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2 Chapter 2: The Governance Structures of Postsecondary Education

A. session introduction.

The governance system of universities and colleges is different from other organizations and companies – even if both are non-profit, created for public-interest, are service oriented, and even if they have multiple stakeholders and employees with differing and distinct professions and expertise. What makes university governance structure different is the idea of  Academic Freedom.  Academic Freedom has been differently defined to make a specific point, but it encapsulates the following elements regarding freedom: (a) to decide what to teach; (b) to decide how to teach; (c) to decide what to research; (d) to decide how to do the research; (e) to report research findings; (f) to express their opinions; and (g) to be wrong (Jones, 2014).

post secondary education governance

These extensive freedoms constrain many traditional assumptions about management that governance concerns itself. For instance, professors make their own decisions about teaching and research (with important exceptions) which limits the degree to which they can be “managed” in the traditional sense. Furthermore, academic tenure, which is the institutional means to safeguard academic freedom, limits the ability of the management to terminate professors for capricious reasons. And finally, professors can offer their opinions on public matters and even on matters affecting the operation of the university without retribution.

The second manifestation of freedoms leads to academic self-governance. This idea implies that in order to preserve academic freedom, academic decisions should be made by academics and not other seemingly relevant stakeholders. That means not the administration, not individuals and groups who are in governance or administrative posts, neither related ministry folks, and neither the board of governors. The University Act which is the basis of creation of most of the Universities in Canada assigns the responsibility for academics matters to be decided by the academic senate which operates independent of, but at the same level as the governing board.

It is important to note that these set of privileges and responsibilities extend only to tenured faculty members at the university. Other teaching staff who do not have tenured positions, however much qualified, do not have these privileges extended to them. Also, the idea of academic freedom is far more restrictive in colleges.

This implies that the academic decisions that are important to the university cannot be made by the board. The complexity that arises because of this must be understood in terms of freedom that the academic senate has in determining the strategic direction of the university.

With respect to the selection of the President of the University, the board has the responsibility of appointing the president, but the search process includes all major stakeholders. Corollary, the president of the university is held accountable to the Board, Senate, and the academic community of the university. Consequently, the President’s ability to steer university using the executive authority is thwarted and requires him/her to build consensus and focus on the process. In short, the President must be held to a different standard than the CEO of a company.

B. Learning Outcomes

By the end of this session, you will be able to:

  • Understand the bicameral system of governance in Canadian Universities;
  • Understand the limits of what a President of a University can do, and how that differs from the CEO of other organizations; and
  • Distinguish between the governance structures of an Ontario College and an Ontario University

Connection to Practice

Academic Freedom also affects the governance structure of the University and it changes the role of the President, the Board of Trustees, and introduces a level of academic oversight of Senate.

Connection to Research

Why might the college professors have restricted academic freedom? What is one question that has not been answered that has left you asking more questions about the University Governance in Ontario?

C. Session Resources

Corbett, A., & Mackay, J. M. (2014, August).  Manual for effective college governance.  College Centre of Board Excellence. Retrieved from  https://www.collegesontario.org/colleges-ontario/CO_college_governance_manual.pdf  [read Chapter 1 & skim Chapter 2, stopping at page 37]

Jones, G. A., Shanahan, T., & Goyan, P. (2001).  University governance in Canadian Higher Education .  Tertiary Education and Management, 7 (2). 135-148. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1011333915176

Pennock, L., Jones, G. A., Leclerc, J. M., & Li, S. X. (2016).  Challenges and opportunities for collegial governance at Canadian universities: Reflections on a survey of academic senates .  Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 46 (3). 73-89.

Policy and Governance in Postsecondary Institutions: Canadian Perspectives on Ethics and Decision Making Copyright © 2019 by Robert McGray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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The Postsecondary Education Conundrum

Subscribe to the brown center on education policy newsletter, cecilia elena rouse cecilia elena rouse @ceciliaerouse.

June 5, 2013

Postsecondary education in the United States faces a conundrum: Can we preserve access, help students learn more and finish their degrees sooner and more often, and keep college affordable for families, all at the same time? And can the higher education reforms currently most in vogue—expanding the use of technology and making colleges more accountable—help us do these things?

Since the 1960s, colleges and universities have worked hard to increase access to higher education. Fifty years ago, with the industrial economy booming—as Sandy Baum, Charles Kurose, and Michael McPherson write in the latest issue of the Future of Children —only 45 percent of young people went to college when they graduated from high school. Today, they note, at least 70 percent enroll in some form of postsecondary education. Women, who once accounted for little more than a third of the college population, now outnumber men on campus, and minorities and the poor have also seen many barriers to a college education fall. Certainly, we still have work to do—for example, advantaged children are still much more likely than children living in poverty to go to college, and to attend elite institutions when they do. Yet the gains in access have been remarkable.

Over the past decade, critics have increasingly questioned the quality of college education in the U.S. In particular, they have pointed to low completion rates—only about half of the people who enroll at a postsecondary institution complete a degree or certificate within six years. Yes, there are many reasons that students attend such institutions, but even among those who report that they aspire to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, only about 36 percent do so.

Most recently, the loudest debates in higher education have been about cost. When people talk about the cost of postsecondary education, they usually mean tuition. The most alarming recent increases have been in the “sticker price,” or the published cost of attending an institution. Sticker prices for full-time in-state students at public four-year colleges and universities increased 27.2 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the College Board. But only about one-third of full-time students pay the sticker price; the other two-thirds of full-time students pay the “net price,” which is the sticker price minus grants and other forms of aid. On average, the net price is 70 percent less than the sticker price. Even so, the net price of college has also increased steeply, by 18 percent over the same five years.

Many people take the sharp rise in tuition costs as evidence that institutions of higher education are inefficient and growing more so—in other words, that colleges and universities are spending more and more money to deliver the same education. They argue that if we aggressively adopt technology and strengthen accountability, we can make colleges and universities more efficient, whether that means providing the same education for less money, or a better education for the same cost.

But, in truth, tuition—whether we’re talking about sticker price or net price—doesn’t really tell us how much a college education costs. As McPherson, who is president of the Spencer Foundation, pointed out recently at a conference at Princeton, an institution’s total expenditure per student is a much better measure of the cost of a college education. Based on 2012 data from the College Board, expenditures per student, especially at public institutions, have been relatively flat over the past decade, increasing by about 6.4 percent at four-year public institutions and actually decreasing at two-year public institutions. Tuition itself accounts for only a part of the total expenditure per student. At public institutions in particular, the rest is made up largely by state subsidies. What has changed in recent years is that state subsidies have fallen precipitously, meaning that parents and students are shouldering more of the cost through rising tuition payments. From 2000 to 2010, the portion of total expenditures covered by tuition at public institutions went from just over one-third to just over one-half, with subsidies falling accordingly. If we look at the cost of college this way, it’s unlikely that growing inefficiency is the main problem facing institutions of higher education; in fact, they are educating more students than ever and doing so at roughly the same cost per student. Nonetheless, few people expect state subsidies to rebound to their former levels. If college is to remain affordable, state institutions must seek ways to lower their cost per student so that they can keep tuition in check.

What are the prospects, then, that technology and accountability can help us rein in the rate of growth in tuition? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear.

Policymakers like to focus on advances in technology as a solution for the tuition crisis because a major component underlying the cost of a postsecondary education is the cost of paying the faculty. As long as the wages that faculty members could earn in other parts of the economy continue to increase, there will be upward pressure on the cost of educating students. But if we could use advanced technology to let each faculty member teach more students, we could lower the cost of a college education. However, no one wants such an increase in productivity to reduce the quality of the education that students receive. Therefore, if technology is to help us solve higher education’s quandary, it must provide education at a lower cost without lowering its quality.

We have scant evidence of whether e-learning is comparable in quality to traditional classroom instruction. However,  the best research so far suggests that in large lecture classes, at least, especially those that cover introductory material in some subjects, students learn just as well online as they do in “chalk and talk” classes. We know even less about the long-term cost of teaching in this way. On the one hand, once we pay the start-up and transition costs associated with adopting new technology and training faculty how to use it, the cost per student is likely to fall because faculty will be able to teach more students in larger classes. On the other hand, the best evidence about technology comes from its use in large lecture classes; we know much less about its effectiveness in smaller, typically more advanced courses, which are more expensive to teach by definition. We also have virtually no evidence about technology’s effectiveness in some disciplines, particularly the humanities. If technology can’t deliver the same education that students get in the classroom, what may look like a decrease in cost may actually be a decrease in quality. Thus before we know whether widespread adoption of technological tools is truly a promising approach to reducing the cost of a college education, we need more and better evidence about how these tools affect student learning, in which settings and for whom they work best, and how much they cost to implement and maintain.


Policymakers are also talking about accountability as a way out of the postsecondary conundrum. Most public institutions receive state subsidies based on the number of students they enroll. Enrollment-based funding gives these colleges and universities a huge incentive to increase access, but far less incentive to boost completion rates and other measures of student success. On the heels of the movement to increase accountability in K-12 education, a lot of people, including President Obama, have been calling to make colleges and universities more accountable, most notably by tying some portion of state or federal funding to student completion or other measures of success—for example, how many graduates find jobs. Many states have already tried this, but the results have been disappointing (though it must be said, as Davis Jenkins and Olga Rodriguez write in the Future of Children , that much of the research on performance funding thus far has been qualitative rather than quantitative). One reason that performance funding hasn’t worked well may be that the percentage of aid that states have tied to performance has been quite low, meaning that institutions have had little to lose if they fail to meet performance targets. As a result, some reformers are calling for an even stronger connection between funding and accountability. Fair enough, and probably worth a try, but the bottom line is that we have yet to find solid evidence that tying appropriations to student success will produce the results we desire. And caution is in order: Unless such an approach is implemented and monitored carefully, it will create a perverse incentive for institutions to restrict admission to the students who are most likely to do well, thus potentially reversing the gains in access that we’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Despite the caveats I’ve presented here, I believe that both technology and accountability have their place in any effort to solve the postsecondary conundrum.

In the case of new technological tools to expand teaching productivity, we need to carefully study their effect on student learning, institutional stability, educational quality, and cost. It’s going to take some tinkering to build new models of technology-supported teaching that work as well as or better than a traditional classroom education, and we should not hesitate either to try promising approaches or to abandon those that fail to make the grade.

When it comes to imposing stronger accountability, we need comprehensive data systems and other ways to gather information that will give us a clearer, more scientifically sound picture of institutional performance than do the rough measures we use now, such as completion rates. Furthermore, measures of quality should never be the only criteria through which we reward or punish postsecondary institutions, not only because expanding access must remain a priority, but also because it is extremely unlikely that we will ever be able to capture all of postsecondary education’s beneficial outcomes through large-scale data. 

In the end, however, technology and accountability alone will not solve the postsecondary conundrum. As tuition costs rise, parents and prospective students are starting to question the value of the postsecondary institutions they’re considering, seeking better information about quality and completion rates, and making decisions based on hard financial realities. This kind of pressure from prospective students and their families is likely to be the most effective incentive of all.

Higher Education

Governance Studies

Brown Center on Education Policy

Sopiko Beriashvili, Michael Trucano

April 26, 2024

Richard V. Reeves, Ember Smith

Michael Trucano, Sopiko Beriashvili

April 25, 2024


  • Journal Articles
  • Books: Books, Chapters, Reviews
  • Working Papers
  • The Political and Policy Dynamics of K-12 Education Reform from 1965 to 2010: Implications for Changing Postsecondary Education

Michael W. Kirst

Americans are largely unaware that local school boards, as well as local superintendents and individual schools have been losing influence over education programs for some time to state and federal officials and other interests.. The reforms brought by the Progressive movement from 1900-1920 created control and trust of professional educators, and a politics preferred by pedagogues (Iannaccone, 1967). Certified School administrators once dominated education policy with little intrusion by federal or state authorities. Teachers were docile and not organized.

This paper begins with chronicling the loss of confidence in professional educators, and the consequent k-12 policy and politics that have reached beyond the classroom door to alter what students are taught. A companion paper by Will Doyle then analyses why no such comparable change has occurred in post secondary education, and what forces may cause major future reform in postsecondary education. To address these and other questions, it is helpful to understand historic turning points in U.S. k-12 school policy and governance, and to see how the evolution of a local control system resulted in today’s more centralized policies and reforms. However, k-12 policymaking is still fragmented among several levels of government, interest groups, and actors.

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  • Federal and State Education Policy

Topic Areas:

  • Accountability , Education Governance

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Education Governance and School Autonomy: The Progressive Reform of K–12 School in China

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  • First Online: 11 June 2020

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post secondary education governance

  • Guorui Fan 3 &
  • Lin Zhang 4  

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Education governance and school autonomy are a pair of mutually linked concepts that have involved various relationships, including the relationship between schools and the government and society and the complex relationship between the schools’ administration (including the school leaders, teachers, and other staff) and the students and even their parents. The essence of education governance is to build a modern school system that operates in compliance with the law, with autonomy, and under democratic supervision and engages other stakeholders in the society. At the core of the concept lies two goals: the first is to free schools from their overdependence on the government and to achieve autonomy; the second is to gradually realize shared governance that involves the full involvement of stakeholders such as teachers, students, and parents, as well as professional educational organizations, and consequently to highlight the agency of schools, increase the level of professionalism in their operations, and better meet the students’ educational needs and facilitate their development (Chu 2004: 63).

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1 introduction.

Education governance and school autonomy are a pair of mutually linked concepts that have involved various relationships, including the relationship between schools and the government and society and the complex relationship between the schools’ administration (including the school leaders, teachers, and other staff) and the students and even their parents. The essence of education governance is to build a modern school system that operates in compliance with the law, with autonomy, and under democratic supervision and engages other stakeholders in the society. At the core of the concept lies two goals: the first is to free schools from their overdependence on the government and to achieve autonomy; the second is to gradually realize shared governance that involves the full involvement of stakeholders such as teachers, students, and parents, as well as professional educational organizations, and consequently to highlight the agency of schools, increase the level of professionalism in their operations, and better meet the students’ educational needs and facilitate their development (Chu 2004 : 63).

