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Academic governance in the ultra-intelligent university

02 May 2023 | Elizabeth Cleaver and John Sumpter Elizabeth Cleaver and John Sumpter challenge you to reflect on your academic governance purposes, processes, structures, terms of reference and support.

Re-laying the foundations 

Over the last decade, we have supported an increasing number of higher education institutions engaging in digital, educational and workforce transformation programmes to build their own and their students’ readiness for an increasingly connected and competitive global marketplace.  

The last five years have seen the pace of this change rise in an unprecedented way, influenced by a number of factors including the introduction of the 2018 Regulatory Framework in England, the shifts imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, our sectoral growing needs to generate, manage and use big data, the shifting power and application of artificial intelligence (AI) and ongoing data and cyber security risks. In this super-complex and fast changing landscape, where everything – teaching, learning resources, data, enterprise applications, staff and students - has the potential to be everywhere, resilience and sustainability depends on keeping up and learning quickly. 

Expertise in technology has now become key to managing the business of higher education and furthering its academic mission and impact, and not just running its IT systems. 

It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that while in 2018, EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues list states that IT leadership should be an integral partner in the delivery of strategy, the recently published 2023 EDUCAUSE list argues that rather than patching up our worn out ways of working, we need to examine, strengthen and/or change the very foundations of what we do. This requires IT leadership to sit as a full partner at the strategic leadership table, to ensure that universities can become ‘ultra intelligent institutions’, using technology and data to manage the complexities of their operations and create useful insights to inform decision making.  

A number of institutions are rising to the challenge and offering a seat at the executive table for their Chief Information Officers (CIO). It’s also becoming increasingly common to see agile teams of data analysts, systems architects, academics and student success practitioners working together to provide enterprise-level solutions to data management, teaching and learning delivery and student support. But we also see first-hand some of the challenges institutions, large and small, are having when implementing change, whether moving to adopt new enterprise systems or democratising the understanding and use of data to inform practice and decision-making.  

With this in mind, we wish to turn our eyes to a less profiled but critical element of any higher education institution’s change journey – the process and function of academic governance and the associated academic scrutiny, judgements and assurances that underpin the integrity of an institution’s academic awards.  

These established ways of working have their roots in ancient forms of rhetorical debate. Their current manifestations developed in much less regulated and market-driven times, following a fixed annual deliberative process of information giving and check and challenge across the academic year. As institutions have engaged in the more competitive and market driven higher education landscape, they have assured and maintained their academic standards through the maintenance of independent academic governance processes, separated (and perhaps at times sheltered?) from other corporate management and decision-making processes.  

Resilient, responsive and sustainable governance 

However, recent technological shifts (including the far-reaching implications of AI and tools such as Chat GPT) and more nuanced publicly available data insights (including detailed data on who comes to each university and who progresses to highly skilled employment) as well a number of policy changes including lifting of student number controls, have together led to the types of courses we run, the ways in which we teach, and the assessment processes we use, being scrutinised in different (and more rapid) ways.  

The quality and standards of academic awards are now rising up many institutional corporate risk registers (particularly in the context of the English regulatory system) and the value of these awards above and beyond sheer ‘academic’ value - for institutions, for students, for parents, for employers and for society - is now firmly on the agenda.  

In this context, the fitness for purpose of academic governance is arguably of greater importance than ever before. If a future-thinking, value-focused, data-savvy and digitally agile university is to succeed, its academic governance processes must: 

  1. Understand risk and foster innovation: change in higher education is happening more quickly than ever before – of that there’s no doubt. In such circumstances committee members need to be fully empowered to assess change and risk as part of their scrutiny function. Academic governance needs to be open to innovation and able to demonstrate and live a culture that encourages experimentation and appropriate risk-taking.  

  1. Be part of the institution’s digital DNA: recognising that it’s people, not technology that build culture, those in governance roles must also adapt to the digital age – not least to improve communication, meetings, access to information and importantly, equality. This includes the use of online platforms for meetings, applications that support real-time discussions in a variety of formats, and data insights that inform decision-making and action. This may also require a different form of committee support role (beyond paper collation and minute taking) to embrace the connectivity of our digital spaces and new ways of deliberating, thinking and working.  

  1. Acknowledge multiple forms of expertise: more than ever before, it’s critical that the right people are at the table to inform and support strategic planning, decision making and scrutiny. It’s axiomatic that academic scrutiny and judgement lie at the heart of any academic governance system. But our academic decision making must draw on multiple sources of expertise to make sound and timely judgements and provide strong oversight of our courses, our curricula and our pedagogies.  

  1. Democratise data: data is everywhere and can relate to every aspect of the student lifecycle and experience – from application and conversion data, internal student analytics and surveys, official institutional HESA data returns to national surveys such as the Graduate Outcomes Survey and National Student Survey. Data is now a crucial element of the day-to-day business of every university, and committees need to actively value and take part in a collectively agreed, university-wide approach to data usage. Committee members must therefore feel empowered to ask data-related questions and have access to the right data at the right times to make informed decisions.   

  1. Develop, develop, develop: with so many priorities in play, and innovation and change always just around the corner, it can be difficult to keep up! Those involved in academic governance need new forms of induction and support to ensure that they can continue to perform their evolving roles and maintain their currency. We can no longer assume that people ‘get’ academic governance. People need to know what is expected of any governance committee and its members – and why this is the case.  

  1. Be fleet of foot: in such a fast-paced environment, the traditional four meetings a year of the deliberative committee cycle are not as operationally effective as they once were. By the time items are presented to committee, deadlines may have passed, and discussions can end up focusing on decisions already taken rather than what we could or should do. In such circumstances academic governance may need to take on new ways of working and follow different, perhaps more fluid, schedules.  

Is your academic governance ‘ultra-intelligent’? 

So how do your own current academic governance structures, processes and support mechanisms match up to the realities of these changing times? Do you – like many colleagues we have met - have that niggling feeling that things are no longer quite fit for purpose, with many actual decisions taking place in different fora, or at a faster pace than the academic governance cycle can manage?  

We therefore challenge you – perhaps as part of your last meetings in the annual governance cycle of 2022/23, or as you enter into the calendar for 2023/24 - to reflect on your academic governance purposes, processes, structures, terms of reference and support. 

How might they need to adapt to ensure they can remain a core, meaningful and critical element of the ‘ultra-intelligent university’? We fundamentally maintain that academic governance must remain the beating heart of any university’s academic function but believe that without action we could quickly lose sight of its purpose, place and value – particularly in such challenging and changing times.    


Professor Liz Cleaver has worked in education for over 28 years. She currently offers consultancy for higher education in a range of areas including strategic change, learning and teaching enhancement, governance and quality assurance, educational research and policy evaluation. She is a Principal Fellow and holds visiting professorships at the University of the West of England, Buckinghamshire New University, Solent University and the University of Westminster. 

John Sumpter is Senior Consultant Education at Advance HE. Find out more about John here

The authors would like to thank Nicholas Moore for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this blogpost. 

Governance Development Programme

On 28 June 2023, the GDP Student Experience and Academic Assurance will take place, find out more and book your place here

Member Benefits 2022-23

If you are interested in exploring our member benefit project focused on the current challenges facing academic governance, visit the project webpage.


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