Governance of Welsh universities to be more democratic

The executive boards of universities in Wales are set for a democratic overhaul following a decision by Welsh Labour conference last weekend. Delegates passed a UNISON-sponsored motion calling on Welsh government to ensure more diverse governing bodies which include elected chairs and mandatory student and staff representatives.

The motion also commits to blocking the most senior university executives from sitting on committees which decide their own pay. UNISON hopes this will help clamp down on excessive Vice Chancellor pay.

Dan Beard, UNISON Higher Education executive member and chair of UNISON Cymru Wales’ Labour Link, said,

“Our Welsh universities are great drivers of economic growth and they provide thousands of young Welsh people with an excellent education. However, their governing boards don’t reflect the local community and the voices of university support staff – the cleaners; caterers; lab technicians; I.T. support; librarians; security staff and more, are completely locked out of deciding how the universities are run.

“That’s led to a situation where they are treated as second-class employees, whose pay is suppressed and pensions threatened and zero hours contracts and agency work is prevalent. At the same time Vice Chancellors earn telephone-number salaries.

“This UNISON motion means we will have university boards fit for the modern age – transparent governance, with mandatory trade union and student reps to help plan the direction of Higher Education institutions. It will also end the ridiculous practice of Vice Chancellors and senior executives determining their own lucrative pay rises.”

Notes to editors

UNISON’s motion to Welsh Labour conference was passed unanimously on Saturday (13 April 2019). The text is as follows: –
Democratising our Higher and Further Education Sectors
Universities and colleges play a hugely important role in Wales. They enrich the lives of the tens of thousands of students who pass through their doors every year and contribute to the cultural and civic wellbeing of our communities.    They are also pivotal to our economic success – boosting business and innovation and directly employing 50,000 people. 
Given their importance, it’s vital that thorough and transparent governance arrangements are in place so that we can be assured that our universities and colleges are fulfilling their responsibilities.    Currently most Universities or Colleges include a Board of Governors or Court which conduct elections under their own rules and behind closed doors.  This has led to the elimination of plurality of Governors who can hold management to account. 
Nearly all governors now come from the private sector and are not focussed on the civic mission, the wider importance of education institutions to our economy or provide effective scrutiny of failing strategies.  You only have to look at the high profile problems in Bangor or Cardiff or Trinity St David’s Universities to evidence that governance is poor in the sector.
This has also led to Principals, Vice-Chancellors and other senior managers being able to sit on their own remuneration committees and to vote on their own pay rises.  Most don’t do this as there is a code of conduct but it has happened in the past.
These governance arrangements allow for no, or an extremely limited, voice for Trade Union Representatives.  Most institutions allow for a staff governor but most staff governor positions tend to be held by management post holders and not Trade Union reps.
We believe that reform of governance is well overdue and as universities and colleges will be a continuing important lever of our economic development post Brexit that it is essential for Welsh Labour to commit to reform.
We believe that we should move to the following:
  • Elected chair of governors/courts that are elected from both the student and staff base
  • Trade Union Governors (Both academic and support staff unions being represented)
  • Student Union Governors (we recognise these exist but should be codified in line with Trade Union Governors)
  • Governing Bodies having to reflect their community – more women, more governors drawn from local charities, councillors, AMs/MPs and minority groups etc.
  • Encourage scrutiny and independence which sadly is lacking currently
Reform will have no real cost implications and can make a massive difference to students, staff and the wider public.  It is also in the public interest that as universities and colleges are independent charitable organisations that receive public money, that they are managed appropriately.
The inclusion of Trade Union governors also builds on the social partnership that Welsh Labour have pioneered through our time in Government.  We are aware that supporting the social partnership is a high priority of the Welsh TUC, which is supported by both affiliated and non affiliated Trade Unions in Wales including UNISON.
We therefore call upon Welsh Labour to undertake the following:
  • Implement the democratisation of Universities and Colleges in Wales and the reforming of governance arrangements:
    1. banning beneficiaries from sitting on remuneration committees
    2. chairs of Boards/Courts to be directly elected by the staff and student bodies
    3. the inclusion of Trade Union and Student Union governors representation to be mandatory
    4. Ensure a more diverse and broad governing bodies in Universities which reflect the wider community
UNISON Cymru Wales Labour Link



Alastair Gittins, UNISON Press Officer on 07816 538397