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Governance overview


Introduction to governance

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are legally independent corporate institutions that have a common purpose of providing learning and teaching and undertaking research. They also have an important role in contributing to economic growth through research and developing links with business and the community.

Governance in higher education refers to the means by which HEIs are formally organised and managed, though often, as is the case with York, there is a distinction between definitions of management and governance. Put simply, governance arrangements identify who is responsible and accountable for setting the University's direction and for overseeing its operations.

Governing structures for higher education are different throughout the world. The University of York operates with the Council as the governing body. Council delegates responsibility for developing strategies to deliver the University Strategy and the overall management of operations to the University Executive Board (The Board). Council also delegates certain decision-making responsibility and project delivery to the formal committee structure.

Delegation of Council responsibilities

The structure of delegation and accountability between the Council, committees and Board (formerly SMG) is illustrated in the Delegation of Council Responsibilities map 2016 (PDF , 22kb)

Legal status

Legal status

From its inception, the University of York has been committed to the highest standards of governance. The foundation stone was the Charter of Incorporation granted by the Queen in 1963 establishing a University, the objectives of which were to 'advance learning and knowledge by teaching and research, and to enable students to obtain the advantages of University education'. Under the Charter the University is an independent corporation with charitable status.

Charter and statutes

In addition to the Charter, the Statutes, Regulations and Ordinances represent the University's key instruments of governance and set out its objectives, powers and framework of governance.


As a self-governing institution with charitable status, the University enjoys a high degree of autonomy. The Office for Students (OfS) acts as the main regulator for universities to ensure they fulfil their charity law obligations. The University makes annual returns of information to the OfS and also submits an annual Operating and Financial Review to Companies House.

Guiding Principles

Guiding principles

The University receives both public and private funding and therefore has a duty to observe the highest standards of governance and good practice appropriate to both private and public sector bodies.

The University is committed to best practice in all aspects of corporate governance and has chosen a code of conduct based on the principles set out in the Governance Code of Practice as re-issued by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) revised in June 2018‌. This code of practice includes in its ‘general principles of Governance’ the responsibilities of members of governing bodies, the conduct of governing bodies and the regulation of resource management.

In both governance and management, the University also subscribes to the seven principles set out by the Nolan Committee’s report on Standards in Public Life. These are the benchmarks against which the University seeks to be judged and against which it judges itself.

The seven principles of public life

Individual members and governing bodies themselves should at all times conduct themselves in accordance with accepted standards of behaviour in public life which embrace selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

  • Selflessness
    Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.  They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.
  • Integrity
    Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.
  • Objectivity
    In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.
  • Accountability
    Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.
  • Openness
    Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions they take.  They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.
  • Honesty
    Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.
  • Leadership
    Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.


Delegation to committees and management

The Council, the University's governing body, needs to fulfil its obligations under the terms of reference set out in the Charter and Statutes (see Legal status). This covers such matters as establishing new departments, fixing University fees, property management and borrowing money on behalf of the University.

Council also needs to meet the accountability and governance requirements of the Office for Students (OfS), who also regulate the University's activities. 

To meet these requirements, Council delegates considerable responsibility to a number of sub-committees, some of which are chaired by external 'lay' members. The full listing of Council sub-committees shows their membership and terms of reference.

In addition to the formal sub-committee structure, Council also delegates considerable decision-making responsibility to the Vice-Chancellor and the University Executive Board (The Board) who have overall responsibility for the executive management of the institution and its day-to-day direction. Members of the Board remain accountable to Council for their actions and activities. The University Executive Board operates with the support and guidance of the Operations Group and various committees set up to progress more detailed work in key areas.

Although academic departments are the primary academic units and budget centres, in 2014 Council approved the establishment of three faculties, one for each of the three main subject areas (arts and humanities, sciences and social sciences).  The purpose of the faculties is to:

  • improve lines of communication
  • ensure better coordination of inter-disciplinary activities
  • establish more effective means of implementing University-wide strategies and initiatives
  • engender a stronger sense of common purpose across the discipline groups

Each of the faculties is governed by a Faculty Board which reports to the University Senate.

In July 2011, the Council approved a formal Scheme of Delegation 2017 (PDF , 821kb). The Scheme is based on the principle of subsidiarity, ie decision-making is devolved except where there is a valid reason for reserving decisions to a higher level of authority. (N.B. it is not intended as a description of the roles that committees or officers perform - it only covers decisions that are reserved to particular committees or officers)