Over the years, as Secretary to and a member of three Senates of chartered universities, I have spent many happy hours I will never get back dodging grenades thrown from the back benches to the front on every topic under the sun. Senates have seemed increasingly anachronous and ponderous in a rapidly changing environment requiring nimbleness and fleetness of foot. With 50 or more members and meeting termly they might sting like a bee but rarely float like a butterfly.
The 60 or so universities in the UK incorporated by Royal Charter all have Senates constitutionally charged with being the academic authority of the university and the keeper of its awards. They are academic bodies with a majority of elected academic members, but also comprising academic managers such as heads of department and deans and members of the senior leadership team.
Senates have significant academic membership as well as professional services staff who support the academic endeavour. Senate is chaired by the Vice-Chancellor. As well as being the academic authority, Senates usually have the power to discuss any matter affecting the university and pass their views on to the governing Council. Typically Senate will elect around three members to the Council.
Although Council is the supreme governing body in a chartered university, traditionally Councils have ceded the academic ground to Senate. This is changing, however, for a number of reasons.
Independent members of Council increasingly wish to probe and challenge the core business of a university (education and research) rather than simply dealing with enabling strategies such as finance, people and infrastructure. They have the tools to do so with the growth of rankings, the National Student Survey and graduate destinations data. Crucially, the advent of the Office for Students in England has placed a duty on Councils rather than Senates to assure the OfS of the quality and standards of awards and the quality of the student experience. In the UK all but a handful of chartered universities are in the English sector.
The coming of the OfS presents a challenge but also an opportunity for Senates. Rather than increasingly being thought of as a dignified part of the constitution to be got through in one piece by the executive and as a refuge for heads of department to keep their heads down and catch up with emails, Senates have the opportunity to be at the heart of academic quality and standards and the student experience i.e. exactly what they should be.
In order to do so, however, Senates need to stop being precious about the authority of Council. The three legs of the governance stool, Senate, Council and the Vice-Chancellor have to accept, respect and understand their mutual roles and responsibilities ie Senate as the academic authority, Council as the governing body superior to Senate and the VC as chief executive, accountable to Council and OfS as the accounting officer and to Senate as chair. It is for good reason in charters that the VC is described as the “chief academic and administrative officer”.
In assuring the OfS Council has itself to seek assurance. It cannot simply accept the assurance of Senate. It needs to see the workings out. By way of analogy, Council would not sign off the financial statements simply on the say-so of the chief financial officer. It seeks advice from external auditors, finance committee and audit committee before authorising the signing of the statements.
Similarly, some universities are now establishing academic assurance committees of Council, implying that they cannot get assurance from Senate.
In my view, it is preferable for Councils to be able to take assurance from Senate but, in order to do so, Senates must be organised to be capable of providing such assurance. This requires a highly professional education/quality/standards sub-committee of Senate which produces the detailed analysis to provide assurance.
While this should be considered, tested and challenged by Senate, it should not be second-guessed and Senate should not substitute its own judgment for that of a careful, comprehensive professional process of the quality that can provide assurance to Council and OfS.
Rather than being seen as anachronistic bodies to be worked around, this key role of academic assurance has the potential to reinvigorate Senates and re-engage senators to be what their founders intended, the academic heart of the university. Under this model Senate becomes an important part of the effectiveness of corporate governance. The Committee of University Chairs (CUC) Guide recommends a triennial robust review of governance effectiveness with independent advice by each university. There is an increasing tendency for chartered universities to include Senate as well as Council in the review. This is to be welcomed since an effective senate, capable of assuring council on quality, standards and the student experience is an integral part of the governance framework of a chartered university.