Susan Bassnett: Anger and outrage at the corporate model

As 2006 drew to a close, so too did the reforming aspirations of the Oxford vice-chancellor when a large majority of his opponents voted down his plans for major governance reforms.

People outside the academic world may well have thought this was just an example of ancient university conservatism, but many of us involved in academia followed the Oxford saga with bated breath. Far from being extraordinary, similar debates about governance are going on everywhere in UK higher education. There is no longer a consensus as to how a university should be governed; indeed, some would say that there is no longer a consensus about what a university actually is.

Traditional governance structures were reliant on a civil service-modelled administrative staff, and a system of elected representatives serving on a range of committees drawn from the academic community at large. Lay members were involved in a mainly token manner at the highest level, and their task was to rubber-stamp whatever had been internally debated and agreed by academics.

The key word in such a system was "collegiality", and though the burden of committees was often heavy and the agendas mind-numbingly repetitive, the principle of institutional autonomy and academic freedom in decision-making was at the heart of everything. The vice-chancellor, who might hold office for a decade or more, presided benignly and importantly over the whole show.

That model has long since ceased to be fit for purpose. We are living now in an age of mass higher education, and dozens of institutions are emerging all the time, demanding degree-awarding powers. If we go on at this rate, by 2020 every corner shop and local garage will be awarding degrees.

This huge expansion has not been matched by adequate funding, hence the introduction of student fees, the drive to recruit high-fee-paying (often poorly qualified) overseas students, and the gradual transformation of universities into large-scale businesses.

But you can't run a massive business enterprise by elected committees of well-meaning amateurs, nor can you feel confident that untrained people are capable of advanced financial management and planning. Hence the shift in many institutions to different kinds of governance models, some of which are very corporate indeed. The Treasury complained some time ago that universities were badly run and needed to shape up to the modern world, and now market forces are compelling universities to take that warning seriously.

These days, vice-chancellors are much more accountable, have shorter contracts and are expected to turn round drooping institutions as fast as the fortunes of M&S have been revived. Their salaries reflect these expectations. University managers are a tougher, leaner breed, often full-time professionals who have traded in their former academic careers, if indeed they had any. Lay people have more power, similar to the greater powers of school governors. Administrators are taking over faculty boards and committees are being trimmed or abolished.

These changes are happening with staggering speed, not least because the rapid turnover of chief executives means that each new arrival rushes in with new priorities and ideas for reform. Discussions about governance, along with financial strategies and target-setting, are the order of the day in most institutions.

What does this mean on the ground, though? We had some insight into the way the academic community feels about the changes last year, when a nationwide strike threatened students' exam results. Academics, normally quietly beavering away in libraries or labs, publicly proclaimed their discontent at the way their profession had changed.

The Oxford vote is another symptom of that malaise; many feel that universities have ceased to focus on research and teaching and have become organisations where learning is a commodity. The move to more corporate governance structures is seen as an erosion of academic influence and a betrayal of the idea of a university as a centre of excellence. Statements proclaiming the intention to become a world-class institution are ten a penny, and nobody believes a word of them.

Somehow, the balance has to be found to accommodate a more professional system of governance with the needs of the people without whom a university would cease to exist - the academics. The old collegial model is inadequate, but so are some of the corporate alternatives. What we need is a radical rethinking of what universities are for in the 21st century, before academia becomes a dead-end job and students reckon that the local garage degree might be their best option.

The writer is pro-vice-chancellor of Warwick University