2006 Policy Paper “Governance in Higher Education”

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ESIB – The National Unions of Students in Europe has existed since 1982 to promote the educational, social, economic and cultural interests of students at the European level, and towards all relevant organisations and institutions. ES 5 IB currently has 45 member organisations from 34 countries.


The transformation from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy has given education and lifelong learning a stronger impetus in the political debate. Higher Education Institutions (HEI) are faced with a diversification of their mission due to new expectations both externally and internally. Such expectations include a stronger call for the public responsibility of HEI and their interaction with society as well as the efficient use and diversification of their financial resources. Furthermore, HEI are faced with a massification and an increasingly diversified student body, with e.g. students from minorities and underrepresented groups, part-time and mature students or distance learners, challenging them to develop new models in catering for the needs of these
students. Thus, external expectations and internal steering of HEI are undergoing change. This change needs to be adequately addressed by the internal governance and external legislation in order to balance democratic decision-making in and public accountability of HEI.



Within this paper:
Governance refers to the structures and processes in HEI through which institutional participants and social actors interact with and influence each other, and also communicate with the larger environment. Governance encompasses both political-decision making as well as management of a HEI.
The function of management is to order and control an organization within agreed objectives. Autonomy of HEI refers to their self-determination in the fields of teaching, research and governance within a self-defined strategy. Autonomy of HEI functions within the framework of public responsibility, public regulation and measures of accountability, i.e. external regulations, requirements or periodic reviews. Effectiveness refers to fitness for purpose, while efficiency considers using available resources in the best possible way. ESIB disregards the definition of the term efficiency in the public debate to reducing the public accountability and input, while at the same time demanding higher output from HEI.


Principle Considerations on Governance of HE

The mission of Higher Education
ESIB understands the purpose of higher education as providing high quality education and research to students and to society as a whole. Higher education (HE) has societal, personal and economic objectives, which cannot be considered 40 in isolation. Education’s role as a means for social development and democratic empowerment, means of accumulating and sharing knowledge, economic competitiveness, as well as a means for personal growth and wellbeing deserve particular importance. An education system must work towards the aim of a democratic society with equal opportunities for all.

Seen coherently, these objectives must form the basis of the governance of higher education – concerning both the political processes that lead to the framework, which HEI work within, as well as the decision-making within the higher education institutions.

Actors and their role in HE

  • Internal actors in HE

Actors within HEI include professors, academic staff, administrative staff and students. ESIB sees all actors within a HEI as equal partners. As equal partners, and as the biggest group in the HE system, students have to be involved in the entire process of decision-making in HE on equal terms with the other actors in the HEI. This basic principle of democracy in HE must not be undermined with the excuse of increasing efficiency in decision-making structures and procedures. Efficiency must not be interpreted in cutting down on democratic principles and exclusive decision-making or the replacement of collegial decision-making structures with management bodies. Students must be involved already when doing preparations for the matters in agenda, not just in the last stage of the decisionmaking. Student representatives in executive governance structures need to be provided with adequate training and support necessary to exercise this function. Such training and support must be publicly financed and self-organized by the different actors in HE.

  • External actors in HE

These include governmental authorities responsible for regulating HE, trade unions, employers’ organisations and NGOs. Governmental authorities are responsible for setting the legal framework, in which HEIs operate, while other external stakeholders may be consulted by actors within the HEI, based on the issue to be discussed and the possible contribution to the academic and societal objectives by the respective stakeholder.