With the expansion of compulsory education and the establishment and development of the modern institutionalized education system, schools’ organizational systems have become increasingly complex. The struggle for authority over education management has also become complicated, specifically that between schools as professional educational organizations and the education administrators represented by the government and the education administration departments (EADs). As early as the 1970s, some educators in Australia had criticized the centralized model for school management and began exploring a school management model where local education bureaus, principals, parents, community members, teachers, and education administrators collaborate and work together, which later became known as school-based management (SBM) (Cuttance 1993 ; Gamage 1999 ).

After experimented in the states of New York, Florida, and California, SBM was developed into three basic models in the United States: administrative control SBM, professional control SBM, and community control SBM (Murphy and Beck 1995 : 36). Footnote 1 Beginning with the St. Paul City Academy in Minnesota, reforms in charter schools were carried out in over thirty American states in the 1990s, with an aim to reallocate power among the state, school districts, and schools, as well as to expand school autonomy and strengthen education performance and accountability (Finnigan 2007 ). This management model which is based on individual school’s situation has been adopted in many countries and regions (Ayeni and Ibukun 2013 ; Gamage 2001 ).

School autonomy has become a core theme for educational research and the practice of educational reform (European Commission 2007 ). The related concepts include centralization, decentralization, authorization, multi-governance, and participation in education governance. The research surrounding this theme was carried out at two levels of power relations: the first level was between schools and the external government, with the focus of decentralization and delegation from the latter to the former; the second level was between the schools’ internal leaders and teachers, with the focus of teacher–parent participation. Regarding the former, David K. Cohen studied the impact of federal and state education policies on school governance (Cohen 1982 ). The crux of the issue was the reallocation of decision-making powers to establish a decentralized model that could enhance the continuous improvement and sustainable development of schools (Mohrman et al. 1994 : 57; Wohlstetter and Mohrman 1994 ). After an external governmental department has delegated authority to a school, the school must undergo internal decentralization as well and create a mechanism that allows the principal, teachers, parents, students, and community residents to directly participate in the school’s decision-making process (Dimmock 1993 : 92) for effective school governance (Resnick 1999 ). Various changes are essential for effective school governance. First, the concept of a school’s organizational management must be changed to form a shared vision. This leads to the formation of a new strategic plan for the school’s development (Gamage 2009 ) and changes to its internal institutional structure and operating mechanism (Machin and Silva 2013 ). Next, school autonomy also involves school improvement (Honig and Rainey 2012 ), teacher training, and school-based curriculum (Herman et al. 1993 ). In fact, governments will establish strict regulations and restrictions on school autonomy as part of the delegation process and tend to more focus on the performance and outputs resulting from decentralization and school autonomy (Gunnarsson et al. 2008 ) and have strict performance indicators and goals for schools’ operations (Smyth 2014 ).

Since different countries have dissimilar political systems and cultural traditions, there are variations in education management systems, government–school relationships in terms of power allocation, and the resultant issues, contradictions, and conflicts. Dimmock ( 1993 ) teamed up with scholars from many countries to conduct an in-depth study of the relationship between SBM and school effectiveness in various contexts. American and German scholars jointly estimated the significance of school autonomy for different countries and regions based on the 2000–2009 PISA panel data (Hanushek et al. 2013 ). Higham and other scholars (Higham and Earley 2013 ) studied the relationship between school autonomy and government control in the United Kingdom from the school leaders’ perspective, Zhu ( 2016 ) analyzed the United Kingdom’s basic model for education governance, while Wilkins ( 2015 ) conducted a study on the way the UK government strengthened its supervision over public schools through specialized inspection tools to achieve “control over the controlling power.”

Ko and his colleagues ( 2016 ) studied the development of school autonomy and the accountability system in Hong Kong since the implementation of SBM in the 1990s. Xia with her team (Xia et al. 2017 ) made a comparative analysis of the similarities and differences between China and the United States in terms of the issues that arose from school autonomy and raised two main issues: (a) seeking an optimal balance between the government’s external and centralized control of schools and school autonomy and (b) seeking an optimal balance between the principal’s and teachers’ respective powers within the school’s context. Hanushek et al. ( 2013 ) used the 2000–2009 PISA data of more than a million students in 42 countries to study the correlation between school autonomy and student performance, as well as variations in that correlation among different countries. They found that school autonomy had positive impacts on student performance in developed countries and those with high PISA scores but had negative impacts for developing countries and those with low PISA scores.

China had a highly centralized political system and planned economy for a long time. However, the reform and opening-up policy has been implemented since 1978, which focuses on economic development. In 1985, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCCPC) issued the CCCPC’s Decision on the Reform of the Education System (《中共中央关于教育体制改革的决定》) and proposed to “resolutely streamline administration and delegate power to expand school autonomy” (CCCPC 1985 ). Following that was the agenda for education reform that included promoting reform of the education management system and facilitating school autonomy. China began exploring a developmental path toward a socialist market economy since 1990. At the same time, it began to seek for establishing an education system that was compatible with the socialist market economic system. The establishment of a modern school system was proposed for the first time in the Outline of the National Plan for Medium- and Long-term Education Reform and Development ( 2010–2020 ) (《国家中长期教育改革和发展规划纲要 (2010–2020年)》), which was issued by the Chinese government in 2010. The document stated that “in order to meet the requirements for reforming the state’s administrative and management system, the government’s management authority and responsibilities, as well as the authority and responsibilities relating to the operation of all levels and types of schools, are to be clearly defined”; “separation between politics and schools, and between supervision and operations, are to be promoted”; and “the government and its departments must establish service awareness, improve management methods, establish perfect supervisory mechanisms, reduce and standardize the number of items that schools have to get administrative approval for, and provide legal protection for schools to fully exercise autonomy and assume the corresponding responsibilities” (CCCPC and the State Council 2010 ).

The CCCPC’s Decision on Several Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reform (《中共中央关于全面深化改革若干重大问题的决定》) was passed at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CCCPC held in 2013. It proposed promoting modernization of the state’s governance system and capacity. The document also mandated the reform and development of the education field, which included “in-depth promotion of the separation between supervision, operation, and evaluation; expansion of provincial governments’ rights to coordinate education and the promotion of school autonomy; and improvement of schools’ internal governance structure” (CCCPC 2013 ). In 2015, the Ministry of Education (MOE) issued Several Opinions by the MOE on Promoting ESOE Separation and Facilitating the Transformation of Government Functions (《教育部关于深入推进教育管办评分离 促进政府职能转变的若干意见》). The document highlighted that in China’s current education system, “there exists the phenomena of overexertion of authority, failure to execute duties, and misplaced focus in the ways the government supervises education, while the mechanism for independent development and self-discipline of schools is not fully developed, and social participation in education governance and evaluation is insufficient (MOE 2015b ). After clarifying the relationship between the government, schools, and the society regarding authority and responsibilities, the MOE will implement and expand the school autonomy program to the experimental and promotion stages. The proposal aims to achieve the strategic goals for education governance by 2020. These included “the government supervising by law, schools operating autonomously by law, and various strata of society participating and supervising by law, so as to achieve a new setup for public governance of education.” In 2015, the MOE introduced pilot reform projects to test the separation of educational supervision, operation, and evaluation (ESOE). Footnote 2 During the process, some provinces, regions, and cities separately organized local pilot reform tasks by making reference to national pilot reform projects. The author of the paper participated in and tracked the work carried out by some national and local pilot reform projects for school autonomy. The study was undertaken by the author from an independent, third-party perspective and based on rational observations and reviews of various policies implemented by local governments to promote ESOE separation and reform, as well as reforms toward school autonomy in related pilot projects. The aim was to clarify the current problems and challenges faced by schools when operating autonomously in compliance with the law and to explore the systems and mechanisms for promoting and guaranteeing the autonomy of elementary and secondary schools.

2 Research Design

In the setting of the comprehensive education reform of China, this study focused on the national ESOE pilot reform areas while still taking into account education governance and reform practice of school autonomy in the rest of the country. It investigated, observed, and analyzed the relevant policies and its implementation in practice.

2.1 Conceptualizing School Autonomy

China’s understanding of school autonomy gradually deepened over the past three decades. In 1985, the leading group for drafting the document on reforming the central education system revealed through research that “the government’s authority is too centralized when it comes to the management system for schools, such that the latter cannot become independent and autonomous entities that run schools. Schools possess neither external might nor internal motivation and lack overall vitality” (CCCPC 1985 ; Hu 2008 ). This marked the beginning of advocacy for school autonomy. The Outline of the National Plan for Medium- and Long-term Education Reform and Development ( 2010–2020 ) published in 2010 defined the establishment of a modern school system as “running schools in compliance with the law, autonomous management, democratic supervision, and social participation” (CCCPC and the State Council 2010 ).

In the Outline for Promoting the Law-based School Governance in an All-around Way promulgated by the MOE in 2012, it was stated that “the goal is to build a modern school system, implement and standardize school autonomy, and form a structure in which the government supervises schools in compliance with the law, schools are operated and managed autonomously in compliance with the law, teachers provide lessons in compliance with the law, and society supports and participates in school management in compliance with the law” (MOE 2012 ). These statements not only affirmed the autonomy of schools in their operations but also established a structural framework for the rights and boundaries of that autonomy.

Basic education is implemented through the elementary and secondary schools, which are entitled to various legal rights to operate. The Education Law of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国教育法》) was recently revised in December 2015, which stipulates in Article 29 that the rights of schools and other educational institutions include (a) autonomous management in accordance with their charters, (b) organizing and implementing educational and teaching activities, (c) recruiting students or other educatees, (d) managing the student registration and implementing due rewards or punishments, (e) issuing the corresponding academic certificates to the educatees, (f) hiring teachers and other staff and implementing due rewards or punishments, (g) managing and using the institution’s facilities and funds, (h) rejecting the illegal interference by any organization or individual in the conducting of educational and teaching activities, and (i) all other rights stipulated by the laws and regulations (National People’s Congress 2015 ).

In summary, autonomous operations of schools include the following at the level of education laws and policies.

2.1.1 Confirming that Schools Operating in Compliance with the Law Have the Status of Being the Legal Entities of Autonomy

School autonomy in compliance with the law means that schools’ rights to autonomous operations are sacred and inviolable by law. Accordingly, the structure in which the government performs the “three-in-one” roles of being the manager, organizer, and evaluator of education must be dismantled. The relationship between the government and schools must be redetermined to ensure that the former transfers the operation right to the latter, so that schools can own the identity of organizers for autonomous operations in compliance with the law. To realize school autonomy, it is necessary to reach a consensus on the governance concept of a “government with limited liabilities,” have a systematic legal and policy system for regulation and protection, and ensure the law-based administration of government.

2.1.2 Enforcing of the Schools’ Rights to Operate Autonomously Under the Legal and Institutional Framework

Ensuring that schools have the rights to autonomous operations in accordance with the law not only is a political appeal for the democratization of education but also is indispensable for the daily operation of the school. Objectively, schools and teachers need to have more professional decision-making powers to maintain their professionalism and to cope with the variability and complexity of educational tasks and contents. When schools and teachers are entitled to greater autonomy in the field of teaching, it is a respect to the education and teaching principles and the professionalism of teachers. School autonomy ensures that principals and teachers can exercise free professional autonomy on the basis that the mandatory laws of education are being respected. This will fill schools with the spirit of freedom and restore the fundamental nature of school education—to educate and cultivate human beings.

2.1.3 Delegating the Direct Responsibilities to Teach and Educate to Schools

During the establishment and development of the education system, the primary and direct educational process is that of teaching and learning between teachers and students. That is also the process through which educational responsibilities are fulfilled. With the universalization of compulsory education and scaling up of high schools, as well as expansion in the scale of education and development of modern social management, the indirect management (indirect educational processes) of educational organizations that are beyond actual teaching relationships has become increasingly complicated. Such indirect educational processes reflect the “production relationship” of education. When the indirect educational processes become overly complicated, it will become more difficult for the direct education process, which reflects the “productivity” level of education, to spark vigor and vitality. To truly have school autonomy means to fundamentally remove all obstacles in the institutional mechanism that hinder the development of educational “productivity,” so that schools and teachers can assume their rightful educational responsibilities while fully exercising their rights to run schools autonomously. This also means that it is vital for schools to establish a sound operating mechanism for self-discipline even while they are developing autonomously. Only in this way the corresponding educational responsibilities can be effectively shouldered.

2.2 Theoretical Framework

A study on education reform with school autonomy as the core theme must be situated within the theoretical framework of education governance. Governance is a concept that involves dynamic development. The word was derived from the ancient Greek word kubernaein ( kubernáo ) and has various connotations including steering, guiding, and manipulating. In thirteenth-century France, the concept was taken as an equivalent to ruling, government, and leading (Gaudin 2002 ). Since the birth of modern nations, there have been three main methods of managing state and public affairs: by the government, the market, or public governance (Song and Fangfei 2010 ). In the 1990s, some political scientists and management scholars advocated the use of “governance” in place of “government” in view of the failure by the market and governments to allocate social resources (Yu 1999 ). By then, the connotations of the concept of governance had undergone substantial changes. James N. Rosenau made a distinction between the concepts of “government” and “governance.” Although both concepts point to purposeful behaviors, the former is backed by formal authority, while the latter is based on common goals (Rosenau 1992 : 4). To a very large extent, governance is regarded as the making of adjustments to an interdependent relationship without the premise of political authority (Rosenau 1999 ). The Commission on Global Governance (CGG) considers governance to be the sum of many methods by which various public or private institutions manage their common affairs (CGG 1995 : 23). In other words, the entities being ruled must be the society’s public institutions. Pertaining to governments, the subject of governance can be either a public or private institution, or even a partnership between both types of institutions. For governing, the process is based on the government’s authority. It is a single-dimensional, top-down management action on social and public affairs executed through the formulation and implementation of policies. On the other hand, governance refers to an equal, consultative, and cooperative partnership between the government, social organizations, and public and private institutions. It is a process where social affairs, social organizations, and social life are regulated and managed in accordance with the law, eventually leading to the maximization of public benefits. The true nature of governance is built upon market principles, public interests, and collaboration arising from a shared vision. Its operational mechanism does not depend on the government’s authority but, rather, that of the cooperative network. The dimensions of its authority are interactive and pluralistic.

