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Getting louder about good governance

13 Jun 2019 | After nearly 15 years of higher education public service, Victoria Holbrook joined Advance HE as Head of Membership in February 2019 from the Office for Students, having led the development of its new strategy for student information alongside provider registration casework. Prior to that, she was HEFCE’s Regional Consultant for the South West and oversaw the organisation’s approach to supporting good governance.

During my time at the Office for Students and HEFCE (particularly as a Regional Consultant) understanding good – and challenging poor –  governance of one kind or another was a unifying theme of most work undertaken with all types of HE provider. Whether setting out a new strategic plan for sustainability or delivering on a publicly-funded project, we all know that getting governance right – or wrong – can have significant implications for success, not least to reputation. And that affects us all, however we connect with higher education.  

Since starting this role at Advance HE, colleagues in the sector frequently ask me just what good HE governance [in England] should look like ‘in the OfS era’? Some share concerns about not understanding specific requirements while others confess to being overwhelmed by a sense of complexity and sheer volume of paperwork. These are all valid concerns, especially when there has been so much focus on compliance lately, but – in my view – they disguise the real issues, which I observe as being:
-    That there is still much work to do to deliver the underpinning formal principles of good, modern governance 
-    That we should do more to explicitly respond to informal cues
-    That there is a lack of a long-term vision for higher education governance which puts stakeholders at its heart

“Formal principles and informal cues?”, I hear you say. What I mean by this is that we all have key ‘official’ documents that give us reference points for what governance should look like, whether that’s the HE Code delivered by CUC, or the corporate governance code. OfS has its own set of public interest principles against which all registered providers must demonstrate their commitment. These outline formal (agreed) principles which set the tone for our governance processes, behaviours and impact. Many providers do deliver on these well, one could argue, as demonstrated by the rarity of ongoing conditions given to individual providers for this area, as well as the rarity of cases of major structural failure. But we cannot afford to rest on our laurels; we need to ensure that governance keeps pace with the evolving environment which brings both an increased diversity of providers and changing sentiments towards HE (political and parochial). 

This is because, beyond the formal, you cannot fail to notice the informal cues are already there in the public discourse and headlines – particularly diversity in and transparency by those ‘at the top’, and having regard to the full range of stakeholders in demonstrating accountability. It seems no longer enough to deliver quietly on the formal principles; governing bodies should be asking what it means to be loudly explicit, professional and reflective of their own practise, just as we demand many other organisations should be. 

It is this amplification of good governance – through greater transparency, use of external challenge, fit and proper persons checks to name a few – that runs through OfS requirements too. But OfS isn’t the only driver of this need, and we shouldn’t overplay their role. 
“So what about this long-term vision?” Well, my feeling is that we have been so caught up in the new regulator and its requirements of registration that we’ve lost sight of just what we are able to do for ourselves as a sector of autonomous institutions. Good governance is about more than good compliance. In framing a long-term vision that meets both the formal principles and takes on board informal cues, the key questions seem to me to be: 
•    What should your stakeholders (including your students) think and know of you both now and in the future?
•    How does your governance practice fit in with that? Does it help or hinder? Is there enough time for strategic thinking? 
•    Do you have a real vision and plan for governance that includes diversifying voices and succession planning; demonstrating your impact to your various stakeholders; operating with transparency as far as possible, for example? 

Governing well – and being subject to it – is hard work and it is clear to see that providers are rightly taking this seriously. Martin Coleman, OfS Deputy Chair, told delegates at last year’s Advance HE Governance Conference, “Good governance requires proper scrutiny, challenge and an appropriate degree of scepticism”. So let’s make sure we take the time to reflect fully on our approaches and maintain a long-term perspective; we are learning organisations after all. And let’s get louder about governing in the interests of our stakeholders. 

Advance HE has, through its legacy work, enormous experience as the leading provider of support to understand and deliver effective HE governance, training over 800 governors and delivering many effectiveness reviews each year. We work alongside CUC, AHUA, UUK, GuildHE, OfS and others through our Governor Development Advisory Forum to ensure that our programmes and support are fit-for-purpose and alive to the real-time challenges facing the sector. Over the coming year, we will continue to refresh our portfolio, drawing on the latest insights. 
Details of Advance HE’s work to support governance are available in our new brochure; ‘Supporting effective governance in higher education’.

Advance HE’s next Governance Conference is on 28 November 2019 in London. It features keynotes are from David Isaacs, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Chair of the University of the Arts London, and Charlotte Valeur, Chair of the Institute of Directors.

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