Building democratic institutions

In response to government pressure and subsequent marketisation and expansion universities are adopting more corporate forms of governance. It is important that students’ unions understand these changes in order to challenge the concentration power in governing bodies and reductions in the role of academics and students in decision-making.

Students have a part to play in building more democratic universities. The concept of student engagement is now at a tipping point; it is important student engagement is articulated in a way which leads to more student participation in university decision-making.

We need to develop ways that unions can challenge university governance, exposing the gap between the values in a university’s mission and decisions that contradict these values. We need to ask the normative question of who should make decisions and what should be the structure of decision-making in an institution adept to problems of gender equality, student engagement and public value.

8 Responses to this theme

  1. David Morris says:

    Durham University is currently undergoing a governance review which has made this topic particularly pertinent to me.

    One issue with aspiring how to make institutions more democratic seems to be how you clarify who is responsible for what, and in particular, who/what “the University/Institution” actually is. Durham has, in theory, a very decentralised system of departments and residential colleges with devolved decision making. However, staff and students are exceptionally unhappy about the current management of the institution and the phrase ‘climate of fear’ is used regularly in relation to the management. The management, on the other hand, seem to struggle to reign in any sort of coherent direction for the institution without being heavy handed, leading to the aforementioned tension. Decisions can’t be made in a collegial manner in this environment, so often, they just aren’t made – it’s just someone else’s fault…

    It seems to me that any half-hearted attempts at devolved decision making are more dangerous than direct management from about (perhaps, maybe…). If everyone is responsible for the institution in theory (the phrase ‘academic community’ is often used to justify this), then what happens in reality is that no one is responsible for anything. Management blame bickering staff and students. Students and staff blame control-freak management. An institution can quite easily descend into a parochial mess where everything not liked is ‘the University’s’ fault, but no one is quite sure who or what ‘the University’ is.

    From students’ point of view, I feel real involvement in governance shouldn’t be too difficult. Students should be a substantial part of shaping the strategic and policy direction of the institution, and clear lines of accountability should show them who to go to when there are problems. Fluffy, if well intentioned, notions of a ‘community of academic practice’, if not applied correctly, can confuse governance (i.e. decision making) with community, and can cause more problems than solutions.

  2. Video of the “Women in academic leadership” panel session at HE zone conference:

  3. Tom says:

    At zone conference some people thought that ‘building democratic institutions’ meant abolishing all management structures and replacing them with an anarchaic system where everyone votes on everything ever.

    Just to clear something up, this project isn’t about that right?

    • Adam Wright says:

      Hi Tom,

      This project is about ensuring that decision-making at universities is more democratic. By democratic, we are not directly referring to a form of democracy (i.e. populist democracy, where decisions represent the public will), but rather we are stating that decision-making needs to reflect key aspects of democratic governance, namely: transparency, accountability, and representation. Part of this will include deciphering the correct mechanisms to arrive at democratic decisions. This may mean a vote, but may equally mean something else, as long as it allows fair representation of key stakeholders and ensures that all interested parties can hold the decision-makers to account.

      We deliberately did not give a particular model of governance because it will differ markedly at each institution. Students and their unions need to be using the campaigns to push their institution towards a set of democratic ideals, rather than dictate a particular form of governance.

      If you have any questions on this, feel free to contact me at

  4. GarethHughes says:

    A part of this debate which has always interested me is the relationship between the academic and corporate parts of an institution – the Boards Academic/Governors or Senate/Council.

    The student movement has invested considerable effort in understanding the relationships, papers, issues and power in the academic side of our institutions. SUs will elect, train and support members of academic panels, and NUS has done some great work in helping SUs engage with the concepts and reality of QAA activity, for example. Our SU Councils and Executives debate their agenda and their impact; we hold briefings and present papers which are debated and discussed: these are great examples of us living the values of the democratic institution. But think where the power is – who appoints Vice-Chancellors? Who actually decides on the nature of international partnerships enriching education, as opposed to checking the quality assurance aspects of it (which are usually fine anyway)? Who allocates budget to priorities instead of begging to be the priority? We may be playing the easy game, but not the most important one.

    And how have we responded to the shape of this reality, presuming you agree with my badly sketched thoughts? I wonder the extent to which we as SUs protect for ‘good governance’ or ‘responsibility’ reasons the student role in corporate leadership of the University. Briefings and impact aren’t really shared in the same way internally (think of the who briefs who, and on what. Are student members of governing bodies held accountable, or do we suggest ‘seriousness’ as a reason why transparency doesn’t happen in the same way?).

    Can we best build the democratic institution by behaving that way ourselves? Should we be living democracy as a day-to-day exercise of values and not merely treating it as a casual consequence of elections and showing that democratic behaviours may be complex but are valuable because they are consistent with our values, not necessarily because it demonstrates ‘impact’.

    I’d be interested in thoughts on whether we mean ‘the democratic institution’ as an academic entity or a whole entity – and certainly whether our priority for building it covers the whole University or the bit that’s perhaps more used to debating new ideas.

  5. AJLouch says:

    I’m growing increasingly frustrated with the debates are students as partners, and students as democratic shapers of their own educations and institutions and I think these points raised above are all critical.