Principles in governance of HEI
ESIB considers the following principles to be overarching when considering HE governance:

  • the public responsibility for HE should be reflected throughout the governance structure of any HEI. ESIB rejects all arguments in favour of abdicating part of this responsibility in favour of other principles or values, whatever they may be.
  • all issues which affect the steering of HE, should follow democratic-decision making procedures, taken within collegial and broadly representative bodies, legitimised through democratic election from their representative base. They have to be accountable to them in the work they do, the arguments they put forward, and the decisions they support.
  • Involvement of actors in decision-making structures. ESIB firmly states that students, professors, academic and administrative staff have to be included in all procedures that concern policy making within their sphere of HE activity. ESIB sees policy making as: defining goals and challenges, creating and implementing policies, as well as evaluation and definition of best and worst practices.
  • Transparency and active information policy. Democracy can only work out if information is publicly available. ESIB therefore stresses that minutes of meetings, decisions, papers and consultation processes have to be easily 85 accessible to the public. It must be visible how changes in HE come about and which decisions are taken where and by whom.

Internal governance in HEI
Internal governance of HEI consists in general of two pillars: political decision-making structures and the management of the HEI. ESIB believes that the principal governance structure of a HEI is the political decision-making body, while the management is carrying out the decisions taken by the political decision-making structure. ESIB welcomes the consultation of external actors in both political decision-making structures and the management. However the consultation of external representatives must not compromise the autonomy of teaching or research. Furthermore the procedures for selection of external representatives to these consultations must be transparent. External representatives must be democratically elected and accountable. Within the HEI, the overall institutional interest and strategy needs to take into consideration the diverse interests of different disciplines and mediate between them on a non-discriminatory, non100 preferential basis – especially in regard to resource allocation and infrastructural management.

ESIB believes that the balance between the institutional mission and the interests of the disciplines can be best achieved by implementing the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality throughout the HE system. Decisions on curricula, research designs and disciplinary development have to be decided by those who are most acquainted with the subject, ie. the students, teachers and academic staff on department and faculty level. The decisions on faculty and department level in regard to efficient use of resources, teaching and research management should then be accountable to centralised structures on the institutional level, who are in charge of regulating and reviewing them.

HEI and societal dialogue
Education is a public good and a public responsibility. Therefore ESIB believes that the autonomy of HEI in teaching, research and internal governance must happen within a well-defined framework of public regulation.

ESIB believes that there is a role for legal regulatory frameworks as regards to democratic principles and structures, the auditing of funding and the effective and efficient use of resources as defined above, employment regulations as well as mechanisms of quality assurance both at programme and institutional level. Furthermore ESIB believes that the rights of students, academic and non-academic staff in general, and specific rights and empowerment structures for underrepresented groups and groups affected by discrimination have to be regulated by the government. Public regulation must also define the outline of admission criteria, the application and accessibility of knowledge (intellectual property rights) created within a HEI, and the provision of services by it. Lastly, policies on the creation and transmission of knowledge in the process of teaching and research at a HEI should reflect public interest.

ESIB notices trends that vertical accountability between the government and the HEI is complemented by horizontal accountability between Higher Education Institutions and different stakeholders in society, e.g. trade unions, professional associations and employers’ organisations. ESIB acknowledges that such consultation provides for societal, economic and personal objectives of HE and research. ESIB stresses that public regulation and horizontal accountability of HEI must not lead to a competition between HEI that mainly focuses on direct economic usability of offers and results or instrumentalisation of higher education by isolated parts of society.


Areas affected by autonomy of HEI

Autonomy of HEIs encompasses the areas of teaching, research and governance. Autonomy of teaching involves the curriculum development and quality assurance of the programmes, while autonomy in research involves research management and internal allocation of funds. Lastly the autonomy in the governance of HEIs 135 encompasses staffing, marketing of the HEI, the management of buildings and estates, internal resource allocation and student affairs. There are some areas affected by autonomy of HEI, which are of most, however not exclusive, concern to students. Regarding autonomy in governance the issue of most importance to students are the financing of HE and student affairs. Regarding autonomy in teaching this includes the development of curricula. Regarding autonomy in research the area, which is of most interest to students is research management.