Education governance is an important component of a country’s governance. Governance-based education reform aims to change the past practice of managing educational activities by governmental authority. Instead, decentralization by the government leads to the establishment of a collaborative relationship between the government, society, and schools. A sound horizontal and interministerial mechanism for consultation and communication must be set up among the government’s various internal departments involved in educational affairs (including those in charge of internal matters, organization, formulation, personnel, and finance) and the various EADs. The focus of the mechanism is to optimize the processing of educational matters.

With the step-by-step delegation of education management authority, a sound and unimpeded two-way communication mechanism must be established between the different levels of governments (central, provincial, municipal, and county) and the EADs. A mechanism for managing the inventories of responsibilities, powers, and negative lists must also be implemented to clarify the powers and relationships between the government, schools, and social organizations. This will simplify approval procedures and decentralize powers, leading to delegation of the corresponding education management authority to all levels and types of schools, and its transference to the corresponding specialized social education organizations. The next step would be to formulate macroscopic plans for education development and set professional education standards to guide the development of regional and school education.

A service-oriented government is created by the combination of three approaches: (a) simplifying approval procedures and decentralizing powers, (b) streamlining the government and delegating its authorities, and (c) optimizing services. This improves the government’s capacity at education services, thus providing schools with quality education services while concurrently strengthening interim and ex post supervision.

The core issue for schools is how they should operate autonomously in compliance with the law. At the level of internal governance, it is important to formulate the school charter and use it as the basis to standardize schools’ internal rules and regulations. The various relationships must be optimized to improve the governance structure, so that teachers and parents can participate in the operation of the schools. In addition, self-oversight and self-evaluation within schools and the transparency in school matters must be improved. These will lead to the formation of a sound social reporting system for school affairs, which in turn facilitates social supervision and evaluation (Fig. 3.1 ).

A model diagram of the schools’ autonomous operations in accordance with the law is divided into two main elements, government for power delegation, supervision, and service providing, and society for participation, service, and evaluation.

The model for schools’ autonomous operations in compliance with the law

2.3 Research Design

To track and analyze the practice of ESOE separation all over the country, we first conducted a systematic analysis of policy documents by all levels of the government and the EADs. We then studied the experiences and feelings of the educational stakeholders involved in the reform to have an in-depth grasp of the education reform measures that were actually implemented, as well as their effectiveness. The main research methods adopted in this study are elaborated below.

2.3.1 Content Analysis of Policy Documents

All national and local policy documents related to the modernization of education governance, ESOE separation, establishment of a modern school system, delegation of approval rights for education administration, and comprehensive education reform were extensively collected, collated, and analyzed. There were more than twenty documents on educational laws and policies at the state level (State Council and MOE), eighty documents on educational policies at the local level (provincial governments and their education departments), and one hundred and twenty documents on pilot projects for national and provincial education reforms.

2.3.2 Questionnaire Survey

More than 2000 copies of questionnaires were distributed to education administration leaders and principals of elementary and secondary schools in Shanghai, Beijing, Jiangsu, Guangdong, Sichuan, Shandong, and Henan. A total of 1890 valid questionnaires were retrieved, representing a 94.5% return rate.

2.3.3 Interviews

We conducted both group interviews and one-to-one interviews in Pudong, Minhang, Putuo, Xuhui, and other districts of Shanghai, Wuxi in Jiangsu Province, Beijing, Shenzhen and Shunde in Guangdong Province, Chengdu in Sichuan Province, Qingdao in Shandong Province, and Zhengzhou in Henan Province. The interview subjects were government leaders in charge of education, leaders of educational administration organizations, heads of comprehensive education reform projects, educational management officials, and principals of elementary schools, junior and senior high schools, and 9-year integrated schools (Table 3.1 ).

3 Research Findings

There was an extensive promotion of the reform in education governance throughout the country according to the spirit of the following documents: (a) Outline of the National Plan for Medium- and Long-term Education Reform and Development ( 2010–2020 ) (2010), (b) the MOE’s Outline for Promoting the Law-based School Governance in an All-around Way (《全面推进依法治校实施纲要》) (2012), (c) CCCPC’s Decision on Several Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reform (2013), (d) Several Opinions by the MOE on Promoting ESOE Separation and Facilitating the Transformation of Government Functions (2015), and (e) the MOE’s Outline for the Implementation of Law-based Education Governance ( 2016–2020 ) (《依法治教实施纲要 (2016–2020年)》) (2016). The MOE proposed pilot projects for ESOE separation in 2015, which were fully launched at various pilot institutions that same year. Simultaneously, theoretical and practical research projects on the topic of ESOE separation were launched as well. Earmarked provinces and cities also promoted pilot reform projects in areas under their jurisdiction. Over the next few years, efforts were put in by schools around the country to continuously implement reforms and promote school autonomy. In consequence, schools’ rights to autonomy has been primarily guaranteed, and the operating mechanism for school autonomy has been established and improved in a sustained manner. However, the reform process still encountered great difficulties and challenges.

3.1 Continuous Promotion of the Reform Toward School Autonomy

Implementation of education governance and school autonomy in the various regions of China mainly focused on the following aspects.

3.1.1 Gradual Promotion of the List-Based Management to Preliminarily Clarify the Rights and Responsibilities of the Government and Schools

The foundation of list-based management consists of the various rights, responsibilities, and public accountability. It is a management process that clarifies the boundaries of authority; makes distinct the rights and responsibilities; regulates the relationships between the government and the market, the government and the society, and the government and citizens; and enhances government efficiency and effectiveness (Wang 2014 ). The MOE’s Outline for the Implementation of Law-based Education Governance ( 2016–2020 ) stated that it would “actively promote the legislation of local laws and regulations for education” and “formulate targeted and localized regulations to support the various localities in combining the characteristics and practical needs of local education development.” If education laws and regulations have yet to be set up for certain aspects, the MOE encouraged all localities to conduct trials and promote education reform through education legislation, so as to accumulate experiences for education legislation at the state level (MOE 2016 ).

In our study, we found that some regions had enacted education laws and regulations to promote and guarantee school autonomy on the basis of reform practice and experiment. An example was Qingdao, which has made great efforts since 2014 to promote the reform of school operations in accordance with the law and explore the establishment of a modern school system. It has compiled a list of ten school autonomy-related items from four aspects: managing human resources, finances, materials, and education and teaching. The rights included in the list have been fully delegated to the public schools (Table 3.2 ) (General Office of Qingdao Municipal People’s Government 2014 ). In addition, the Qingdao Municipal People’s Government promulgated the Measures for the Management of Elementary and Secondary Schools in Qingdao . Issued in February 2017, this government order clearly defines the ten items that the EADs have delegated to schools (Qingdao Municipal People’s Government 2017 ). During the process of reform practice, some regions appointed the EADs to coordinate the education management activities of the relevant functional departments in the government. For example, it was stipulated in the Measures for the Management of Elementary and Secondary Schools in Qingdao that “departments conducting reviews, appraisals, assessments, competitions, inspections, and other activities related to elementary and secondary schools shall submit their plans for the following year to their respective EADs before the end of November each year, and the EADs shall compile the catalogues and issue them to schools under their jurisdiction at the beginning of the following year” (Qingdao Municipal People’s Government 2017 ). This effectively guaranteed the educational functions of the government’s relevant functional departments and, at the same time, relieved schools from the similar competitions and inspections from different governmental departments so that they can concentrate on the operations of the school.

Faced with the predicaments of a surging number of children of school age, an educational business that is yet to be developed, and the established number of teachers being limited, some local EADs (such as the Sichuan Xindu Education Bureau) took the initiative to carry out reform experiments. With the current challenges as the starting point, they undertook institutional innovations in human resource and financial management. Specifically, they hired teachers independently via the registration mechanism on the basis of taking the responsibility of managing their own financial resources (Li 2016 ) and therefore have achieved desirable outcomes in operating their schools.

3.1.2 Timely Introduction of Local Education Laws and Regulations to Ensure that Schools Operate Autonomously in Compliance with the Law

In the Outline for the Implementation of Law-based Education Governance ( 2016–2020 ), the MOE stated that it would “actively promote the legislation of local laws and regulations for education” and “formulate targeted and localized regulations to support the various localities in combining the characteristics and practical needs of local education development” (MOE 2016 ). The MOE’s approach of law-based school operating was stated earlier in Sect. .

The Measures for the Management of Elementary and Secondary Schools in Qingdao specified the norms for dealing with difficult human resource, financial, and property issues that had plagued school governance for many years. For example, regulations were set regarding the appointment of vice principals by principals, and schools are now able to independently recruit professional and high-level talents to fill vacancies, as well as set up internal institutions and elect the persons in charge of those institutions in compliance with the regulations (Qingdao Municipal People’s Government 2017 ). Such issues had been troubling the autonomous operations of elementary and secondary schools for a long time.

3.1.3 Setting Up of School Charters to Support the Sustainable Development of a Modern School System

School charters serve as the “constitution” of schools and are important bases for school autonomy. All this while, elementary and secondary schools in China were operating either without charters or with a charter of bad design. Besides, existing charter regulations have not been complied with or under effective supervision (Chen et al. 2011 ). To address these problems, the MOE issued the Outline for Promoting the Law-based School Governance in an All-around Way in 2012, which mandated “all schools have their respective charter till 2015” (MOE 2012 ). Separately, Several Opinions by the MOE on Promoting ESOE Separation and Facilitating the Transformation of Government Functions required that “all levels and types of schools must set up their own school charter in accordance with the law to reflect their individual characteristics, creating an overall structure in which all schools have their respective charters. Elementary and secondary schools within the same school district can set up a shared charter” (MOE 2015b ).

During the process of promoting the establishment of a modern school system, all the localities fully followed the requirement of “one school, one charter” and explored the establishment of a modern school system through the setting up of charters. Our research found that almost all local EDAs had issued notices mandating that elementary and secondary schools prepare school charters and had conducted follow-up inspections and reviews. The reviews of school charters throughout the country have been basically completed by December 2016, and having school charters set up was an important step toward the establishment of a modern school system.

3.1.4 Continuous Improvement of Schools’ Internal Governance Structures to Gradually Form a Mechanism with Democratic Decision-Making and Stakeholders’ Engagement in the Management

On the topic of “improving schools’ internal governance structure,” Several Opinions by the MOE on Promoting ESOE Separation and Facilitating the Transformation of Government Functions pointed out that it is necessary to “further strengthen and improve the party’s governance over schools” and “allow primary-level party organizations to perform their role as a political core.” The principal accountability system of general elementary and middle schools should be adhered to and improved, with “elementary and middle schools establishing school boards consisting of school leaders, teachers, students, and parents and community representatives. The boards shall propose suggestions and give advice on school charters, development plans, annual work reports, major education and teaching reforms, and other decisions on important issues concerning students, parents, and community work, so as to improve democratic decision-making procedures” (MOE 2015b ). In practice, most schools emphasized the traditional organizational structures including the Academic Affairs Office, Moral Education Office (Student Affairs Office), and General Affairs Office. They also attached importance to the organizational establishment of and participation mechanism for the School Council, Teachers’ Representatives Assembly (TRA), and Parent Association (PA).

We found that some schools approached the practice of reform and development by discarding the traditional management model and establishing a governance structure that balances decision-making, implementation, and supervisory powers. The Zhantan Middle School in Sichuan’s Xindu District had experimented a system with the principal in charge and guided by the School Council. The internal governance structure was a tripartite consisting of the School Council, the School Board, and the Supervisory Board. This was in accordance with the principle of balancing the decision-making, implementation, and supervisory powers (Zhantan Middle School 2016 ). The School Council is the school’s highest decision-making authority and performs the decision-making function. The School Board implements the resolutions of the School Council, arranges the school’s general affairs, and enjoys the rights to set up internal institutions, manage human resource, use funds, and manage teaching and education. It reports to the School Council regularly and accepts the supervision by the Supervisory Board. The Supervisory Board is the school’s supervisory agency: it inspects and supervises the school’s operations in compliance with the law and also reviews, supervises, and notarizes the school’s financial status in terms of its revenues and expenditures.

3.2 Analysis of Issues in the Reform Toward School Autonomy

After an overall review of the reform toward education governance and school autonomy implemented during this period, many persistent problems and challenges were identified. This was due to the complexity of the education system itself and that of the interests of various stakeholders involved in education reform.

3.2.1 Imbalance Between the Local Governments and EADs in Willingness and Reform Efforts to Simplify Approval Procedures and Decentralize Powers

The government and EADs must first simplify approval procedures and decentralize powers before ESOE separation can be implemented and a modern education governance system can be established. We found that 40% of respondents from the EADs were found to lack a complete understanding of (a) the conceptual differences between “education management” based on ruling and “education governance” based on pluralistic participation, (b) the significance and value of decentralizing the rights to operate schools in promoting the development of school autonomy, and (c) the education governance model based on list-based management (Table 3.3 ).

The response “delegation of school autonomy was based on superiors’ requirements” from the interviewees implied that the subordinates feel they have to follow the directions from their superiors, as well as their helplessness when faced with the requirement to undertake reform. This sense of helplessness was also manifested in the lack of relevant legal basis for simplification of approval procedures and decentralization of powers within the country’s educational legal system. Since there was no unified standard for the delegation of authority, including the actual powers to be delegated and the extent of delegation, the local EADs inevitably veered toward over-cautiousness. There was also concern because the governance system and mechanism involving multiagency participation that is needed after decentralization have yet to be perfected. In some localities, the leaders in education did not have confidence in schools being able and responsible to operate autonomously and, thus, dared not delegate or take action. Intriguingly, there was a contrast between school principals and education bureau staff (the directors general and middle-level cadres) in their respective understanding of “EADs refused to delegate” and “EADs dared not delegate.” As a result, some regions chose to adopt a wait-and-see attitude and “borrowed” the practices of other regions when undertaking reform measures. Consequently, the reform toward simplifying approval procedures and decentralizing powers ended up almost formalistic or the list of rights being largely similar in its format and contents. In addition, list-based management existed in name but not in practice, making it difficult to achieve true school autonomy.

