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University governance: measuring what matters

How higher education governing bodies should measure the value of their institutions was the topic of a recent roundtable hosted by HEPI and Advance HE, attended by higher education leaders and other experts in the sector.

Higher education is under pressure – challenged by policymakers, students, students’ families and the media to show its value while facing multiple financial and regulatory constraints. The evidence and metrics that governing bodies and senior executives have do not always build a comprehensive picture of what it means to be a healthy, inclusive and sustainable institution – especially important when the world beyond the university is putting ever more emphasis on environmental, economic and social responsibility. Governing bodies and executive teams are keen to close this gap and are working with Advance HE and others to do so. 

At the roundtable event Vicky Holbrook, Advance HE’s Assistant Director (Governance), said:

"We see a disconnect between the biggest issues for the sector and what many boards actually use and see to measure progress and success. In a recent survey of board members about the key performance indicators, 90 per cent highlighted the use of metrics on finances and student outcomes, but fewer than a third cited student wellbeing and only 20 per cent mentioned staff wellbeing or civic engagement."

What new measures, Holbrook asked, could be used to give better assurance of institutional performance and the value of the sector overall? 

Discussion at the event, after the introductory speeches, was under the Chatham House Rule, allowing the attendees anonymity to encourage frank debate.

Planetary wellbeing

Polly Mackenzie, Chief Social Purpose Officer at the University of the Arts, London, initiated the discussion with a provocation. Mackenzie contended that the outlook of governing bodies should be broad and encompass working out both what their universities are for and what they are good at.  

Universities tend to be better at measuring their activities than their outcomes, Mackenzie argued. A greater emphasis on purpose and impact would generate greater evidence of value. While financial measures are intrinsically important, they also contribute to wider wellbeing – not only in reference to individual staff and students but also to society as a whole. For Mackenzie, the chief beneficiaries of a university education are not students but society as a whole – that is the institution’s ‘meta purpose’.

Mackenzie contended that universities should think of themselves as catalysts, contributing towards a culture that reinforces what is taught in the classroom and that students will take with them into the wider world. This means not only having a sustainable campus but also embedding sustainability into education and into the industries with which they interact. ‘If only 10 per cent of UAL students take 10 per cent of the carbon emissions out of the organisations they go on to work for, they would have a huge impact on the country’s overall carbon emissions’, Mackenzie argued. 

Student experience and voice

Edward Astle, former Chair of the University of Manchester, agreed with Mackenzie that outcomes are more important than activities. 

In this regard the overwhelming priority for governing bodies should be to understand and address the student experience. 

As a primary stakeholder, the student experience has too often been neglected, whereas student, employer and society expectations are growing, and they represent the greatest impact that an institution can make on society. 

Astle argued that it was not that universities fail to have high aspirations about impact, but the challenge lies in effectively evidencing it. This is surmountable, as many in the charities sector are already demonstrating, but there is more for higher education to do in this area:

  • Governing bodies need to be provided with timely and consistent data and analysis about aspects which have not hitherto been common practice across the sector. For example, staff and student wellbeing, the delicate balance in the student mix for the institution and research.
  • Astle also argued that other priorities for governors should be the economic and social impact of their institutions, and the risks inherent in strategic options such as over-reliance on international students – particularly from a single country

But vital as these are, boards must not take their eyes off the bottom line, he said. ‘Finance is the enabler of everything else.’

Understanding the constraints 

Prompted by these provocations, participants at the roundtable discussed the wide range of constraints and external factors with which governing bodies must contend. These include but are not limited to:

  • The contentious role of sectoral and international league tables in shaping institutional priorities – and the risks inherent in such an approach. 
  • Regulatory developments involving the Office for Students.
  • The challenging and dynamic political context.
  • Economic pressures.

There are also challenges unique to universities. One attendee pointed out that being confident that academic standards are being met can be particularly problematic for governing bodies and will become increasingly important. 

Another suggested that some governors need more help understanding the data presented as not all have the expertise to interpret them. Meanwhile, they should be encouraged to leave their boardrooms and go out and talk to staff and students on the ground in their universities. Only by doing so would they be able to build up a full picture of what happens there. ‘It’s too easy to read the papers on the train, go to the meetings, sit there for three hours and go home again and not have a full sense of what is going on at your university.’

Diverse missions 

The UK higher education sector is notably diverse, a feature that is generally recognised as an underlying strength. Consequently, ‘value’ does not mean the same thing for all institutions. Different universities will necessarily place differing emphases on certain performance indicators, so contextualisation is crucial.

One speaker said that while it had always proved difficult to measure learning gain at sector level, there was nothing to stop individual institutions trying to do it for themselves, while several agreed that universities should be more confident in setting out how they want to be measured and which metrics would be most suited to their unique character and specific offer.

The key will be in then telling the collective story of the sector’s impact to government and the wider contribution to society.

The full picture

Governors should be concerned about capturing rather than measuring what is happening, said one attendee. Metrics can only take you so far. They cannot always explain why things happen or take account of the hopes and ambitions of students and the way university experiences can transform a life. The problem is that we tend to measure what we can, while Mackenzie said that just because you cannot measure something does not mean you shouldn’t build towards it and work out how to measure it later. 

Astle agreed that governance is about much more than performance indicators, that qualitative and quantitative indicators have to follow universities’ missions, further they need to anticipate long-term issues as well as immediate pressures. Nonetheless, Astle insisted that some indicators are unavoidable, especially as expectations on universities rise.

Corporate practice could prove a useful guide, it was agreed. Businesses increasingly put environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations at the heart of ‘how’ they operate and make decisions. While this is still rare in universities, as charities, the public benefit is legally what they are about. Alongside this many governing bodies beyond and within the sector are also looking at ‘what they do’, for example their strategic aims through the lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.   

What next?

Exactly what the indicators and evidence should be is something Advance HE will explore with the sector and its sector partners. Holbrook ended the roundtable with an appeal. Likely to face increasing challenges, the sector will have to offer answers and a focus on ‘pragmatic realism’. Holbrook asked what sort of work, research, analyses and data exist behind the scenes and what else might help?

There was a suggestion that now might be a particularly good time to seek to reset the narrative around higher education. For governing bodies this presents an opportunity both to take stock as well as consider their own roles in engaging with external stakeholders in the media, government and opposition.

All agreed that establishing the value of universities and what value means (rejecting the idea that it is only financial) should be the aim. Institutions need to decide what they want to happen, make it happen and measure/evidence their progress.