Massification of HE is not matched to increased public funding. In contrast the amount of public funding spent per student is decreasing. Governments are not only expecting HEI to use their available resources more efficiently, but to increasingly acquire funding from diversified sources. ESIB stresses that education is a public good and a public responsibility. For this reason HE must be publicly funded. ESIB is not against a diversification of funding for HE. However this must not happen in a way that implies influence on higher education contradictory to public interest or endanger the freedom of research and teaching in any way. ESIB stresses especially that the acquisition of private funding, must not affect the accessibility of HE or increase existing inequalities such as disabilities, distance, economic disadvantage or social and cultural background. HE is a right for all citizens, and should be equally available and accessible to all of them.
Regarding the efficient use of available resources as defined above, the internal resource allocation for teaching and research as well as between disciplines must be in principle nonpreferential and non-discriminatory. ESIB believes, that neither should a preference be given to either teaching or research, nor should certain disciplines benefit disproportionally in the process of resource allocation.

Student Affairs
In regard to student affairs autonomous HEI are sometimes granted the right to decide about the access or selection criteria to as well as the role and rights of students in their HEI and the inclusion of students in decision-making structures. ESIB stresses, that legal regulation for entrance to HE should be upheld and adhered to. Selection procedures introduced by Higher Education Institutions in addition to these legal regulations for entrance to HE reproduce existing inequalities in the education system and thus lead to exclusion of individuals from non-traditional backgrounds. Additionally, autonomy of HEI in this field can lead to competition between HEI towards stricter selection procedures, in order to select the “best brains”. ESIB calls upon HEIs to enhance the transparency of their administrative procedures and develop effective measures to support non-traditional learners in their access to, progress in and successful completion of their studies at the HEI. ESIB would like to point out that students are important actors in the process of creating and transmitting knowledge and as the largest group in HEIs an important actor. Thus students must be included on all levels on all issues in the governance of HEIs on equal terms.

Development of curricula
One aspect of autonomy of HEIs in regard to teaching may be the right to develop curricula and programmes and the freedom to award degrees. ESIB would like to stress that academic training implies more than acquiring a diploma. A central element of a study programme should be enabling students to participate in society, culture, politics and governance. HEIs should support and stimulate students in acquiring a critical and independent attitude to life. While ESIB welcomes consultation 180 of external stakeholders in the creation of curricula in order to increase their relevance to society and the labour market, such inclusion must not undermine these aspects or negatively affect the autonomy of teaching in any other way.

ESIB furthermore believes that HEIs should be accountable to governments and public institutions for the quality of their institution and programmes. Without such public accountability in regard to quality assurance no degree awarding power should be granted to HEIs.

Research management
Autonomy in research refers to the right to undertake research in any discipline and on any topic, to internally distribute funds or acquire external funding in order to do so and to apply the newly created knowledge in any way seen fit by the HEI. While ESIB agrees with this principle, we would like to stress the need for measures of accountability of HEIs in regard to its research management. ESIB would like to remind that research has societal, economic and ethical implications, which must be seen in coherence. For this reason all knowledge created and transmitted in the process of teaching and research at a HEI should reflect public interest and should be subject to risk assessment as well as considerations in regard to their environmental, ethical and societal impact as well as gender mainstreaming. If public interest may be undermined by research in certain disciplines or on certain topics, then public authorities must be reserved the right to restrict research in these areas.

Concerning funding of research activity, ESIB would like to underline the equal importance of humanities and natural sciences. Distribution of funds for research in HEIs must be nonpreferential and non-discriminatory as well as reflect the capacities of certain disciplines and research topics to acquire external funding. ESIB believes that research management should foster academic cooperation between HEIs rather than focus on institutional competition regarding research results. ESIB believes that the consideration of Intellectual Property as business secrets rather than a result of a cooperative research process hampers scientific, societal and economical progress in general. Furthermore ESIB would like to stress that the application and accessibility of Intellectual Property created at a HEI need to be publicly regulated.


Adopted at 51st BM in Paris, France, December 2006


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