3.2.2 Intergovernmental Relations Affected the Education Governance Reform Process

Intergovernmental relations refer to the vertical and horizontal relationships within the government, as well as between the governments of different regions. For the same region, it mainly involves horizontal intergovernmental relations between internal departments of the same level. Intergovernmental relations also refer to the relationships of power allocation and interest distribution between different governments (Xie 2000 ). The EADs are the main departments responsible for education development in each region. However, there are many other government departments responsible for managing education affairs, including the development and reform committees and other departments in charge of organizing, staffing Footnote 3 , human resource, and finance.

The findings by American scholar Deil S. Wright indicate that during the actual operating process of government affairs, intergovernmental relationships have the characteristics of being “interpersonal” and “policy-based” (Wright 1982 ). The latter characteristic is in play when the powers and responsibilities of individual departments are clearly defined; on the contrary, when such boundaries are not clear, the interpersonal relationship will be in play. Xigui Li, principal of the Beijing No. 11 School and former director general of the Shandong Weifang Education Bureau, believed that schools do not have the decision-making powers over items for which authority had been delegated. The EADs do not have much say either. Most of the powers lie within the government departments that oversee human resource, finance, and development and reform, such that the EADs have no powers left to delegate. “The teachers wanted by the school for its operations have to be recruited by the human resource department, teachers’ salaries have to be issued by the finance department, and even evaluation of teachers’ professional titles have to be managed by the supervising department. The schools have become the outsiders” (Yu and Yi 2013 ).

We found that most of the factors affecting schools’ autonomous operations, which included the appointment (employment) of school leaders, teachers’ quota and their appointment, teachers’ promotion in professional and technical positions, use of school funds, and teachers’ performance-related pay system, were closely related to the departments in charge of organizing, staffing, human resource, and finance. Among the local EAD leaders and staff interviewed who are responsible for actual education and administrative affairs, 66.8% and 85.7%, respectively, believed that communication between the EADs and the aforementioned functional departments was not effective and it was not uncommon for them to pass the buck. This was due to various factors including the departments’ nature of work and the scope of rights and responsibilities. For example, many school-based curricula involving activities and practice has been introduced in line with continuous curriculum and teaching reforms. However, calculations of the teachers’ quota are still based on the traditional teacher–student ratio, which became a constraint. Many local directors general of education bureaus lamented during the survey that “many important educational resources supposedly provided to the EDAs did not really happen” (Table 3.4 ). As a result, 45% of the elementary and middle school principals and teachers in our survey had doubts over the government’s real efforts to decentralize education authority.

Other than departments directly in charge of education administration and operation (such as the education bureau, supervisory office, and teaching and research office), many other government departments and their subordinate units are also responsible for inspecting and supervising elementary and middle schools as part of their operational functions. These include the General Office, Cultural and Ethical Progress Commission Office, and the departments in charge of human resource, finance, urban construction, transportation, health care, epidemic prevention, food safety, environmental protection, greening, public security, fire safety, and comprehensive law enforcement. These management activities cause substantial interferences to schools’ daily teaching and education activities (Fig. 3.2 ).

A radar chart represents 13 government departments that conduct regular inspections in schools. The Education Bureau has the highest inspections at 90.8, followed by the Department of Finance at 89.8, and the Supervisory Office at 86.5.

Regular inspections on schools conducted by various government departments

3.2.3 Schools’ High Expectations for School Autonomy

Some regions and schools still have an erroneous understanding of school governance or imprecise comprehension of the concept. They mostly understood school autonomy from the aspects of wanting and having authority but ignored the aspects of using and limiting authority, as well as the accountability of running schools autonomously. We found in the study that there was a need to further cultivate the awareness of and ability in managing school autonomy and democratic participation (Fig. 3.3 ). A minority of principals have been accustomed to the traditional model of management by the government and felt that the pressure and responsibility of running schools would increase after decentralization and with school autonomy. This shows that similar to the promotion of modernizing the school governance system, it is equally urgent to promote the schools’ capacity at modernized governance and to enhance principals’ imitativeness of school autonomy and their leadership.

A line graph represents the schools’ expectations of delegated authority under compulsory school and high school. Compulsory school and high school begin at 23.1 and 30.5 for selection and appointment of principals, and then rise to their highest peak in use of funds at 87.4 and 90.6, before declining at 42.7 and 60.2 for others, respectively.

Schools’ expectations of delegated authority under school autonomy

In terms of the authority associated with school autonomy, school principals indicated high expectations that they wanted to be granted the powers to do the following: (a) the selection and appointment of vice principals, department heads, and teachers; (b) the construction of the organizations within the school; (c) use of funds; (d) development of curriculum materials; (e) teaching reform and innovation; (f) teachers’ evaluation, salary, and incentives; and (g) student recruitment and management (the compulsory education sector had lower expectations for recruitment rights, which might be related to the policy of neighborhood admission for compulsory education). Their expectations were particularly high for the independent establishment of internal organizations, selection and recruitment of department heads and teachers, and use of school funds. Comparing compulsory education schools and general high schools, the latter was found to have higher expectations for school autonomy.

3.2.4 Tendency of Homogenization in School Charters

During the reform experiment, the various localities actively promoted the establishment of school charters in accordance with the MOE’s requirement for “the formation of an overall structure by 2015 in which all schools have their respective charters” (MOE 2012 ). This task seemed to have been completed. However, after detailed observation of the process by which schools in various localities drafted their charters, it was evident that shortcuts were taken in many places to comply with the MOE’s requirement before the deadline. Specifically, “charter templates” were issued by the EADs to all levels and types of schools, and the latter simply had to fill in the blanks. Consequently, many of the “school charter” documents collected by this study appeared similar and formatted. For the majority of the schools, the chapter structure and content descriptions of their charters were highly alike and even completely the same. The purposes, visions, and values of the school are seldom individualized. There were also the inevitable phenomena of noncompliance with the charters during actual school operations and charters being too difficult to comply with.

Objectively, the process of charter establishment by Chinese schools was different from the normal process of having a charter drawn up before the school was founded. Given that the process was done in reverse, the taking of shortcuts to have the charters prepared was understandable. However, from the perspective of the schools’ long-term operations, the charters need to be further improved. In fact, as school reform continued, some regions and schools gained a deeper understanding of the important role of the charter in school governance. Realizing that their original charters were prepared in haste, they used the “one school, one charter” requirement as the foundation to create version 2.0 of their school charters. The new charters are based on ESOE separation and then used as the legal basis for school reform and development.

3.2.5 Optimization Needed for Schools’ Internal Governance Structures

The survey found that there was no consistent cognition and understanding regarding “schools’ internal governance structure” (Fig. 3.4 ). Most of them focused on three aspects: the construction of the school’s organization, schools’ institutional system, and the distribution and balance of powers. The specific items included school management system, school management institutions, school organizational structure, mechanism for allocating school powers, constraints on the principals’ powers, and regulations on schools’ decision-making powers and supervisory rights.

A donut chart with 7 slices represents the different understandings of schools’ internal governance structure as a juridical person. The school's management system is the highest at 23%, followed by schools' organizational structure at 21%, and constraints on the principals' powers at 15%.

Different understandings of schools’ “internal governance structure as a juridical person”

At the implementation level, most schools emphasized the traditional organizational structures including the Academic Affairs Office, Moral Education Office (Student Affairs Office), and General Affairs Office. They also attached importance to the organizational establishment of and participation mechanism for the School Council, Teachers’ Representatives Assembly (TRA), and Parent Association (PA). In reality, for most schools, the decision-making powers lie in the party-government office and party-government joint meeting, both of which are formed by the party-government leaders and middle-level officials in schools. The principals are the main decision-maker.

The schools of almost all principals and teachers surveyed by this study hold annual conferences with the respective TRAs, which play a decisive role in matters closely related to the teachers such as their welfare and pay. This role of the TRAs has also been widely recognized. However, 45% of the teachers surveyed remained doubtful over the TRAs’ role in decision-making for major school affairs. Although 52% of the teachers believed that communication with parents should be strengthened, they did not think highly of the role of the parents’ committees in school governance. In short, schools’ existing internal governance structures are still not suited to meet the needs for school governance. There is a need to further clarify the respective rights and responsibilities of the related organizations and systems, as well as their relationships.

3.2.6 Improvements Needed for Schools’ Supervisory and Evaluation Mechanisms

An important approach of the school supervisory mechanism is to make the school affairs known to the public. This survey found that currently, the main contents being disclosed by elementary and middle schools included educational goals, budgeting and use of education funds, school fees, development planning, curriculum and teaching reform, admission policies and recruitment work, allocation of educational resources, education and teaching quality, major construction projects and the related tender/bidding, teachers’ appraisal and evaluation, and welfare distribution for teachers. However, discrepancies were found between the school affairs disclosed by compulsory education schools and those by high schools (Fig. 3.5 ).

A radar chart represents the public information published by compulsory schools versus high schools. School fee is the highest for compulsory school at 95.8, while school goals are the highest for high school at 98.7.

Public information published by compulsory schools versus high schools

During the interviews, 38% of the teachers commented that publishing school affairs did not have the expected supervisory effect. In recent years, there had been an increase in the awareness and actual level of publishing school affairs among Chinese elementary and middle schools. Nevertheless, some school leaders still did not have a clear understanding of the topic. They emphasized publishing the results rather than the process of education, being open internally but not externally, being public during the time of inspections by higher-level departments but not at other times, and publishing information as mandated by the government but avoiding the release of information on major issues related to school reform and development. For some school, the information made public was scattered, while others were merely going through the motion. These findings unveiled the selectivity and formalism in the publishing of school affairs.

Of the teachers interviewed, 78% felt that schools’ self-evaluation mechanisms were still lacking. Respectively, 85.7% of the EAD leaders and 69.3% of the school principals interviewed expressed the willingness to hand over some professional services and evaluation tasks to third-party social organizations for implementation. Approximately 30% of the respondents indicated that there was a strong demand for such services. Of the directors general of education bureaus interviewed, 87.7% reported that they mostly relied on the results of supervision and evaluation made by the departments for monitoring and supervising education quality.

Although 90% of the principals interviewed preferred to introduce third-party professional organizations for evaluating the quality of school education and the overall level of school operations, the fact remains that social organizations in China are not fully developed in terms of quantity and level of professionalism. Existing professional organizations lack quality, management experiences, and the capabilities to be entrusted by the government and schools and cannot meet the needs of education reform. Therefore, the respondents were generally concerned about the evaluation abilities of existing social organizations. In many places, the participation of social organizations in the education evaluation mechanism was still mostly through direct authorization by the EADs. The mechanism for social organizations to participate in educational services and evaluations through open competition needs to be improved.

4 Building and Improving the Governance Mechanism for School Autonomy

Regarding the future development of China’s education reform, it was noted that the education governance mechanism based on cooperation among the government, schools, and society is still under ongoing construction and improvement. Correspondingly, the model for school autonomy under this education governance framework also needs to go through ongoing construction and improvement. For school autonomy to be authentic, it cannot deviate from the public purpose of education. The latter is in turn largely related to the moral leadership of the school principals (Keddie 2016 ). However, the success of education reform or lack thereof cannot be tied to the moral self-discipline of specific individuals. A complete set of institutional systems to guarantee the success are needed instead. Assuming that schools truly have the authority for autonomous operations, the obvious crux of the issue is how that authority is being used. To this end, it is necessary to establish and refine systematic mechanisms for the long-term governance of autonomous schools from various aspects, including school charter, institutional system, organizational structure, operating mechanism, evaluation, and assurance.

4.1 Establishing and Refining Pluralistic Governance Mechanisms Based on the School Charters to Ensure the Effective Use of Schools’ Authority and Promote Schools’ Autonomous Development

With the establishment and refinement of the education governance system, the government and the EADs have been gradually delegating to schools the authority to operate autonomously. The focus is how schools use this authority to run autonomously in accordance with the law. School charters should be used as the basis to optimize school’s internal governance structure, increase capabilities at autonomous operations, and modernize their capacities at school governance. With autonomous decision-making and management, schools will ultimately achieve the goal of autonomous development.

4.1.1 Establishing Institutional Systems Based on the School Charters

The school charter is undoubtedly the legal basis for establishing a modern school system and promoting schools’ sound and sustainable development. To establish and refine the school governance mechanism based on the school charter, the first step should be to ensure that the charter itself reflects the value of pluralistic participation in governance, which requires schools to seek improvement by examining the nature of their charters based on the concepts of modernizing the education governance system, undertaking ESOE separation, operating autonomously in accordance with the law, and pluralistic participation. The text of a school’s charter should be drafted, revised, and improved in accordance with its own situation and characteristics, with the aims of highlighting its educational philosophy, goals, and unique features. When that is done, the charter should be used to lead the school toward improving the institutional system for the school’s autonomous management, rationalizing and improving its rules and regulations, and formulating or revising its various systems for democratic management, job responsibilities, and general management (Wan 2016 ).

The democratic management system mainly comprises the School Council system, TRA system, the Students’ Representatives Assembly system, Parent Association system, Democratic Life Meeting system, teachers’ evaluation system, and information publishing system. The job responsibilities system involves the roles and responsibilities, appraisal and evaluation, and salary systems of various personnel, including the school teachers, administrators, and teaching assistants. The general management system includes the administrative management system, education and teaching management system, student management system, school resources management system, school safety management system, and system for external cooperation and exchange. The organizational and procedural rules of the various internal institutions, as well as the management processes and operating procedures, must be established and refined to form a sound, standardized, and unified institutional system. This will ensure schools’ autonomous operations.

4.1.2 Optimizing Schools’ Internal Governance Structures Based on the School Charters

Objectively, the concept of school governance based on pluralistic participation requires that the EADs delegate autonomy to schools and, at the same time, improve the accountability system for principals of general elementary and middle schools; encourage and guide principals to transfer authority to teachers, students, parents, and the society; promote the setting up of a governance mechanism with pluralistic participation; improve the various systems, including the School Board, the School Council, TRA, Parent Association, and Community Education Committee; and gradually establish a school governance mechanism that involves teachers, parents, students, community representatives, and experts.

