In May 2023, we hosted a member roundtable on governance, convening the sector to discuss and collaborate on responses to the changing landscape in Ireland. We were joined by colleagues Rex Knight and Tadgh Leane, Advance HE Governance Associates, who provided critical reflections on key challenges, and we heard from a variety of members across the sector.
It was clear from the discussions it may be most useful to start by reminding ourselves that an effective higher education governing body has a vital part to play in enabling institutions to achieve their full potential. As is evident in news headlines around the world, accountability and transparency are often seen as key aspects of fulfilling effective governance. The emphasis may tend toward compliance and oversight of day-to-day decision-making. Within the new HEA Act, governing bodies have the chance to re-imagine their role and the purpose of governance, alongside the rest of their community, in shaping and implementing the vision and strategy of their institution.
The Act presents three immediate challenges and opportunities for higher education institutions in Ireland:
- To make the best use of the reduction in size of Governing Authorities
- To secure the right talent and expertise on the new Governing Authority
- To address the Act’s expectations on diversity in governance.
1. Reduction in the size of the Governing Authority
Previous legislation allowed for larger Governing Authorities (GA), particularly for universities, with a significant number of members appointed by external bodies or sitting in a ‘representative’ staff role. The reduction in size presents an opportunity for a GA to review operations in reference to efficiency and effectiveness. In order to make the most of this opportunity, the following factors may be useful to consider.
How should institutions bring together the new GA, and the key members of the institution it will work with, to make sure that everyone has a clear understanding of ways of working, roles and responsibilities, priorities, and how trust will be established and fostered? People and culture are key to effective governance and the establishment of a new GA is a vital time to ensure terms of reference and roles are understood and agreed.
With a smaller GA what committee structures are now needed? Should the GA delegate more or less, and how often are meetings required? Fewer committees might enable quicker decision making, though the burden on the GA itself may then be greater. Conversely, committees are arguably the place where the ‘heavy lifting’ of governance takes place and should be constituted accordingly to provide assurance to the GA.
Legitimacy is also key to governance, and a GA will need to carefully consider its approach to communication and engagement (two-way) with internal and external stakeholders, particularly in the context of the GA itself being smaller.
Finally, during this time, it is worth considering if the GA has the right level of support from the secretariat and senior officers to enable undertaking their newly defined role effectively. A reduction in size may mean the institution can also reimagine how it liaises with and supports its Governors. This notion leads directly to the next opportunity.
2. Securing talent and expertise on the Governing Authority
With the opportunity to reduce size and recruit a new GA, comes the opportunity to think about the individual skills of GA members and how institutions can best develop and support their role as Governor. Where the GA appoints members directly, these appointments could be treated with the same level of priority and attention as key staff appointments. Communicating the appointment process and new Governors with the entire institutional community is one way to ensure the GA is embedded into the ethos of the institution. To make the most of this opportunity, the following factors may be useful starting points:
- Start with a clear understanding of the skills needs, with an awareness that each institution may need to focus on different things in their own context. These specific skills can be added to a generic baseline descriptor for GA members, which can be advertised widely, with a carefully designed recruitment and selection process. There is a wealth of talent eager to get involved in higher education due to its significant societal/community impact, but you may need to go looking for it. For internal staff appointments, it is often most useful to design a process that has a clear statement of what the GA itself needs, again focusing on skills and context, with an appropriate mechanism for people to put themselves forward and a well-designed selection process
- As with all staff, recruitment and selection is not the end of the process. To make the most of this new GA, a robust induction process tailored to the needs of new members and their circumstances can be created, complemented by annual conversations between senior officers, the Chair, and each member
- If an institution does not currently invest in the development of their Governors, now is a key time to consider how to do so. Governing bodies in any sector benefit from development supporting them to be effective in their role.
All of the above is often overseen by a standing committee of the GA, which can monitor succession planning, committee memberships, and filling vacancies as they arise.
3. Diversity of the Governing Authority
The HEA Act also clearly sets out expectations for GAs to reflect the diversity of Irish society. Aside from the legal requirement, institutions will understand the need for legitimacy in effective governance, and the need to reflect their own student and staff community. Advance HE has undertaken significant work in the area of board diversity, to assist institutions to understand and support the complexity of embedding diversity and inclusion within governance. To ensure this opportunity is met, the following factors can be reviewed by the GA and senior officers:
- Initially, a GA may wish to adopt a definition of diversity appropriate to its context and to the mission of its institution. This may include targets for diversity within the GA
- It might also provide useful intelligence to benchmark the current GA profile against peers nationally and internationally. Institutions may choose to do this with higher education institutions throughout Ireland, internationally, or with other industries located within their region
- Most higher education institutions in Ireland now have equality, diversity, and inclusion embedded in either their institutional strategy, or a stand-alone strategy to support development. This is an opportunity to see whether your strategy supports and includes how your institution views governance. Have you developed a board diversity strategy or plan for the next 3-5 years? Have you set any targets or created any initiatives to support Governor inclusion, as we all know ‘belonging and inclusion’ is also a key factor? Institutions should be wary of recruiting a diverse board but failing to enable all members to engage and build a collaborative and equitable community if an institution sets targets or creates initiatives, it is also important to monitor them. The impact of a more diverse GA, or the impact of any development initiatives, can only truly be seen if you monitor and track that impact over time.
In all three of these opportunity areas, institutions will want to talk with colleagues and identify practice that works for their context. Given the scale and pace of change, the value of keeping in touch and learning together cannot be overestimated. Through Advance HE there is an opportunity to be connected to other higher education institutions in Ireland with shared challenges and opportunities, and also the opportunity to connect across the global HE sector to explore further best practice.
Over the coming year, we will provide opportunities and resources for members as they work through these changes. Given the nature and scope of change coming from the HEA Act, and the key role of the GA in achieving an institution’s potential, we would encourage institutions to consider how they understand or define effective governance. What is it these changes are intended to support? How can each institution use this opportunity to reframe the challenge and achieve a governance structure that is robust and assists the institution in its ambitions for the future? The importance and combination of self-effectiveness reviews, development work, external-effectiveness reviews, and collaboration will be key to getting the transition right.
Tonya Watts has worked in Irish higher education for eight years, including supporting institutional work on equality, diversity, and inclusion at governance level. In her role as Head of Partnerships for Ireland, she now works with institutions and sector bodies in Ireland convening and collaborating on shared sector development needs.
Victoria Holbrook oversees Advance HE’s strategic consulting, governance and insights portfolio and has led a number of governance effectiveness reviews across the UK and Ireland. She also ensured the development of Advance HE’s Board Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit and related work which led to Advance HE being shortlisted for equality, diversity and inclusion initiative of the year 2022 by the Chartered Governance Institute UK and Ireland. Her background is in the public funding, regulation and policy of higher education and she is an experienced non-executive director/governor in the HE sector.