I am fortunate to have been sent a copy of the role description for the founding President and CEO of NMITE – the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering. It offers a lot more detail about the proposed governance structures at this new university foundation in Hereford. It is not a co-operative, but neither does it conform to the traditional forms of governance associated with other universities in the UK. It is something new in patterns of higher education governance.
Staff contracts and rewards
There appears to be some considerable ambition to be different in the way staff are contracted to work at NMITE. Claiming to have learned from Olin College in the US (one of the partner/mentor organizations) and having tested the idea among prospective staff, the following is proposed:
Our institutional reward system will be based in concept on the John Lewis Partnership model (a retired senior John Lewis director is working with us) – a model that has so successfully been used at John Lewis and elsewhere to focus the culture and actions of employees on delivering consistently high quality service. NMITE will measure employee and operating success on the quality of teaching and the employment success of graduates. The performance system will be specifically designed to reward high quality teachers with further resources to support their teaching and broaden the impact of the educational experience they are providing students. We believe this will result in the acquisition of inspirational tutors and other academic staff.
There will be no tenure, all employees will be retained under standard commercial contracts of employment
This sounds like a teaching-focussed contracting system, just as John Lewis’ contracting system aims to employ staff talented at customer service. However, just because it is a bit like John Lewis, there is not necessarily anything co-operative about it. Indeed, John Lewis is not a co-operative, but is owned by a beneficial trust for employees. Of course, John Lewis is a profit-making firm, but the NMITE is intended to be a not-for profit, so while the contracting may be similar, governance is not: but some reworking of the John Lewis model was inevitable to fit NMITE’s charitable purpose and charitable form.
Corporate form and internal decision-making
Rebecca Boden, Penelope Ciancanelli and Susan Wright (2012) have put forward the concept of a Trust University as a possible co-operative structure for universities. In the Boden et al model, the institution would be owned by an irrevocable beneficial Trust. NMITE’s proposal is something entirely novel, as far as I am aware. The proposal is for a top-level charitable trust with responsibility for fundraising and ethos. A second charitable trust, a subsidiary of the first, will be the responsible entity for policy, operations, quality and motivation. The President/CEO will serve on both, but it is not clear where responsibility for audit, ultimate accountability, etc, will lie. There will be an elected Employee Council with what appears to be an independent Chair (at least, it is a separate role to that of the President/CEO) with a seat on the (subsidiary) Trust Board, and a formal advisory role to the President/CEO. This appears to be more like classic German-style employee relations than a co-operative to me, but who knows what such a body could achieve in a university? There is a lot to like about this proposal that makes your average pre-92 Senate look rather wimpy by comparison, but at the same time, it is plain that the employee council is subordinate to the executive and Board, which is more like the set-up in a post-92 Higher Education Corporation or a private institution. The latitude available to the Employee Council would depend on whether the Chair of that body turns out to be the Provost (head of academics) role, or someone independent.
I can’t see any details of student representation, and if there is none, then that would be a retrograde step (if technically legitimate, as the Committee of University Chairs’ code makes clear in its paragraph 7.6) but perhaps this will be rectified in due course. There will also be an Advisory Council, similar to Court in a pre-92 English university, but smaller, to represent the interests of the wider community.
Well-known co-operative consultancy Baxendale are listed among the consultants supporting the project, which accounts for the statements regarding the John Lewis group.
There are no other obvious manifestations of cooperativism, but there is plenty for cooperators to like in the curriculum, with a focus on developing the whole individual, and to inculcate a care for society and the environment in their professional practice. There is also clear potential for this new organization to experiment with cooperative governance in a higher education setting, if that is the choice of the future President/CEO. Co-operative-minded engineers might be advised to investigate this job further…