Based on sound scientific and democratic decision-making procedures, major affairs and decisions of the schools should routinely involve public participation, expert argumentation, risk assessment, review of legality, and collective inquiry. For items where discussion and approval by the School Council, TRA, and/or Parent Association are mandatory based on stipulated requirements, corresponding meetings should be organized and held for comments and suggestions before decisions are made by the principal’s office. To this end, schools should explore forming the school councils comprising teachers, parents, community members, professionals, and student representatives, which will promote scientific and democratic decision-making.

Establishing a review mechanism for major decision-making, important contracts, and legality of documents will ensure that schools are run in accordance with the law. For the decision-making process, an authority matrix comprising different entities and departments should be set up, which will ensure that the roles played by the TRA, Parent Association, Student Association, and relevant community departments in school governance are effective and that the participation by all stakeholders in school governance is increased. Through the responsibility list, the rights, duties, and responsibilities of the various entities in different management affairs and matters will also be clarified. The setting up of autonomous organizations by teachers and students should be encouraged, which could be in different forms including appointing students as assistants to the principal, students and teachers acting as principals on duty for a week, and establishing teachers’ or academic committees. It will promote autonomy of both the students and teachers (Table 3.5 ).

4.2 Establishing and Refining Supervision, Evaluation, and Accountability Systems for School Affairs with Pluralistic Participation to Strengthen Interim and Ex Post Supervision in Schools’ Autonomous Operations in Compliance with the Law

During the process of autonomous operation in compliance with the law, schools voluntarily take the initiative to disclose the major events in the school operation to the public and accept the oversight from them. For the purpose of self-evaluation, schools must also accept supervision from and evaluation by the government and professional organizations in the society. If any regulations are violated, or there is a lack of discipline during the schools’ operations, the offending party must be made accountable according to the laws and regulations.

4.2.1 Establishing and Refining Systems for Social Reporting and Publishing School Affairs

In terms of the social significance of school governance, it is objectively necessary to establish and refine the systems for social reporting and publishing school affairs for the modernization of the education governance system. The real situation of schools’ improvement, educational qualities, and school operation should be known to the public in a timely manner. Transparency in school governance and the conducting of education and teaching affairs should be improved so that the government, general public, parents, and other educational stakeholders have the proper basis and evidence to know, understand, supervise, and evaluate the capacity and quality of schools’ operations. Therefore, during the process of autonomous operations in accordance with the law, schools are obliged to report to the public about their courses of action and the corresponding outcomes (Wang 2007 ).

In response to the aforementioned phenomena, the MOE issued in 2010 Opinions on Promoting Information Transparency in Elementary and Secondary Schools (MOE 2010 ), which systematically stipulated the contents, formats, and procedures for the publishing of school affairs. In terms of actual practice, Hong Kong began promoting the implementation of a social reporting system for schools in the 1990s (Pang 2006 ; Zhao 1998 ). Schools use social reports to disclose the relevant educational activities and performance indicators, so that the public and parents can supervise and evaluate schools on an informed basis. Hong Kong’s related experiences on this practice provide us with meaningful implications.

For the future reform and development, schools should further explore the mechanisms and procedures for information transparency and social reporting. This is to be done concurrently with the strict implementation of the state’s requirements to publish education-related information. When schools publish procedural and timely information on their development process at the right time, as well as regularly publish periodic and annual reports on that process, society can better understand schools’ developmental tracks, experiences, and achievements. In the Internet and big data era, schools should actively explore the digital mechanism of publishing education-related information and take into account both online and offline scenarios, so that the public who is concerned about education can obtain the relevant information.

4.2.2 Establishing and Refining Pluralistic Evaluation Systems for Schools’ Development

A powerful way to ensure autonomous operations of schools in accordance with the law is to supervise and evaluate their operational processes and their quality of education and teaching. This involves the gradual process of eliminating the use of a single administrative evaluation system for entities and a single academic (examination) score as the evaluation criterion. Hence, there should be the establishment and refinement of a pluralistic evaluation system based on schools’ self-evaluation. The system should be guided by education supervision and evaluation and should strive to actively introduce professional evaluations done by social organizations.

The fundamental purpose of setting up evaluation mechanisms for schools’ autonomous development is to stimulate their internal drive for self-monitoring and self-development. Therefore, it is necessary to move away from the past focus of improving the conditions for schools’ operations and, instead, shift to developing schools’ qualities. The development model must also evolve from being driven by external motivations to an autonomous development model with an internal impetus for growth. Schools’ self-evaluation should be a continuous process of supervising and monitoring school education affairs that is mainly undertaken by the management team but with the engagement and participation of teachers, staff, students, parents, expert consultants, and other stakeholders.

From the practice of Scotland, we got the implication that schools’ self-evaluation must focus on two questions: (a) how good are we now (the main strengths and developmental needs of teachers’ work are to be distinguished from their impacts on students)?; (b) how good can we possibly be (Grek et al. 2010 )? To develop a school evaluation indicator system, we should take the school’s development plans as the starting point, the scientific and effective implementation of that plan as the foundation, and the degree to which the school’s development goals has been achieved as the focus. This system highlights the leading role of schools during autonomous operations in accordance with the law and is a new evaluation mechanism combining schools’ self-evaluation with external evaluation, schools’ independent development, and pluralistic supervision and guidance. Self-evaluation and external evaluations use the schools’ plans as the guide; teacher development as the foundation; student development as the core; teaching, learning, and education culture as the vehicle; organizational management as the guarantee; and planning and management, teacher development, education culture, teaching and learning, and student development as the foci.

Although the important role of education inspection in a pluralistic evaluation system cannot be denied when it pertains to a structure with ESOE separation, it should be noted that the functions and roles of education inspection in evaluation have undergone fundamental changes. The main task of inspection evaluation reform is to establish and refine an education inspection system that integrates the three aspects of inspection on administration, inspection on schools, and education monitoring. Evaluation by inspection is an important approach to strengthen the management of basic education and to promote the balanced and coordinated development of basic education. With the functions of feedback, facilitation, identification, guidance, and supervision, the inspection process ensures that the government and EADs have a timely grasp of educational developments within the region and can ascertain that policies and regulations are being implemented. This leads to the timely discovery of problems, provision of feedback, and making of recommendations, thereby leading to the improvement of outcomes. Hence, it is necessary to strengthen the independence of education inspection on the one hand and properly handle the division of authority and responsibilities between the inspection departments and government departments on the other hand. Education inspection, as a part of evaluation, has an inherent and close relationship with the government and EADs and plays an important role of providing professional support and policy guidance in the process of the development of education standards by the government. Nevertheless, the professionalism of education inspection must be elevated. During the education quality monitoring process that is being extensively carried out, educational evidences and experience based on regional big data should be continuously accumulated so as to build a regional education evaluation database, which will effectively improve the scientific nature of education evaluation, as well as ensure inter-regional and inter-school educational equality.

Given that social organizations can perform various functions including participation in management, joint decision-making, professional support, check and balance on powers, and performance evaluation, the participation of social organizations in education should not be limited to the role of evaluation. It is important to actively cultivate social organizations and attract social forces to participate in the running of schools. When social organizations participate in the evaluation of school affairs, they assume the evaluative and supervisory roles and realize the check and balance of power. Social organizations can evaluate the quality of schools’ education and teaching, schools’ image, ethnics and professionalism of teachers, and even the principal’s performance. Hence, they perform a supervisory role over schools’ operational conducts and the executive abilities of schools’ management teams. In this view, the role of third-party evaluation of education should be actively promoted, because it is critical for promoting and ensuring schools’ independent development.

During the reform experiments, some regions have been aware of the importance for the government and schools to purchase professional support, monitoring, and evaluation services from social organizations (third-party organizations). For example, Shandong issued standards for third-party evaluation of education, while Shenzhen set up policies for the purchase of education services for the city’s public elementary and secondary schools (Education Department of Shandong Province 2016 ; Office of Shenzhen People’s Government 2016 ). An objective assessment of existing third-party organizations for education evaluation in China reveals the existence of issues including insufficient organizations, undesirable qualifications, and inadequate mechanisms for participation and evaluation. Substantial effort should be put into the cultivation of professional institutions (organizations) for education evaluation to help them advance their professional qualifications in terms of the technology, methods, and tools employed, as well as their capabilities to undertake large-scale education evaluation and consulting services being transferred from the government.

In addition, the entry mechanism for social organizations to participate in evaluation should be further improved, as does the government’s mechanism for purchasing professional services on education evaluation. When third-party organizations for education evaluation have a good mechanism for the independent implementation of evaluation and publishing of the corresponding results, they will be able to effectively perform the function of “public reviews” in comprehensive or specialized evaluations on items including the level of satisfaction with regional or school education, the professional development of teachers, curriculum leadership, and schools’ overall quality of operation.

4.2.3 Establishing and Refining Accountability Systems for School Governance

The key to managing schools in accordance with the law is to implement strict law enforcement and strengthen schools’ accountability on a legal basis. Accountability in education is a reward and punishment mechanism in which the educators’ goal is to cultivate high-quality students, their personal responsibility is to fulfill their educational commitments to the public, their need is to pursue efficiency, and, ultimately, there must be accountability.

The Outline of the National Plan for Medium- and Long-term Education Reform and Development ( 2010–2020 ), promulgated by China in 2010, stipulated the requirement for “improving the accountability mechanism for education” (CCCPC and the State Council 2010 ). The establishment and refinement of an accountability system for school education have become an indispensable component of schools’ autonomy in accordance with the law. Based on the results of a pluralistic evaluation of a school’s development, comparisons are made with national or local education standards such as the Management Standards for Compulsory Education Schools (MOE 2014 ), school charters, and progress attained relative to schools’ phased development plans, with an aim to identify gaps and deficiencies in its development process, followed by the seeking of accountability for any major mistake or deficiency identified. In addition, the evaluation results are linked to the school’s performance appraisal. For this process, we can draw implications from the United States’ laws for chartered schools and their experience with the related accountability clauses, including the subject(s), methods, circumstances, and procedures for accountability (The Center for Education Reform 2015 ). Footnote 4 After accountability has been addressed, the focus should be the corresponding improvement and development of the school, together with the establishment and refinement of scientific and standardized methods, procedures, and forms of accountability. When a scientific and rational accountability system has been formed, the school’s sound development will be ensured and facilitated.

4.3 Establishing and Refining Schools’ Legal Counsel and Remedy Systems to Support and Protect Their Rights to Autonomous Operations in Accordance with the Law

During the process of schools’ autonomous operations in accordance with the law, all stakeholders including school leaders, teachers, and students will inevitably encounter various situations and obstacles. It is important to provide schools and the related personnel with the necessary legal support in terms of legal advice, counsel, and remedy. These are important protections for schools to maintain their rights to autonomous operations in accordance with the law, as well as the relevant individuals’ rights.

4.3.1 Establishing and Refining Schools’ Legal Counsel Systems

The Outline for Promoting the Law-based School Governance in an All-around Way mandated that elementary and secondary schools “should designate a specialist(s) to be responsible for the school’s legal affairs and comprehensively promote the school’s operations in accordance with the law. Schools with the resources may employ professional institutions or individuals as legal counsels to assist them in the handling of legal affairs” (MOE 2012 ). In the context of running schools in accordance with the law, the actual purpose for a school to hire legal counsels is to protect the legitimate rights and interests of the school itself, the teachers, students, and parents and to help schools avoid or mitigate legal risks through the legal counsels’ provision of timely and professional advisory services.

The services of legal counsels include participating in activities of the school’s arbitration committee; providing consultation to resolve the school’s internal disputes; maintaining the school’s overall legal rights (for teachers, staff, and students); representing the school in activities related to litigation, arbitration, and reconsideration; participating in legal argumentation when the school makes decisions; assisting the school to standardize the various rules and regulations; participating in the drafting and reviewing of contracts and agreements for the school’s involvement in foreign-related activities and providing legal advices; assisting schools to conduct regular or ad hoc educational sessions on the rules of the laws and training on campus safety for faculty and students; and raising awareness of and ability to use the rules of the laws.

Depending on their respective situations, elementary and secondary schools can adopt different models to set up their own legal counsel system. One approach is that the EADs purchase the services and hire lawyers to serve as legal counsels and provide legal advice to all schools in the district under the EADs’ jurisdiction. Another approach is for the schools to independently purchase services from law firms with the mutual support of the EADs and judicial departments. Schools will evaluate the law firms’ services, and those that fail will be struck off the list of firms eligible for consideration by schools in the district. The third approach is for schools to independently appoint legal counsels or set up a specialized legal advisory body. This is suitable for schools with rich legal resources (such as schools affiliated with colleges and that can take advantage of the latter’s professional legal resources) and schools whose scale of operation is large and that have high demands for legal services. During the process of establishing a legal counsel system, elementary and secondary schools can also set up their own legal counsel systems to standardize, supervise, and evaluate the work of the school’s legal counsels.

4.3.2 Establishing and Refining Schools’ Legal Remedy Systems

When the rights of a private party have been violated, it can seek legal remedy for the violated rights through legal procedures and means (Liang 2006 ). There are three main types of legal remedies in the field of education. The first type is legal remedies through arbitration and mediation, with legal remedy mainly implemented by the education system’s internal institutions or nongovernmental organizations. The second type is legal remedies with administrative methods, which include administrative appeals, administrative reconsiderations, and administrative compensations. The third type is litigation: as long as the legal rights of a private party have been violated and the matter is under the jurisdiction of civil, criminal, or administrative litigation laws, it can obtain legal remedy through litigation.

