the OIA.


Current student protests are typically about tuition fees, the outsourcing of in-house services, staff redundancies and other issues related to the inexorable move towards a for-profit higher education system. They strive to resist the furtherance of a neoliberal agenda, and express values that are not money-driven.

They also represent a wake-up call especially for academics. Some of us are fortunate to work in institutions that continue to regard higher education as a public good, and to value social democracy, freedom of expression, transparency and consultative practices. Sadly, we can no longer assume that principles of good governance remain the norm across the sector. We must therefore vigilantly guard against the erosion of the principles of good governance in our home institutions at the same time as we support those who no longer work in environments conducive to the upholding of principles we thought went without saying.


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