    In my institution, we constantly make lots of the partnership, we always talk of the Students’ Guild having the best access possible to the Governance structures, to the powerful leaders of the insitution, and importantly to a scrutiny of University accounts. However, this access, this whole student body working in partnership, takes the form of sabbatical officers and a chief exec, in the minority at meetings, boldly speaking out for the whole student body. I guess a model which would be far more democratic would be a real partnership board, a half and half approach between academics and students where budgets are created in partnership, rather than reviewed or scrutinised by a students’ union.

    But how would this complete upheaval of the process of managing a University begin? I wonder if it should in itself be a part of the curriculum? Why not have a module in educational co-creation, or the forumulation of a new program? I think this is the way to catch the ‘unengaged.’ Give them responsibility, assess and value their participation.

    Finally, I’ve had enough of what I think I’m going to call dinner party projects now. I think the University love to say they’re part of change agents projects, when in reality, student engagement actually means labelling student inspired projects after their inception and talking about them non stop at networking events. This is where the partnership could be at its best. A proper University and Union funded project support team to design projects in the co-creation of education. Student Engagement is what we do as a union. It’s not about talking about it, it’s about doing it. But how on earth do you even begin to call for that?

  6. Alan Roberts says:

    Some good questions there Matt. Some responses from what I personally think, to your questions:

    I think the first point is about ‘creating citizenship.’ You sum it up yourself – they are there to get their qualification (amongst other motivations)

    As soon as we try to create citizenship, I believe we are doomed to fail. The trick must be about recognising what their needs and aspirations are, what barriers they face. What role can a students’ union have in ensuring that its members can express themselves? This is a classic apathy conundrum.

    The point about running for elections is also a fair one.

    Society is not made of people all running for election – that would practically be anarchy! For other people, the idea of leadership is something different, and our approach to alternative leadership is often lacking, such as often ideological opposition to business or enterprise. I don’t think that student enterprise should be such a dirty word.

    Some unions have great projects around enterprise – I’m thinking Teesside for example – So how do we help students start up businesses? Surely we’re in a great position to champion our values through these activities? Obviously, not everyone is an entrepreneur either. Aside from running for election, running a business, we also have civic activity such as volunteering, and of course what you could call Big Civic activity – campaigning and lobbying.

    What so many of us are not good at is answering the question: What about everyone else? (dare I call them The Majority?) What are the opportunities, what are the services and how good are we at providing them? To what extent do we support co-production of these services?

    All this is a bit of a tangent from building democratic institutions, but not far off. Mirroring these interests that I’ve described:

    -Those that desire to be political or business leaders
    -Those that want to volunteer or contribute to a cause
    -Those that make use of and shape services (This last one is split into those that want to feed back and govern them and those that JUST want to enjoy the service)

    Motivation wise, perhaps with the exception of those that just want to make use of the service, we are still talking about a minority. These interests should arguably be mapped onto the rest of the University community. What about the academics, the lab assistants, the estates staff, if you want to be truly democratic?

    We obviously cherish the unique environment of a University, the creation and transmission of knowledge, the idea of self-determinism and of contributing to society, but some people just want and love to study; some people just want and love to teach and work and research.

    What does a University governance look like that is democratic, but without the tyranny of the masses?

    (I couldn’t resist using tyranny of the masses, to be more precise I mean the tyranny of a relative minority who are particularly motivated through classical assumption of leadership and representation…it just doesn’t sound as good!)

  7. mattyhurst83 says:

    Firstly I would like to point out that this does not reflect the views of the Students’ Union I work at but they are views that I have come to form over time both as a student, a civil servant and a staff member in a Students’ Union.

    Firstly I think Students’ Unions are in a place to lead in such a role, the leaders in the sector already have excellent governance structures and have been through the processes that some Universities are now going through.

    In my perfect scenario I would put students at the heart of the institutions, and I think Universities but also some Unions even those leading in the sector balk at the idea that every student should have more of a say, the old school of thought is that those elected represent the view of the students, but this isn’t the case, the challenge is how to give students not just a student a voice.

    I think most institutions currently suffer from a democratic deficit (not just in education, but in national and local government, in trade unions and in business) the reliance on those at the top often don’t ask those on the coal face and this was certainly the case in the civil service in which the processes on the most part seemed to hinder not help.

    Furthermore some institutions seem happy to let the student have their say but only at certain times of the year, I think a challenging environment would create a more open environment and I believe the increase in fees may create a counter productive opening through the back door even if some institutions would block it via the front, for example sites like “rate your lecturer” in America.

    I think a more open environment is what is needed and more importantly respect, we’ve all heard the comments such as “well you wouldn’t let a patient lecture a brain surgeon on how to operate”, it’s crass comments such as that we need to stamp out and I think we are all guilty (Officers, Staff, Universities) of thinking we know best when influence could solve.

    I think the idea of students as citizens is a powerful one and would not only improve democracy at institutions but in time in the country as a whole, a learned more pragmatic and researched population is a healthy one.

    I’ve always been a fan of putting faith in those who are the current students, especially as Universities we should be looking to create citizens not sitting ducks.

    A few questions that this raises are:

    How do we create citizenship within the student body, who are increasingly here just to get a degree?

    How do we make students interested in what is around them and the wider picture especially in a fee & employment led environment?

    Do we offer options outside of “running for elections” and do we cut voices out by reliance on representation through the ballot box? And in which way is that positive and/or negative?

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