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Open Eye: Who governs the University?

From The Vice-Chancellor; Sir John Daniel
International surveys usually rank the UK as one of the world's least corrupt countries. To maintain that status requires constant vigilance and this has found expression in various recent enquiries and reviews.

For the business sector the Cadbury report distilled the elements of best practice in the composition of boards of directors and the role of non-executive directors, while the Greenbury report addressed the contentious issue of remuneration for senior executives.

Looking at the affairs of the wider society the Nolan Committee made recommendations about improving standards in diverse areas of public life and Lord Neill took up the vexed issue of the financing of political parties and campaigns.

The Open University is the UK's largest public educational institution. This fact alone requires it to be a model of integrity and effectiveness in the conduct of its business. But beyond its scale, the very name of the University and its ambition to be open to people, open to places, open to methods and open to ideas must inspire the OU to be a pace-setter in involving people in governance and by being transparent in management.

The 1997 Dearing Report on Higher Education recommended that all universities review the effectiveness of their governance arrangements every few years. It was natural for the OU to take up this challenge because it had not assessed the manner of the conduct of its business since the late eighties - when arrangements for strategic planning and resource allocation were revised in response to the Jarratt report.

Like other pre-1992 universities the Open University has a bicameral governance structure. The Council is responsible for the overall direction of the University and the Senate is the arbiter of academic matters.

At the OU, however, each body has unusual features. With more than forty members the OU Council is somewhat more numerous than other university councils; but what makes the OU different is that most of the Council's lay majority (people who are neither staff nor students) are named by other bodies such as the Privy Council, the BBC, the Royal Society, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and bodies representing local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales.

The unusual feature of the Senate is that it has more than 1,000 members, including all members of the full-time academic staff, significant numbers of students and associate lecturers, and representatives of other staff groups and graduates.

Although the Senate meets only three times a year, delegating much of its work to the Academic Board, all members are consulted by postal ballot on important academic decisions and can either overturn resolutions of the Board or ask that they be reconsidered.

An invaluable feature of the Council, the Senate, the Academic Board and its sub-boards, is the active participation of students and associate lecturers in the work of policy making.

Dozens of representatives of these two key constituencies give freely of their time to help shape academic policy and at some Senate meetings they constitute a majority of those present.

The University benefits both from the effectiveness of the representative and consultative structures that these two groups have put in place and from the longevity of the links that students and associate lecturers have with the University. OU students are mature people and since they take an average of seven years to complete an undergraduate degree those who achieve office in the student association bring great experience and wisdom to their work on University bodies. Likewise the associate lecturers, hundreds of whom have served the OU for a quarter of a century, bring extensive knowledge of tutoring OU courses to students from all walks of life. A key requirement in modernising the governance structure of the University is to continue to secure the effective and motivated involvement of these two groups. This was a special challenge for the group reviewing the composition of the Council. It recommended, in the spirit of the current consensus on good practice for public boards, that the size of the Council be reduced to thirty-five. This meant reducing both the lay membership and the numbers representing staff, students and graduates.

The Council, in endorsing the recommendation to make itself smaller, emphasised its warm appreciation for the participation of students and graduates in its work and expressed confidence that those contributions will continue to be effective with two student members and the integration of graduate representation into the lay membership.