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Governing higher education – reflections for the year ahead (feat. Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

21 Jul 2022 | Victoria Holbrook Our Assistant Director Governance, Victoria Holbrook, introduces Advance HE’s new brochure: Evolving Effective Governance

“But I do not doubt that it is beneficial sometimes to contemplate in the mind, as in a picture, the image of a grander and better world; for if the mind grows used to the trivia of daily life, it may dwindle too much and decline altogether into worthless thoughts.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Major Works

I rather like this quote by Coleridge, who I often think about as I have a (just-about-if-you-squint-hard-enough) view of the Quantock Hills from my desk, where he famously roamed and wrote large parts of his works. Right now, as we near the end of another long academic year while enduring a heatwave, it seems to speak both to feelings about the state of the world we live in, and about the challenges facing higher education governance. It has certainly been testing times, and the need to keep that long view – the image of a grander and better world – feels more important than ever.

The start of every academic year is always an opportunity to put pen to paper and draw a fresh image. For us here at Advance HE, we started the 2021-22 year with our first strategy firmly in place and with a clear commitment to evolve higher education governance in service of our members and the sector over the coming years.

Core to that commitment is – and will always be – improving the diversity of governing bodies and supporting the inclusive culture that enables them to thrive. We launched the first ever HE Board Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit in November 2021, in partnership with Perrett Laver. It has had nearly 1000 unique downloads to date and in a recent survey of governance professionals, 58% of respondents reported using the Toolkit already and citing benefits such as improved recruitment and informed/refreshed action plans. Of those who had not used it yet, the vast majority were aware of it and intend to do so. The Toolkit also provided a framework for exploring issues in depth with governance professionals of small or specialist providers in a collaborative member-benefit programme with GuildHE. This successful, person-centred approach to what often is a sensitive and challenging agenda will be replicated for wider Advance HE members in 22-23. Alongside this, last month we launched the Phase 2 development of the Board Vacancies Portal with the Committee of University Chairs. For us, a grander and better world can only be a reality with diverse governors (in all senses) around inclusive boardroom tables.

Insight from our governance effectiveness consultancy and recent sector surveys clearly show that one of the main areas that has featured in (vexed?) the daily life of governance professionals this year is academic governance and assurance. Dr Alex Bols of GuildHE spoke to this at our GDP Clerks and Secretaries Network event in May, then excellently captured for HEPI. Governors also grappled with the topic at our GDP Assuring academic outcomes and student experience session in June, and we will major on this theme at our Annual Governance Conference in November 2022. The combination of increasing expectations, regulatory demands, ‘efficient versus effective’ pedagogic practice and financial tightening is surely going to challenge many Boards as we head into 22-23. Time, then, for the Board to be aligned in its vision and understand institutional performance towards the new world.

How would Coleridge have measured the success of his works? By numbers of pamphlets published? The citations he had by his peers? The money at his disposal? Perhaps it was more to do with affecting the consciousness of his readers, aiming towards his vision for society? The issue of understanding performance, value and impact is one which governing bodies rate highly as needing further work, and it seems governance professionals do to. The last year has seen higher education simultaneously lambasted and lauded for its role in freedom of speech, culture wars, levelling up and Covid solutions, within an increasingly divergent regulatory environment across the UK. Environmental and social impact matters now more than ever to students, staff, society and investors. So perhaps it is timely to ask just what are the performance measures a governing body should use? How does it know if it is helping to forge a grander and better world, if it doesn’t measure or capture what matters? We will be focussing on this topic in collaboration with HEPI, knowing the spotlight is on like never before.

As we head towards the new year, and the sun sets over the hills, you can be sure that we are here to help you.

Download the new Evolving Higher Education Governance brochure now to find out more about all our services and member-benefits to support you and your governing body


  • For a full list of Governor Development Programme events in 2022-23, including dates for the Governance Professionals Programme, see here
  • Attend our free webinar on Tuesday 20 September at 11am to hear more about the findings from our two recent sector surveys coupled with insight from our own work – ‘What the sector has to say about governance, now and next’
  • For details and to book for our Annual Governance Conference on 24 November 2022, see here.

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.

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