Skip to main content

Three burning platforms from the debate ‘who governs the governors?’

27 Feb 2020 | Victoria Holbrook Victoria Holbrook, Head of Membership at Advance HE, reflects on the HEPI/Advance HE Parliamentary Breakfast Seminar on governance in higher education.

The sun shone through onto the cold Terrace Pavilion at the House of Commons as Advance HE and HEPI hosted ‘Challenging the Status Quo - who governs the governors?’ - a seminar intended to provoke our audience on the matter of good governance in higher education.

Advance HE’s Andy Shenstone, Director of Business Development & Delivery chaired the panel made up of Chris Sayers (Chair of CUC), Monica Chadha (Vice-Chair, Queen Mary’s University) and Jacqui McKinlay (CEO of the Centre for Public Scrutiny). Each pondered the role of governing bodies in HE and elsewhere, the efforts made to ensure effectiveness and the obvious distance yet to travel. And we are far from being on the everlasting sunny uplands yet. So what burning platforms exist to create the change needed to get us there?  Here are my three from the discussion:

1 Diversity is THE thing

Without improving the diversity of our governing bodies, we will fail to send the strongest of signals to our stakeholders that we care – and want to address -  social mobility. We will fail to embrace the constructive and necessary challenge and culture that a range of thought perspectives and life experiences will bring to the top table. We will fail to maximise the impact of this ‘combination of difference’ upon the story about what HE is for and the power of what it can do for the economy and society. These are all things that we expect of others, and ever-increasingly, our stakeholders expect of us. It’s about ethics, sound business and trust.

2 Communication is critical

If we don’t tell our stories better, why should people care about what we do? If we don’t attempt to engage our stakeholders in meaningful, tailored and proactive ways, how can we make informed decisions and build a community of advocates? Transparency and visibility should be normal, not exceptional, as we seek to ensure a governance culture of success. This helps us demonstrate our impact, showcase our value and engender trust.

3 Trust is our social contract

Trust and confidence came up time and time again today. This is what allows higher education institutions to be fundamentally autonomous – it’s our social contract with stakeholders, not least the state. If it breaks, we surely undermine the foundation upon which we operate. An inspired reference to Erasmus as orchestrating the populist platform for the abolition of the monasteries by Henry VIII perfectly emphasised the frailty of the environment in which we operate. We cannot afford to only preach to the converted. 

So, what now? None of this is new. But the urgency to act has never been greater. Boldness; a bit of risk-taking perhaps; a commitment to striving for better and holding ourselves to account. Strategic choices to be made about how to act,  where to invest, who to recruit, whether to pay – we can no longer ignore these questions as too hard to solve.

As both a member of a governing body and an Advance HE staffer, I will strive to do better. To influence change and challenge the norm – where it needs it - as much as I can.  What about you?


After nearly 15 years of higher education public service, Victoria Holbrook joined Advance HE from the Office for Students, having led the development of its new strategy for student information alongside provider registration casework. Prior to that, Victoria was HEFCE’s Regional Consultant for the South West and oversaw the organisation’s approach to supporting good governance.

Find out more about our governance services such as the Governor Development Programme and governance effectiveness reviews.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter