• August 6th, 2020

Opinion: Soft governance in higher education

Good governance is high on the agendas of some higher education institutions. Although this is the case, good governance seems difficult to practise all the time. There are studies that have shown the success stories of good governance in higher education. Conversely, other researchers have equally illustrated the negative effects of bad governance.  

It is common to hear academics criticising or praising higher education institutions in terms of the how they are governed and managed, including the influence of the governance, good or bad, on the quality of education offered at the institutions. The criticisms go even further to include the relationship between governance in general and academics, in some cases depicting very bad practices at some institutions. 

The excessive use of the command and control style of governance has been cited as the major cause of the exodus of academics and non-academics at some higher education institutions.   In the above scenario, management seems to be oblivious of Tappan’s (1961) observation that “academics are the only workmen who can build up universities” (cited by Birnbaum, 2004, p.5). This is not to spite non-academics or administrative staff members. The emphasis is to illustrate the point that “…faculty (academics) are the primary holders of academic culture…” (Birnbaum, 2004, p. 20). 

The concept of good governance is easier said than understood and practised. According to Middlehurst (2013, pp.276-277), “Governance is the structure of relationships that bring about organisational coherence, authorize policies, plans and decisions, and account for their probity, responsiveness and cost-effectiveness.” In this definition, probity means correctness or integrity. Governance that promotes healthy relationships in an institution is good. Collegial relations produce more results than in hostile environments.  Healthy relationships and collegiality result in organisational coherence, the glue that makes all the different personalities stick together. When there is unity of purpose in the institution, it is easier to formulate and pass scrupulous and productive plans, policies and decisions that do not waste time and resources. It is good governance that brings about positive and manageable change in an organisation and not the command and control style. The latter invites resistance from subordinates. It stifles creativity and innovation that are indispensable in a democratic society. 

Shattock (2013, p. 223) proposes that “one way in which governing bodies might open up channels of alternative thinking would be to engage in closer links with the academic community.” This style of management or governance is open and democratic, and it is likely to yield positive results. Moreover, giving academics a chance to give their views in a transparent manner in open discussions is likely to make them more accountable of their actions. In other words, management and academics should visualise a win-win situation or resolution in a matter of contestation or under discussion. 

In this case, management must accept feasible alternatives for academics to feel that their interests are being accommodated. In other words, management must tone down the control and command tendency and move more to collegial ways of solving issues. 

Methods that smack of vindictiveness and intolerance on the part of management have no place in the higher education institutions of the 21st century. These methods must be thrown in the dustbin antiquity, the far distant past. The argument here is that the practice of hard governance “...in and of itself … appears to have little influence unless it is strengthened with soft governance which is interactional in nature” (Birnbaum, 2004, p. 10). 

There we are; interactional suggests that there is no Mr-I-Know-All in the transaction of ideas. In addition, there is no one size of a shoe that fits all the different sizes of feet. 

 On the same issue, Birnbaum (2004, p.17) further argues that “It is the climate of soft governance that encourages trust, which makes it more likely that constituents will be influenced by institutional norms and values without requiring formal rules and processes.”  Soft governance softens hard governance. Trust is an important ingredient of the mutual agreements between academics and management. Management can foster trust by enhancing openness, transparency, fairness and accountability in their operations. 

Transparency plays an important part in the execution of duties by management in an organisation. Where all the principles of good governance are practised to the letter, ordinary academics will likely have a sense of participation and responsibility. Management must create a positive and ethical culture that should naturally cascade throughout the organs of the institution right to the ordinary academic. When this happens, ordinary academics feel empowered and are most likely to have ownership of the institution and its mandate.  Management can make use of best practices in other institutions regionally and internationally.  It does not assist management to have a bureaucratic structure that leaves the ordinary academic so isolated that his or her plea cannot reach top management in good time. 

Some researchers have recommended that Ivory Towers of management must be destroyed where they exist. They have argued that the open-door policy is the way to go as this practice offers academics limitless access to the corridors of power. The open-door policy has the power of removing the block between members of the academic community and management. It facilitates the solving of problems in a short period of time if it well executed.

Soft governance and the open-door policy appear are valuable ingredients of good governance in higher education institutions. Please don’t chase away your subordinates because they have no appointments.

Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Email address: kjairos@gmail.com

Staff Reporter
2019-11-15 08:48:01 | 8 months ago

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