The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up a number of issues around academic governance in all types of educational establishments, from primary schools to universities. Most of the time governance is routine – using established frameworks to help decision-making, to gather evidence on outcomes, to identify areas for improvement, to monitor actions, and to provide assurance to governing bodies, given their duties towards the Office for Students or other regulators. But there is nothing routine about the pandemic. Academic activities of all kinds – from induction sessions to assessment; from everyday lecturing, tutorials and seminars to field classes; from placements, projects and dissertations to PhD supervisions – have been transformed in any number of ways.
Innovation has been taking place at a rate rarely seen before. I recently met, on my daily exercise walk, the head of a major engineering department who shared his view that the pandemic had acted as a catalyst for changes in educational delivery in his department that probably should have been introduced some time ago but for which there was until now no urgent need. I think many of us will recognise that. On the whole, then, we should be energised by the changes that have been made and look to build upon them further. Yet I want to make the case for a context-driven, nuanced approach across our portfolios, which means academic governance may need to evolve further still to be truly effective.
I am concerned that with media focus centred largely on areas such as fee rebates, calls for reduced charges for places in residences for which students are paying rent but which they are being advised not to use, and problems with on-line delivery to students from digitally-poor backgrounds other issues are being missed. The implications of the pandemic reach much further into academic portfolios than concerning the ‘standard’ delivery models for ‘standard’ young, full-time undergraduates. This means that the questions that academic governance systems need to ask about the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of educational opportunities need to consider a very wide range of issues.
Has the quality of education been upheld in disciplines such as Botany, Archaeology, Geology and Architecture where field work and site visits have been replaced by digital alternatives? Have students in Engineering, Chemistry and Microbiology been able to achieve the same skill levels as expected despite not being able to obtain the full laboratory-based practical and project experience required in subject benchmarks? Have the steps that have been taken to replace language immersion abroad for students of Spanish or Mandarin been effective in developing their linguistic and cultural fluency?
We know that the proportion of ‘good degrees’ awarded in 2020 was significantly higher than might have been expected on a trend line, yet the answers to questions about the quality of the education many students are now receiving could prove troubling to universities and colleges seeking to assure a wider world of the appropriateness of their response to the pandemic and the maintenance of standards. The role of the academic governance system in providing the evidence in nuanced, context-specific ways – clearly and transparently – is therefore of utmost importance.
It is equally important not to lose sight of the diversity of higher education portfolios. Has the quality of apprenticeships involving universities and colleges with employers been maintained where furloughing and changed patterns of educational delivery have combined to transform all expectations? What about those Masters programmes that were designed as face-to-face experiences which have suddenly been transformed into 100 per cent distance learning, with many students still living abroad: how have new induction, delivery, support and assessment systems on these been considered for appropriateness? What about required placements in programmes where these have been impossible to provide? Have reactions to the problems of education in a pandemic been sought locally within individual departments and faculties without any central co-ordination to determine overall policies and recommended practices at the level of the institution as a whole? What lessons are being shared within institutions – and between them?
These issues all underline the importance of the agility and robustness of the frameworks for academic governance that universities and colleges have been operating as routine parts of their business, and how they can provide assurance in sophisticated ways during unprecedented change. The co-ordination of what decisions were made, how and why, and the later evaluation of outcomes such as to provide oversight, has not yet been clearly articulated in many institutions, some of whom are struggling under the weight of cumbersome structures with ill-defined remits. It is also evident that many governing bodies – where the overall assurance responsibility lies – still lack confidence and understanding of academic matters. But there is a fantastic opportunity for lessons to be learned, and for what turn out to be useful innovations to be more widely diffused and embedded as long as the structures for such dissemination exist. As we move into our post-pandemic education future, academic governance should evolve too.
Advance HE is at the forefront of providing support to boards, governors and staff such as clerks and secretaries to improve governance effectiveness. All institutions need high performing boards equipped to determine the strategic course of the organisation. The effectiveness of a board depends on strong foundations, exhibiting the right behaviours, high quality information, sound processes and skilled governance professionals.