Advance HE held a webinar Insight event - What the sector has to say about good HE governance, now and next – on 20 September. The webinar, led by Victoria Holbrook, Advance HE Assistant Director of Governance, presented headline findings from two recent sector surveys covering governance practices (52 responses) and future needs (43 responses). The surveys captured a range of insights into current and changing governance practices, providing a wealth of information about some of the key topics Boards are grappling with. The webinar also updated governor professionals and governors on advice and guidance to look out for in the coming months. Participants had the opportunity to discuss issues in greater depth in breakout sessions. This news alert summarises key points arising from the presentation and discussions.
- Measures to improve the diversity of governing bodies include extending reach through improved marketing channels and materials, using executive search firms and focusing on co-optees to committees
- Three-quarters of responses reported recent development and training in equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), focusing on board culture and relationships, improving diversity and improving understanding of EDI to enhance assurance. The majority of respondents had made use of the Advance HE Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit
- Nearly half of respondents had/were using the Board Vacancies Portal. 52 per cent of those who had not used it were unaware of the Portal. Both the Committee of University Chairs and Advance HE has committed to a second phase of work developing the Portal
- The remuneration of governors was increasingly a talking point. At pre-1992 institutions, 38 per cent said they were either providing or considering remuneration. The figure for post-1992 institutions was 28 per cent
- Some universities have established a separate role of Senior Independent Governor, as indicated for consideration in the Committee of University Chairs’ Code of Higher Education Governance. Half of pre-1992 and 28 per cent of post-1992 providers had created the role
- New committees had been created or were being considered to respond to the operating and regulatory environment, including academic assurance, development and digital oversight committees. Board effectiveness reviews were also driving some structural changes.
- Governors reported engaging with their university through attending events, briefing sessions and deep dives and open sessions with students, but it was noted that many still feel distant from the real ’lived experience’ of staff and students.
- 44 per cent of board meetings were face-to-face at the time of the survey, with 58 per cent intending to be face-to-face in the future. 8 per cent of committee meetings were in person. Lessons learned from running online meetings included better attendance but a loss of networking opportunities
- Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) were in place in over 20 areas of HE business, ranging from graduate outcomes, financial performance and student numbers to EDI, staff numbers, student wellbeing and research quality. Reviews of performance against indicators were a feature at every board meeting for 31 per cent of respondents. 22 per cent reviewed performance twice a year and 27 per cent once a year
- Most respondents saw the role of Chair changing over the next five years, particularly in response to managing the increasing regulatory burden, financial implications of reduced funding and leading on EDI matters
- Confidence about understanding and responding to developments within the regulatory environment varied: 10 per cent had little or no confidence, 32 per cent had some confidence and 58 per cent were confident or very confident
- Academic assurance, financial performance, remuneration for effort and risk managing were highlighted as areas of greater focus for governors in coming years. Governance professionals said that understanding and navigating the regulatory environment and dealing with board cultures and behaviours would be important
Implications for governance:
One of the key concerns that emerged from the sector surveys, and from the feedback from the webinar breakout sessions, was understanding and improving academic assurance practice - perhaps not surprising given the new regulatory focus in England on quality and outcomes. New committees devoted to academic assurance have been established at a number of institutions in a bid to better respond in this area.
Enabling governors to engage and understand the lived reality of the institution can be helpful here. Adding to the range of ways in which governors already take soundings, from deep dives to tours of campuses, the idea of reverse mentoring with students is gaining traction. One governor professional reported a scheme at his university where governors are paired with students and make contact about twice a term. Where regular contact was maintained, the feedback was “very positive”.
Such schemes, which are in addition to the presence of a student representative on the governing board, are still unusual across the sector but there is a “real appetite to consider and learn from others”.
Drawing up a framework for academic assurance can also be helpful, according to discussions in breakout sessions. It can demonstrate to board members exactly how reviews and monitoring work is carried out, where the information lies and the findings of such work. One governance professional suggested that explaining the processes themselves, not just the outcome of the processes, might aid governor's understanding.
As well as financial performance, which was mentioned by more than 80 per cent of survey respondents as a key performance indicator, the ever-changing regulatory environment is also high on the agenda.
Governance professionals and governors talked about the need for more clarity around these changes, with one mentioning how an enquiry to the Office for Students about a paused regulatory condition became increasingly complex.
A series of measures are being undertaken across universities aimed at building confidence among governors, such as providing regular summaries of regulatory changes for the Board (with links to more information such as Advance HE governor briefings), presentations from organisations such as HE internal auditors UNIAC and law firms, and regular briefings with the relevant university staff.
Advance HE induction and development guidance, to be published later this autumn, may help governance professionals and governing bodies to navigate some of these challenges, while the Governor Development Programme is constantly being revised to take account of concerns.
Heightened awareness of EDI responsibilities and the need to diversify boards is also apparent across the sector. Advance HE’s Board Diversity and inclusion Toolkit is being used by the majority of institutions and those who have not used it said they are planning to do so. Meanwhile, the Board Vacancies Portal, hosted by CUC, is undergoing some redevelopment aimed at boosting its role in attracting and retaining diverse candidates. While acknowledging that diversity is a key topic, governors were cognisant that improvements should not come at the expense of the skills needed to maintain and strengthen the efficacy of the governing body.
The pandemic-inspired move to hybrid governing body and committee meetings was mentioned as a positive for diversity and a development that suited student governors in particular. However, it was acknowledged that online sessions tended to be more transactional and risked losing richer engagement and opportunities to network. At a number of universities, vice-chancellors are now insisting on a return to face-to-face meetings.
Board remuneration is another item of interest. The survey reveals a mixed approach (except in Scotland where offering remuneration to the Chair is required) with 58 per cent of respondents either remunerating or having discussed remuneration of governors, but only 10 per cent actually remunerating currently. One colleague pointed out that at their institution, remuneration only applied to the chair and was for a token amount. Evidence is limited on how remuneration affects board culture and accountability or whether it contributes to improving board diversity, but Advance HE points out that as the burden on Chairs and governors increases, it is an idea worthy of consideration.