University governance

It is the turn of universities to have their governance councils cut back.

Polytechnics went through the process three years ago, and Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce claims much of a turnaround in performance can be attributed to better governance. Axed from polytechs were student and community representatives, with numbers reduced from about 18 to eight. What is more, the Government, through the minister, appoints four of the eight, with the other four selected by the ministerial appointees. The Government also appoints the chairman, and council members may sit on several councils. Clearly, there is little room for local autonomy.

Universities are governed in varying ways. Otago has 17 council members (including vice-chancellor), three short of the maximum. Mr Joyce is looking at 12, and it would appear he will allow more flexibility than for polytechnics. At present, four at Otago are government appointees, three from academic staff, one from general staff, one appointed by the council after consulting employer organisations and one after consulting ''worker'' organisations.

The Dunedin City Council appoints a representative and students two. Perhaps anticipating the changes, the university has proposed removing the three Court of Convocation members elected by graduates, with these replaced by council appointees. This in itself says something about the Otago council.

First, this matter was initially discussed with the media and public excluded, continuing the university's long and dishonourable traditions of keeping more than necessary behind closed doors and conducting many - if not most - important discussions in ''pre-meetings''. This eliminates a link and contact with university alumni, even though few actually vote.

In any event, given Mr Joyce's views, the Court of Convocation's days could be numbered, along with much of the staff and students' representation.

Universities have been moving towards more ''managerial'' models rather than traditional collegial emphasis, and streamlined governance would be another major step in that direction.

Mr Joyce expects new councils, once he confirms his proposals, to be more entrepreneurial and flexible. Just like the disastrous Solid Energy board perhaps? Given the speed at which the university responds to issues, however, he might have a point. The university can appear a cumbersome beast with various layers of management and a slow and plodding way of reaching decisions.

Mr Joyce also sees the need for sharp business heads on councils. Most universities, though, have recognised this, and Otago has included leading businessmen for many years. The likes of Jim Valentine, Trevor Scott, Lindsay Brown and Stuart McLauchlan, for example, have served or do so now in senior governance roles.

The danger with Mr Joyce's plans is the loss of independence and autonomy.

Although the Government pays the bulk of university funding, and therefore has a right to expect accountability, there has to be a balance between control and freedom. Universities in our Western democracies do need independence; they do need to be the ''critic and conscience of society''. An undue governmental focus on shorter-term horizons and on what is best for economic development can stifle learning and fresh and important research and long-term progress.

We live in an age when small boards are supposedly more effective. With strong leadership this need not be so, and larger boards need not be unwieldy. Community links can be maintained and, at the same time, boards which hear only from the most senior management miss out on the diversity and differing views that can come from a student or a staff representative.

We live, too, in an age when government control - for example over health boards and major resource consents - is expanding all the time.

There are inherent dangers in this, as Wellington controls more and more of our institutions and more and more of our lives. At least Mr Joyce's proposals are not as far-reaching as for polytechnics. With some trimming here and there, 12 is a reasonable number. As long as some diversity and significant independence is maintained, the Council of the University of Otago might, as vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne has said, be able to live with proposed changes.