It is necessary for schools to establish a legal remedy system to deal with the various internal disputes, including those between teachers and students, among students, and between parents and teachers (the schools). The first step is to form a mediation (arbitration) committee for internal disputes at the school or regional levels. The committee can include the school administrators, EADs, teachers, and representatives of other stakeholders and should emphasize the role of teachers, staff, students, parents, and professional legal personnel (legal counsels) in the mediation organization to negotiate and deal with school disputes. Next is establishing and refining the education appeal system. Unlike the education law which has provisions on students’ scope for litigation, the appeal system is an internal remedy system with no restrictions in scope. If teachers or students do not agree with the results of a particular issue handled by the school, they can file an appeal to the EAD that oversees the school. This will force the EAD to conduct a supervisory review of the school’s work, thereby achieving the effect of self-rectification within the school and the education system. Both are part of the education system’s internal supervisory and corrective mechanism. If the problem cannot be resolved through these internal channels, a party’s legitimate rights and interests can still be protected through legal proceedings.

5 Conclusion

This study examined the issue of designing systems to promote and ensure schools’ autonomous operations in compliance with the law from the schools’ perspective. School autonomy is an integral component in the modernization of regional and national education governance systems. Schools are the main entities of education governance, and the keys to school autonomy are the development of a scientific and comprehensive school charter and the setting up of a pluralistic governance mechanism based on that charter. Having a social reporting system and publishing school affairs improve the transparency of school governance, while a pluralistic system to evaluate school development enables schools to combine the results of self-evaluation with those of administrative and social evaluations, thereby correctly identifying the problems affecting school development and achieving continuous improvement and development. An accountability system for school education is both a restriction and protection of schools’ operating rights. A complete school legal counsel system provides professional legal support for school autonomy, while a school legal remedy system provides legal remedy for the school and teachers, students, and other relevant personnel. These systems ensure that schools use their rights rationally and that these rights are effectively limited in accordance with the law. Overall, the ecology for school education will be optimized, leading to improvements in the quality of school operations and the quality of education.

Kenneth Leithwood and Teresa Menzies proposed the balance control model, the fourth type of SBM model. This model aims to achieve dual control by the community and professionals and is also known as the joint parent–teacher decision-making model (Leithwood and Menzies 1998 ).

The ESOE pilot reform projects were categorized into comprehensive or individual projects. Institutions involved in the former category included the Beijing’s Dongcheng Education Commission, Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, Wuxi Municipal Education Bureau, Zhejiang Province’s Department of Education, Qingdao Municipal Education Bureau, Chongqing Jiangjin People’s Government, Chengdu Municipal Education Bureau, and Karamay Municipal Education Bureau. The individual projects were implemented at the Wulanchabu Municipal Education Bureau, Shenyang Municipal Education Bureau, Foshan Shone Education Bureau, and Northwest University. They focused on the themes of “increasing efforts to simplify approval procedure and decentralize power while strengthening and improving the governmental service mechanism,” “improving the supervisory and control mechanisms and ensuring proper interim and ex post supervision,” “having a sound operating mechanism for the independent development and self-discipline of schools,” “promoting de-administration of the education field and removing principals from the administrative rankings,” “improving schools’ operating mechanisms that are open to the public,” and “exploring third-party evaluations and allowing the education evaluation results to fully perform their incentivizing and constraining role” (MOE 2015a , b , c ).

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Fan, G., Zhang, L. (2020). Education Governance and School Autonomy: The Progressive Reform of K–12 School in China. In: Fan, G., Popkewitz, T.S. (eds) Handbook of Education Policy Studies. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-8343-4_3

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State education governance relates to the roles, responsibilities and relationships of individuals and entities that are charged with developing, implementing and overseeing policies and programs, as well as the processes and structures that guide their work.  

While there are common models for education governance structures, each state has a unique system that is rooted in and has evolved based on its goals, political context, culture and history. One approach to analyzing common models is to identify the primary characteristics that differentiate states’ governance structures.  

Under early learning governance structures, states have created single agencies to oversee several core programs and services, consolidated multiple programs within an agency or coordinated the programs across agencies. A primary distinction in K-12 governance systems is whether state board of education members and chief state school officers are appointed, and by whom, or are elected by voters. For postsecondary governance, one distinguishing characteristic is the type of boards and agencies that exist at the state and major system levels, including coordinating, governing and administrative.  

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This dashboard provides an overview of early learning, K-12 and postsecondary governance structures and models across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The information on this page reflects statute, regulations and executive orders as of Nov. 12, 2020. For the most up-to-date information on early care and education governance changes, please see ECS’ Early Care and Education Governance Policy Outline . See the links at the bottom of the page for more information about state education governance systems.

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  • Model I /Appointed Board, Appointed Chief: Voters elect the governor, who then appoints both the members of the state board of education and the chief state school officer.
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  • Other : These states function using various components of the other models.

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Postsecondary Governance Models :

  • Single, Statewide Coordinating Board/Agency : It is responsible for key aspects of the state’s role with public postsecondary institutions and, in some cases, with independent colleges.
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  • One or More Major, Systemwide Coordinating or Governing Board : They oversee institutions within a major, postsecondary system within states that do not have a single, statewide coordinating or governing board. Note, some of the states with this model also have an administrative or service agency as part of the governance system. See the table below for more.
  • Administrative/Service Agency: It oversees a variety of programs and services for institutions across the state. These states also have system-level coordinating or governing boards and/or governing boards for individual institutions.

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Institutional Governance: Stories from the B.C. Post-secondary Sector

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KPU’s Development of a New Micro-credential Policy

David Burns is associate vice president academic at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU). He took up the position in October 2021. Prior to this role, he served as vice chair of KPU’s senate where he was involved in the development of governance processes that resulted in KPU’s academic policy AC15 and academic procedure AC15 , both specific to the proposal, approval, and implementation of micro-credentials. Below, he provides insights into the collaborative process behind the development of these policies and their impact on the institution.

Note: The perspective of his former colleague, Rajiv Jhangiani, who was associate vice president teaching and learning during the policy development phase, is captured in a podcast that can be accessed through the Suggested Resources section.

What motivated the development of a micro-credential policy at KPU?

“There’s no denying that conversations about micro-credentials were in the air. To translate that buzz into action, we had strong champions. Our president, Alan Davis, had been thinking about things like alternative credentials for some time. He was working closely with our associate vice president for teaching and learning, Rajiv Jhangiani, on ways that KPU could do that. When you have two people at that level who are focused on moving something forward, that’s really important.

“I would say that there is another component to this. One of the things I like about working at KPU is that it’s big enough to do big things, and yet small enough to try new things. There was, as a result, a natural appetite for trying this new approach to the recognition of achievement. My colleagues took the attitude that ‘if we’re going to look into this, let’s invest substantially and devote our attention to developing it well.’ One of the things that we wanted to do was to make micro-credentials permanent. We didn’t want this to be a short-term quick project. We wanted this to be an enduring change in how we do things. To do that, you need formal policy.”

KPU defined micro-credentials as distinct from short-duration completion-based learning. Explain what drove the creation of these two distinct types of programs.

“In developing a policy governing micro-credentials, we wanted to first define what they are. In particular, we wanted to differentiate micro-credentials from short duration completion-based learning.

“Continuing & professional studies (CPS) often responds to external opportunities that have short timelines. For their audience, there is often no need for formal assessment and limited value to associating credits to the program. What matters most is the ability to be responsive and act quickly. The micro-credential policy clearly identifies that these types of programs are not micro-credentials. It also describes an expedited approval process for these programs since the ability to move forward quickly is essential. These programs are approved by a small committee composed of appointed members. This speeds things up. But, that’s also the limitation of this approach. Since they are not senate-approved, these programs are vulnerable to the critique that, say, ‘a particular individual wanted to do this.’ There is less shared ownership of these programs. Also, they are less stable. By definition, if something can be created tomorrow, it can be discontinued the day after.

“We envisioned micro-credentials as being built to last. For this to happen, more people need the opportunity to participate in the decision to offer them and have their say. Micro-credentials are approved by senate. As a result, the process of approving a new micro-credential takes more time, but once approved, it is more enduring. “ Micro-credentials are defined in the policy as arising from short duration experiences where the learners are formally assessed . They can be either credit-bearing or non-credit bearing and are approved by senate .

“You can see that we created two types of approaches to meet two different needs of the institution. One is important to allow us to experiment or respond quickly to external opportunities, but these programs are often ephemeral. Then we have micro-credentials that can be similar in scope, but include assessments, and once approved enjoy the full democratic support of the institution because we decided as a whole that we would offer them.”

“The micro-credential policy was approved in September 2021. In the year and a half since then, we’ve approved several short duration completion-based offerings. We are working on launching the first formal senate-approved micro-credentials right now. This gives you a sense of the difference between the two types of programs.”

What are some considerations in developing a micro-credential policy?

“Policy is a complex system. It’s not like a strategic plan where you’re trying to articulate compelling values that can capture collective ideals and inspire people. Policies are structural, and in the end, mechanical. They are like gears. They are almost mathematical in their construction. So, at a certain point, a new policy begins with somebody sitting down and drafting a first version of the policy. You’ve got to just put some ideas down on paper and see if it’s going to work. A small group of us worked on these initial drafts.

“For micro-credentials, the way that you imagine them is unusually important. For other policies like academic appeals, there are all sorts of fixed concepts that you can draw from in creating the policy. You can criticize them, and you can say ‘we should do it differently,’ but there is a starting point. With micro-credentials, there wasn’t. It’s explicitly designed as ‘not normal credentials.’ It was harder than usual to discuss them in the abstract because we didn’t have a precise definition.

“In fact, on the issue of terminology, we debated from the first day to the last day of that process what the words mean. In the discourse of micro-credentials, some of the language is analytic and descriptive, and some is aspirational. The aspirational language does not work in policy. It just doesn’t. Aspirational often means things that don’t exist, or concepts with disputed meanings, and policy needs to refer to at least tentatively concrete concepts.

“One of the big challenges of micro-credential policy was that the second-order effects were not known. If micro-credentials are approved by senate, then micro-credentials plug into the set of existing policies that the senate oversees. How are they going to connect to other things in the system? It’s like plugging a new part into a car that’s never been put in a car before. How does it plug into the alternator? What kind of power draw is it going to cause?

“We had to map that out. We had to go through a lot of ‘if A, then B’ scenarios. ‘If we do this, what will that enable people to do when it plugs into everything else in the system?’ If a micro-credential policy is approved by the senate, how does it connect to other policies governed by the senate? Do the senate’s appeal rules or our other credential rules apply?

“In many cases, you didn’t want that because micro-credentials are not supposed to be just shorter versions of things that we’ve done before. They are supposed to be a categorically different thing. So, a lot of the policy drafting process was spent mapping out these implications. You consider things like, ‘Is it transcripted? No. If it’s not transcripted, where is it recorded? How is that record kept and what regulates it?’ You have to run the logic through. It’s a pretty intricate process.”

How was the community consulted during the development of the policy?

“Writing a draft got the ideas on the floor. Next, we consulted the community through the governance process (i.e., senate discussions).

“This allowed us to have the conversation in public, not behind closed doors. The transparency was important. You can imagine how people come to the discussion with different lenses. One person might be interested in micro-credentials for the opportunity to innovate and question learning and teaching on a deep level. Another person might be interested in the strategic opportunities for the university. Another might be looking for ways to operationalize this and focus on the policy component. These people come to different conclusions about the policy. Allowing everyone in the community to hear their perspectives and explanations about how different components of the policy would work, or not work, is important. It contributes to a shared understanding about how the policy evolved and why certain elements are included.

“Going to governance also forces you to think about how this is going to impact different groups of people that you don’t necessarily encounter every day, because they’re going to vote on the policy. You have to consider what’s going to happen when we go to the senate with this policy; how will representatives from this faculty or that faculty respond? You have to really think that through. That’s the beauty of democratic governance. It forces people, like me, to try to understand more about the lives of the people impacted by the decisions that I am proposing that we make.

“Micro-credentials are new. They bring up all kinds of fundamental educational philosophical questions, as well as operational questions, about how to roll them out. Inevitably, people in different corners of the university will say that we should have done it in a different way. But going fully and properly through the senate on the policy, and then on the approval of the micro-credentials, means that we own the decision together. That’s ours. Whether you like it or not, we had the process move through, we voted, this is what we decided. If you put something through the senate, then collectively we own that decision. The process gives legitimacy to policy. This is incredibly important in a university environment.”

Top Tips from KPU’s Experience

  • Take your time with the structure, so that you can go fast when it’s done. Invest the time and effort to thoughtfully craft policies and procedures for creating and implementing micro-credentials at your institution. It took KPU over a year to hash out theirs. By going more slowly at this stage, you’ll be able to accelerate the implementation process.
  • Balance innovation and system coherence. An institutional policy and procedures framework is like an ecosystem, where introducing a new element can result in significant changes, some of which may be beneficial if you anticipate them and their impacts. They can also be dangerous because they could result in something important inadvertently being replaced or by causing confusion in another area of your institution. The existing credential system works well because it’s been in place for a long time and countless mistakes have informed its growth and evolution. As you work to add new components to it, adopt a systems-thinking mindset and balance the desire for innovation with the need to maintain the health of a complex system.
  • Governance and broad consultation are indispensable. Micro-credentials represent a significant shift in how we think about credentials, and that touches everyone’s work. A credential is a fundamental unit of interaction between faculty and departments in the post-secondary system. Changing something so important will generate differences of opinion about how to move forward. People need to feel that they have a say in the process.
  • Formalize the process into policy. Transform the support of champions into formal structures that will outlast them. Leaders come and go, but the initiatives should outlast them. Formalizing the process into policy also distributes leadership. At KPU, several of the people who were instrumental in moving the policy forward have moved on to other roles. Yet the policy is still in place and others have picked up the mantle of moving it forward.

UBCO’s Development of a New Micro-credential Policy

Michelle Lamberson is director of flexible learning special projects in the office of the provost and vice president, academic at the University of British Columbia Okanagan Campus (UBCO). She provides strategic support to innovative teaching, learning, and curriculum initiatives. She was involved in the development of UBCO’s policy governing micro-credentials, and is currently overseeing support structures for the development of the institution’s new micro-credentials.

Tell us about UBCO’s micro-credential policy.

