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Steven Jones asks whether university governors are afraid of academic research

Why would universities fear their own research any more than supermarkets would fear their own groceries—or hospitals their own medicines? Surely the access that universities have to pioneering, original research gives them a unique and enviable edge; few other sectors can draw freely on so many high-value internal resources and have so much expertise readily on hand.

Think again. Did colleagues from your architecture department help draw up plans for those new buildings on campus? Is your business school offering advice to your institutional accountants? Are your educationalists sharing the latest pedagogical techniques with colleagues elsewhere in your university?

Evidence from my latest research into university governance suggests that universities are often surprisingly reluctant to turn to the experts and expertise situated along their own corridors.

The research, undertaken on behalf of the Council for the Defence of British Universities, aimed to look at dominant cultures within governing bodies at English universities and involved interviewing, with my co-investigator Diane Harris, 47 current and former governors of more than 40 English higher education institutions.

The report underlines the tireless work undertaken by many governors in helping universities to operate in the most sustainable and efficient ways possible. But it also flags areas of concern, including the unwillingness of governing bodies to engage with the research findings that emerge from inside their institutions.

Trust issues

“There’s a trust problem,” explained one of our interviewees, a female lay governor at a Russell Group university. “It’s obvious that academics are considered a bit, you know, risky.” This perception was shared by other interviewees, several of whom recounted anecdotes from their time on a governing body during which know-how from within was regarded with suspicion or overlooked completely.

One male staff governor, a researcher with 30 years’ experience, who had served on governing bodies at multiple universities, told a story about an institution’s decision to close its creche. He described how a justification was sought for the move, explaining that the chair of governors asked colleagues in finance to survey and analyse the value of the creche. “They conducted some ‘research’, in inverted commas, into usage [of the creche] and I challenged it,” the interviewee said, stating that it didn’t substantiate what they were saying and was quite crude. The criticism was not well received, leading to tensions.

Several interviewees told similar stories. Chairs of governing bodies and their subcommittees were more inclined to attempt research themselves (even amateurishly, as in the example above) than to approach academics with training and experience in relevant methodologies. Two other staff interviewees separately recounted incidents of asking permission for a researcher colleague in their department to brief the board on a particular topic of expertise. In both cases, the interviewee was thanked warmly for the offer, but no invitation was forthcoming.

External advice

Another trend noted by interviewees was that of governing bodies buying in external consultants to offer advice on issues of which in-house academic knowledge was readily available. It was not only staff governors that complained about this; many lay governors also expressed astonishment at the sums of money paid to private companies (often headed up by former senior administrators from the same institution) to undertake work on the governing body’s behalf.

The explanation offered by chairs of governing bodies was that ‘independent’ external expertise was crucial. Outsourcing responsibility to outside auditors was regarded as safe, but academic research was considered likely to be either biased by self-interest or ‘politicised’ beliefs.

To many staff, such suggestions fundamentally misconstrue the research process; most projects are undertaken collaboratively, with extensive checks on research ethics and integrity, and a high level of research transparency.

When asked whose expertise was most valued within the governing body, the response of one academic interviewee was an instant “certainly not ours”. The interviewee went on to lament that senior managers at her institution would “do bloody anything to avoid engaging with their own researchers’ research”.

Governance at a distance

This culture was not common to all governing bodies. However, even where relations between senior managers and governing body members were cordial, a sense often emerged that the full potential of academic research was not being exploited. Governance was felt to operate at a distance, with greatest power held by individuals with only a partial sense of what research was or how it might be drawn upon.

Indeed, it is possible that the trepidation around academic research reflects wider disharmony on some governing bodies. Some senior lay governors interviewed directly expressed frustration with staff governors, with one making accusations of partisanship: “I think you have staff members who don’t understand their role; they are [supposed to be] there to represent staff, not to push a line of action mandated by the trade union.”

But for most interviewees, the problem was with governance structures and cultures, not individual behaviours. A female governor at a post-92 institution noted the paradox of institutions that noisily celebrated the research success of their academics (when bringing in large grants, generating impact or winning awards and prizes), but were much slower to seek out their advice or trust the method and rigour of the work they were undertaking. “It would be nice if they asked us now and then,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like the hardest organisation to reach with your research is your own [university].”

Steven Jones is professor of higher education at the University of Manchester and the author of Universities Under Fire