“UBCO doesn’t have a micro-credential policy, per se. In 2016, working with colleagues across the campus, we began a conversation around how to recognize a broader set of student achievements. How do we recognize learning and how do we document it? What’s the evidence? The goal was to help learners understand what they’ve learned. Out of those year-long conversations came a set of policies that govern non-degree offerings.

“On the credit side, the conversations centered around scoping out the traditional levels. Which non-degree credentials were needed at the undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, graduate, and post-graduate levels?

“It will be interesting to see how the micro-credential ecosystem evolves as we go forward and where each institutions chooses to focus its offerings. For us, the focus to date for our externally offered micro-credentials has been at the post-baccalaureate level.”

“On the non-credit side, our discussions led us to an understanding that there were also different achievement levels. We captured those in our non-credit credential framework. In this credential framework, there are four levels of achievement.

“The first level is attendance – we know (we can verify) you were there. We call that a ‘letter of attendance.’

“The next layer is completion – we know you were there, and we know you completed all of the tasks that were put before you. We are not saying anything about the level at which you did them, but you did them. There can be some rigour around that – for example, perhaps you had to do reflections on your learning. However, there isn’t a defined standard – grade levels, percentages, etc. – against which that completion is measured. We call that a ‘letter of completion.’

“Then there is the next level – we know you were there, we know you completed all of the tasks, and you did so to a particular, defined standard (e.g., a competency rubric). This is a ‘letter of proficiency.’

“All the above are programs that are shorter than 150 hours. The authority to approve and discontinue them is delegated from the senate to the faculties or colleges that wish to offer them.

“Finally, there is a non-credit certificate. It is for programs that are longer than 150 hours of learning. The credential verifies that the learner was there and that they completed all the required tasks to a defined standard. It can be composed of one or more of the aforementioned credentials (i.e., a stacked credential), but it must have a coherent set of learning outcomes for the certificate as a whole. For this larger credential, the senate must approve the program.

“ Policy O-129: Non-Credit Credentials describes our framework for non-credit offerings. The letter of proficiency and the non-credit certificates are the two credentials that map onto the B.C. framework as micro-credentials, given the importance of robust assessment in the micro-credential framework.

What brought about the need for a policy at UBCO?

“It’s hard to pin down exactly what caused the conversation to begin. It’s a culmination of a decade-long conversation around teaching and learning innovation, and the changes they brought to how we view learning and learning recognition. The development of the internet opened flexible ways to access knowledge. Suddenly you could have a museum’s archives online and could access that knowledge whenever it was convenient for you to do so.

“A good example of how this played out locally is in Makerspace UBCO. If you want to use the makerspace (a space with 3D printers and other such equipment), we need to ensure you can operate safely. Once you earn that badge and we feel you understand safety in that space, you can choose which equipment you want to become proficient at using. Once you learn and earn the badge for one, or more, equipment, you may decide to facilitate others’ learning with some leadership training. We can also recognize that with a badge.

“And I think there were also outside providers like LinkedIn Learning that started to offer digital badges to recognize learning. Learners could own that learning recognition, share it publicly, or choose who to share it with. That popularized the concept of learner-owned credentials, modularized learning recognition, and it became part of the culture of what people expected when they learn something new.

“You can see how there were these conversations about flexibility, about customizing a learner’s journey, about recognizing learning along the way. It was changing how we view learning and education. Some of our faculty wanted to leverage those opportunities and innovate in their classroom. I think it was an idea whose time had come and people wanted to use it. To make that happen, we needed to define some credential entities and the process governing them. We needed to clarify it and provide structure to it in order to support it. We needed policy.

How was the policy developed?

“The need for policy brought the conversation to the senate, specifically as part of the senate curriculum committee. As it should – if it was just a group of people working on this in the provost’s office, you wouldn’t get the types of institution-wide conversations that were needed.

“The challenge with embedding this as part of the senate curriculum committee is that the committee oversees a large portfolio and we couldn’t have the sorts of conversations and work that needed to happen. The curriculum committee wisely chartered a working group. This group was small and nimble and could move things ahead quickly. It included members of the curriculum senate committee who were interested, but it also invited the contribution of people who could bring something to the conversation who were not members of the senate, like me, from the provost’s office.

“We began by doing an environmental scan of peer and leading institutions. What were they doing in this space? What were the exemplars? How were they defining things? The interesting thing about micro-credentials is that it is a fast-evolving field so many of the definitions are still fluid. We had to define these terms for ourselves. For example, we had a conversation about the distinction between a badge and a micro-credential. We ended up clarifying for ourselves that a badge is not a credential; rather, it’s the thing that holds the credential. As part of this stage, we also discussed how these types of new credentials would fit within our mission and strategic plan.

“We developed a policy – and the work continues! In our credential framework, we recognize learning achievements at different assessment levels. We also want to be able to communicate robust information about the program. Currently, we are working on how to encapsulate that in the metadata of the digital badges that are awarded at each level. The key fields of that metadata are captured from the requirements defined in the policy, and the information we collect in the approval process. We are now creating templates to ensure some information about the learner’s learning was captured for all non-credit credentials issued at UBCO.

“It’s important when you form that working group to include different voices. Don’t just put people who all share the same vision. Put people on that group who will question everything. The resulting policy will be stronger for it. We did that and what was interesting is that by the time the proposed policy came for an approval vote by the senate, it was surprisingly smooth. I believe we had brought everyone along on the journey, so there were no surprises by the time it came to the senate.

“It took us about a year to develop two policies: first the non-degree (but credit-bearing) credential credit policy and then the non-credit credential policy. The policy was approved in 2018. Our policies are reviewed every five years, so it will soon be time to revisit it.”

What’s the relationship between UBCO and UBCV’s non-credit credential policies?

“Our two campuses have independent senates. It’s interesting, how that can spur innovation. UBCO started by building upon existing policy frameworks at UBCV and elsewhere. The existing polices did not specifically differentiate credit and non-credit. Moreover, our non-credit activities were just beginning. We were able to start from scratch in many ways.

“What is exciting is that UBCV is now developing their policy and they are able to build upon ours. Since ours was written five years ago, I anticipate that we will see innovations in their policy that we’ll wish to consider when we re-evaluate our own.”

Top Tips from UBCO’s Experience

  • Form a nimble group embedded in governance. Use the institution’s existing governance processes, usually the senate or faculty council, to ensure that it includes the voices of every academic unit and is embedded in the institution’s policies and procedures. One thing that is critical is to designate a small group that will have the resources to research information and engage in deep conversations. Wrestling with these ideas takes time. Depending on your structure, you may need to create a working group that has the resources and space to do this work. Be sure to invite as many voices as possible to strengthen the policy.
  • Start with an environmental scan. Look at what peer institutions are doing and also at what leading institutions are doing. Then map that onto your own institution’s existing educational offerings, its mission, and strategic plans. Also consider where your institution’s micro-credentials will be focused. For UBCO, because of the institution’s missions, existing programs, and strengths, it is in the non-credit, post-baccalaureate space.
  • Build flexibility into your process. Micro-credentials are new, and you likely won’t get it perfectly right on your first iteration. It’s a change process, not a widget. Consider building a program approval and change approval process that’s flexible enough to make adjustments easily. Consider also that micro-credentials are not like degrees, in that they may be ephemeral. The skills that industry needs may change rapidly, and your micro-credential will need to change to reflect that.
  • Keep everyone informed. As the small working group is researching and discussing policy, be sure to share what’s being learned with the community. Make sure members of the senate know what’s going on and keep the provost in the loop. This is the best way to overcome obstacles and prevent unexpected surprises. It’s a community conversation.
  • Focus on the learner journey. There is a change in our society where people expect greater flexibility to customize their learning. They also want their abilities to be recognized on a finer level, and they want the ability to own the recognition of their learning. Embrace that. Use that as a starting point in all conversations. We want to create the best transformative education for our students so that they can explain what they have learned.

UFV’s Development of a New Micro-credential Policy

Carolyn MacLaren is director of continuing education at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV). She was part of a working group that developed UFV’s policy governing micro-credentials. This policy is currently moving towards senate review and upon approval will guide the development of micro-credentials at UFV.

Why did UFV develop a micro-credential policy?

“At UFV, there are really two fundamental types of offerings that are governed differently: those that bear credits and those that do not. Arguably, the existing policies, procedures, and systems that govern non-credit offerings could have been used for micro-credentials. However, that would have limited micro-credentials to non-credit offerings. There was a desire to offer credit-bearing, as well as non-credit micro-credentials, and to do that, we needed to examine our senate-approved policies and develop new ones. Specifically, we needed to find a way to expedite the new program approval process compared to the one used for larger academic ones.”

How did UFV develop a micro-credential policy?

“The university formed a small working group to work on this. It included faculty from different areas, as well as me from continuing education, representatives from the registrar’s office, members of our academic program planning and quality assurance unit, and people from the provost’s office. Having such a diversity of representatives on this group was critical. It laid bare the differences in perspectives of different units at the institution in some of the key concepts affecting micro-credentials. It was very helpful to have those conversations. It also made sure that micro-credentials belonged to everyone at our institution: micro-credentials wouldn’t be exclusively owned by academics or continuing studies, for example.”

What was the most challenging aspect of creating this policy?

“One of the things we spent a lot of time on was definitions. What is a credit versus a non-credit offering? What is a micro-credential? How is a micro-credential different from a digital badge? We researched other institutions and talked it through. These discussions, while at time arduous, were important as they showed the wide range of perspectives and understanding of micro-credentials and illuminated what we needed to work on.

“We developed our own definition of micro-credential. At UFV, a micro-credential is a program of skill-based learning of limited scope and duration represented by a verifiable, portable, shareable badge upon completion. There are items in this definition that need to be refined, like what we do mean by ‘limited duration?’ Is it four hours or forty? But it’s a good start. We developed this before the Micro-credential Framework for B.C. Public Post-secondary Education System (2021) came out, but you can see how it aligns with it.

“We concluded that a digital badge is an indicator of accomplishment, an attestation, a verification. It’s information. It’s not exclusive to micro-credentials. It’s an alternative to a transcript. If you think about it, a transcript is not a credential. It’s just the record of it. While we were developing our policy, we also piloted digital badging in continuing education with an eye on how digital badges might be rolled out across the university in some capacity.”

What was the outcome of your policy development work?

“The conversation and policy development took six to eight months to complete. It created some rigour around what a micro-credential is at UFV. We also ended up proposing an expedited process for the review and approval of new micro-credentials. It’s essentially like the process that the credit offerings go through, but it’s faster. And it applies for both credit-bearing, and non-credit bearing offerings – anything we want to call a micro-credential.”

Top Tips from UFV’s Experience

  • Make it a collaborative effort. Assign a working group to work on the policy and bring together different voices from across the institution. This will make visible the differences in perspectives on how micro-credentials are conceptualized, aspirations for their use, and the operational implications of the choices made. At UFV, the robust discussions helped to come to a common understanding about what a micro-credential is. It was also a critical element ensuring that the entire institution, rather than just one area, “owns” micro-credentials.
  • Develop specific definitions. UFV spent a lot of time on defining key concepts. It’s important to do because many of the concepts do not have an agreed upon definition. It’s also important to come to a shared understanding of these fundamental concept at the outset because this will affect every aspect of the program down the line. Some of the important definitions to consider that are inherent in a micro-credential are “competencies” and “short duration.”

CapU’s Use of Existing Policies to Approve Micro-credentials

Aurelea Mahood is director of academic initiatives and planning at Capilano University (CapU). She oversees the development of all new academic programs, and ensures that appropriate quality assurance processes are in place to guide the periodic review of all senate-approved academic programs of study. She jointly led an institution-wide working group that examined the purpose and place of micro-credentials at her institution. She recounts her experience below.

What was Capilano University’s response to the rise in interest in micro-credentials?

“There was quite a buzz about micro-credentials in the sector. Our provost foresaw the need to define what micro-credentials would be at our institution. This was before the ministry released the Micro-credential Framework for B.C. Public Post-secondary Education System (2021).

“We formed a working group co-led by me and the director of continuing studies. To form a team, we put out a call for interest to the whole institution and those interested applied. The co-chairs selected the team to ensure representation across the institution. The group was ultimately made up of representatives from each academic faculty, as well as areas impacted by micro-credentials such as the career and development centre, and student representatives.

“Together we surveyed how different departments, faculties, and schools at Capilano University were already using micro-credentials in their academic programs. We discovered that this varied a lot by area, with some integrating industry micro-credentials in their academic courses and others never having worked with micro-credentials. We also discovered that students had remarkable knowledge and interest in micro-credentials. They described the micro-credentials they had obtained outside of the institution (e.g., lifeguarding certifications) and explained how it was useful in finding part-time jobs.

“We also gauged the interest of the institution in using micro-credentials going forward. Academic departments were interested in exploring how micro-credentials can be leveraged to signal specific skills acquired within degree program and/or supplementary to a student’s primary field of study. They wanted to give our learners the language to articulate specific skills, knowledge, and attitudes they have acquired as a result of their education. Departments also wanted to explore how micro-credentials could bring new learners to the university, and deepen relationships with local community partners (e.g., businesses, municipalities, non-profits, culture sector, etc.).

“We explored this together for a year, researching information in our areas and bringing it back to the group, and exploring what was being done beyond our walls. We captured our findings in a report that was submitted to the provost. The report was also shared with governance groups like the senate. We envisioned that another group would be convened to operationalize some of our working group’s recommendations.”

Was policy created or modified as a result of this working group?

“During the year that the working group was doing its exploration, the ministry came out with the Micro-credential Framework for B.C. Public Post-secondary Education System (2021) and with several calls for micro-credential funding. Those two things redirected our efforts.

“Some groups within the institution applied and obtained funding. As a result, the institution had to rapidly assess whether we had a system in place to review and approve these programs. Because the working group was already formed, we could rapidly pivot our efforts to explore this. It turned out that we already had existing policies and procedures in place that could be used to guide how we would handle new micro-credential proposals.

“Non-credit courses at Capilano University are defined by Policy B.108 . There are distinct review and approval processes in place for non-credit courses and programs at the institution, and these would apply to non-credit bearing micro-credentials.

“When the Micro-credential Framework for B.C. Public Post-secondary Education System (2021) came out and defined micro-credentials as training that is less than 288 hours, that was helpful to us. Drawing from Policy S2020-01 Academic Credentials , it meant that credit-bearing micro-credentials could fit within our existing credential framework as a citation or certificate. From there, the normal course proposal, review, and approval process could apply.

“Typically, new program development is preceded by a senate-approved concept paper. Senate approval greenlights program development, including the allocation of resources and administrative support. If an academic unit is interested in developing a non-laddering citation or certificate (non-laddering meaning that the credential cannot be used to pursue a larger diploma or degree), then the concept paper step can be bypassed as long as the dean approves it. So micro-credentials could bypass the concept paper phase, which is important in moving rapidly to offer a new non-degree program, but the downside is that this could only apply for non-laddering micro-credentials. Laddering micro-credentials could not use this shortcut and would need to build in the time to put out a concept paper before the program is proposed.

“From there, the normal non-degree program development review and approval process apply. A proposal must first be approved within each department or school, then by the faculty council, then the senate curriculum committee, then the senate, and ultimately the board (for programs only). The whole thing, if successful at every stage, takes approximately four to six months to complete.”

Are the policies and procedures working?

“It’s too soon to tell. We are in the process of reviewing for approval our first non-laddering, credit-bearing, micro-credential in direct collaboration with an industry partner…”

Top Tips from Capilano University’s Experience

  • Examine existing policies and procedures. Begin your work by examining your institution’s credential framework and the policies and procedures guiding them. Evaluate whether these could be used to review and approve micro-credentials.
  • Find ways to operate flexibly without sacrificing rigour. New micro-credential programs sometimes need to be reviewed and approved quickly. Are there steps in your program development procedures that might be expedited for micro-credentials without affecting the rigour of the review? Would doing this require the development of revised steps for micro-credential approval or can existing processes be leveraged?
  • Focus on learner benefit. As conversations happen across campus on this new type of credential, keep an eye on the learner. This is why we are exploring these opportunities.

VCC’s Use of Existing Policies to Approve Micro-credentials

Adrian Lipsett is dean of continuing studies at Vancouver Community College (VCC). He shares his team’s experience in rapidly putting together a micro-credential called the Award of Achievement in Production for Animation and VFX .

How did your micro-credential fit within your existing credential framework?

“VCC does not have a dedicated micro-credential policy. We took a look at our existing Policy C.1.3: Granting of Credentials , which contains our credential framework. We mapped micro-credentials, as defined in the Micro-credential Framework for B.C. Public Post-secondary Education System (2021), to an existing VCC non-credit offering called an Award of Achievement. In the end, we did not need to change or create new policy. We used what already existed.”

How did you get this new program approved under tight timelines?

“We put the new program in as a non-credit offering. The review and approval process are faster than for credit offerings. That way, we could use existing governance processes in the time required. We figured that we can always transform it into a credit offering later if we determined that this is a goal. At that time, we would re-apply for approval through the credit-bearing governance process.

“In a way, we used the nimble non-credit governance processes to work quickly and pilot this new program. It is not going to be perfect the first time through. Through the pilot offering, we will make this training as strong as possible and continue to improve it from what we learn. There’s an iterative mindset to this program: We used it as an experiment.”

Suggested Resources

Background on kpu’s micro-credential policy.

Rajiv Jhangiani, then associate vice president of teaching and learning at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), was interviewed as part of BCcampus’s Lunchable Learning series. Recorded on April 25, 2022 soon after the approval of KPU’s Policy AC15 Micro-credentials and Procedure AC14 , this 30-minute podcast provides background on the institution’s development of a micro-credential-specific policy and procedure.

Prins, H., McKerlich, R. (2022, April 25). Interview with Rajiv Jhangiani [podcast]. Lunchable Learning . https://lunchablelearning.opened.ca/2022/04/11/guest-rajiv-jhangihani/#more-880

BCcampus Micro-credential Toolkit for B.C. Copyright © by Annie Prud'homme-Généreux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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post secondary education governance

In this pivotal time for postsecondary education, good governance matters more than ever

Good governance is about roles and responsibilities, and the accountable execution of those roles and responsibilities.

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It was in 1962. I was a Grade Eight student in St. Catharines, when Bill Davis, then minister of education, visited our school. There, in front of a group of 13- and 14-year-old kids, he talked about initiatives the Ontario government was about to introduce to expand and promote postsecondary education.

He was engaging, inspirational and spoke so passionately that I knew then I wanted to go to university. In fact, that passion he instilled in me that day remains today.

Since, postsecondary education has been an important part of my life, from guiding me in fulfilling my personal ambitions, to recruiting top minds during my professional life, to my recently completed role on the Western University board of governors.

Today, I cannot help but reflect that our sector stands at a pivotal point – and this was true well before the global pandemic upended all our lives.

While more students than ever are knocking on our doors and our level of teaching and research continue to punch above the weight of our population, we face a myriad of challenges: shifting societal demands, rapidly changing industries in response to technological disruptions, ever-tightening budgets, and most vividly these days, the unfolding impact of COVID-19 on all aspects of university life.

All this – and more– conspires to create a very uncertain environment. But these challenges also present great opportunity. For postsecondary institutions, the possibilities to pursue new knowledge, enhance learning, and serve society in creative and innovative ways are extraordinary.

It is in times like this that leadership is paramount.

Good governance means good outcomes

An important dimension of that leadership comes through governance. Ontario universities operate under provincial jurisdiction defined within each institution’s act. In those documents, roles and responsibilities are spelled out – but, importantly, lines of accountability as well.

It is not an overstatement to say that accountability is a cornerstone of our democracy, with its most fundamental expression being the accountability of a government to its citizens. Equally important within the sphere of universities is the accountability of governing bodies.

For most Ontario universities, we are talking about university senates on the academic side and boards of governors on the business side. Each body helps deliver on the mission of our universities.

Good governance is about roles and responsibilities, and the accountable execution of those roles and responsibilities. Throughout my career, I have seen time and time again that good governance and good outcomes go hand in hand.

Our university governance structure is designed to be a means to an end – the end being good outcomes for Ontario university students, their parents, the Ontario economy, and indeed our collective place in the global economy.

Equally important, many institutions, including universities, are set up with a degree of independence, or autonomy. Why? Because the role of government is to set the strategic policy direction for the delegated authority to then carry out day to day.

A current reality of those day-to-day demands is certainly the need to recognize that this is a time when university funding models are under intense scrutiny and constraint. Yet, in fact, this funding pressure underscores the importance of good governance and stewardship of our universities – both to ensure a positive return on the use of increasingly scarce taxpayer dollars and to meet the growing funding needs through other revenue sources, including philanthropy.

Ultimately, universities are accountable to government through their governance structure. But to function efficiently and effectively, and to attract the dedicated volunteers with the skill mix we need, senates and boards must be able to exercise the full scope of their delegated authority.

We’re talking about responsibility for the well-being of our students, setting operating and capital budgets aligned with strategic priorities, academic excellence, human resource and other university policies, risk management, performance assessment, security, and so much more.

On the budgeting side, consider Ontario’s new outcomes-based funding framework for universities. (The government has temporarily delayed its implementation due to the pandemic. Alberta has a similar plan, also currently on hold.) Such a framework needs to be sufficiently flexible in its application so as to unleash the strategic, innovative thinking needed if we are to serve students in a manner they deserve. One size does not fit all.

But this also means that boards and senates must themselves be responsive to the demands and policies of the day by being strategic in their deliberations and actions, and by being clearly focused on their respective roles and accountabilities.

The need to be nimble and creative

Another core role of good governance and leadership in today’s uncertain world is having postsecondary institutions that can respond rapidly to changing circumstances and disruptive market forces. Responses to changing policies on executive compensation, tuition levels, student fees and freedom of speech, an accelerated pace of change across all labour markets and types of job opportunities, and now the challenges of COVID-19 require boards and senates to be nimble and creative in carrying out their fiduciary duties.

To stay vibrant requires leadership that can provide the collaborative and innovative thinking appropriate to each institution’s comparative advantage.

While I didn’t think about it in these terms as a 14-year-old, I now realize that in 1962 Mr. Davis was laying out the government’s strategic plan for postsecondary education looking well into the future. There is again a call for focused strategic thinking, supported by robust governance structures, if postsecondary institutions are going to fulfill their role and capitalize on the opportunities before us.

And for those opportunities to continue to open up as we come out the other end of this pandemic crisis, it’s imperative, as a country, that we work together to foster strong, sustained economic growth, supported by the role played by postsecondary education in developing our human capital.

Paul Jenkins is former Senior Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada, and past Chair of the Board of Governors of Western University.

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Administration and Governance in Post-Secondary Education

Subject: Educational Administration Credit units: 3 Offered: Either Term 1 or Term 2 Weekly hours: 3 Lecture hours College: Education Department: Educational Administration


This course will analyze the administrative structures and governance processes of a number of post-secondary educational institutions, using overarching theories regarding organizations, leadership, and change management. Underpinning the discussion will be the role of the institution in addressing its mission and vision, while serving the needs of its diverse stakeholders and the local, national and international communities. The legal and regulatory environment of post-secondary institutions will be critically examined, including the policies and procedures, natural justice, collective agreements with unions, and approval processes that influence the environment. In addition, topics such as institutional, program, and student assessment, integrated planning, Indigenous engagement, and resource allocation in post-secondary institutions will be covered. Particular attention will be paid to priority setting and emergent post-secondary trends (such as Indigenization and internationalization, corporatization, and environmental sustainability).

Restriction(s): Students must be registered in the Certificate in Leadership in Post-Secondary Education. Note: Students with credit for EADM 838 may not take this course for credit.

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Educational damage caused by the pandemic will mean poorer GCSE results for pupils well into the 2030s

Without a raft of equalising policies, the damaging legacy from COVID-19 school closures will be felt by generations of pupils.


The educational damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic will impact on children well into the 2030s, with generations of pupils set for the biggest declines in GCSE results for decades.

These are the devastating conclusions of a major new study from LSE, the University of Exeter and the University of Strathclyde. The report predicts that less than four in ten pupils in England in 2030 will achieve a grade 5 or above in English and Mathematics GCSEs – lower than the 45.3 per cent of pupils who achieved this benchmark in 2022/23.

The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is the first to chart how school closures during COVID-19 hindered children’s socio-emotional and cognitive skills at age 5, 11, and 14, and predict how these will impact on future GCSE prospects and later life outcomes.

Socio-emotional skills include the ability to engage in positive social interactions, regulate emotions and maintain attention. Cognitive skills are measured by how well children perform in academic tests, reflecting maths, reading and writing skills.

The research finds that socio-emotional skills are just as important as cognitive skills for young people’s GCSE results. For example, 20 per cent of the best performing pupils in cognitive tests at age 14 but who had average socio-emotional skills fail to go on to attain five good GCSEs including English and Maths. Teenagers with strong socio-emotional skills were much more likely to achieve basic GCSEs.

A gender divide in the importance of different skills emerges in the teenage years. For boys, cognitive skills at age 14 are twice as important as socio-emotional skills in determining future GCSE prospects; for girls the opposite is true, with socio-emotional skills 50 per cent more impactful than cognitive skills.

The analysis uses the latest econometric techniques to develop a model of skill formation, based on just under 19,000 pupils in the Millennium Cohort Study. This was applied to later pupil cohorts to predict how GCSE results will be impacted by disruption from school closures during the pandemic.

Alongside an overall fall in GCSE results, the model points to a significant widening in socio-economic inequalities in GCSE results. The researchers use these results to estimate that the UK’s relative income mobility levels will decline by 12-15 per cent for generations of pupils leaving school over the next decade, a significant drop by international standards.

An international review as part of the work concludes that COVID-19 amplified long-term persistent education gaps across a range of OECD countries including the UK. Compared with most other nations, England’s pandemic response was heavily focused on academic catch-up with less emphasis on socio-emotional skills, extracurricular support, and wellbeing.

The report “A generation at risk: Rebalancing education in the post-pandemic era” was produced by Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter; Andy Eyles; Professor Steve Machin from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) at the London School of Economics; and Esme Lillywhite from the University of Strathclyde. It proposes several low-cost policies with the potential to improve children’s outcomes, including:

  • A national programme of trained undergraduate student tutors helping to boost the foundational skills of pupils, and enabling undergraduates to consider a career in teaching.
  • Rebalancing Ofsted inspections to explicitly focus on how schools are performing for pupils from under-resourced backgrounds and credit schools excelling when serving under-resourced communities.
  • Rebalancing the school calendar to improve teacher wellbeing, prevent holiday hunger, improve pupil prospects and help parents with child-care during the long summer break.

Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and LSE CEP Associate Professor Elliot Major said : “Without a raft of equalising policies, the damaging legacy from COVID-19 school closures will be felt by generations of pupils well into the next decade. Our review shows that COVID amplified long-term persistent education gaps in England and other countries.

“The policies we propose would rebalance the school system so that it supports all children irrespective of their backgrounds. A particular worry is a group of pupils who are falling significantly behind, likely to be absent from the classroom and to leave school without the basic skills needed to function and flourish in life. The decline in social mobility levels threatens to cast a long shadow over our society.”

LSE CEP Associate Andy Eyles added : “To our knowledge, this is the first time this type of analysis has been used in this way to assess the consequences of the pandemic in England. Our results suggest that to improve child outcomes, much greater emphasis is needed in schools on activities that improve both socio-emotional and cognitive skills.”

Esme Lillywhite from the University of Strathclyde and a research assistant at LSE CEP said: “Compared with most other nations, England’s pandemic response was heavily focused on academic catch-up with less emphasis on socio-emotional skills, extracurricular support, and wellbeing. Much more could be gained by closer international collaboration to learn what approaches have been promising elsewhere.”

Dr Emily Tanner, Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation said : "The mounting evidence on the long-term impact of learning loss on young people's development shows how important it is for students to develop socio-emotional skills alongside academic learning. The insights from this report on timing and gender provide a useful basis for targeting effective interventions."

Behind the article

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.


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