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Higher education governance is in the spotlight – and the sector should be prepared to act

14 Aug 2019 | Aaron Porter Aaron Porter, Advance HE Associate Director (Governance), makes a case for professionalising governance.

Higher education governance is in the spotlight like never before. The Office for Students (OfS) regulatory framework places more emphasis on governing boards than the HEFCE regime that preceded it, legislation in Scotland, a small number of high profile governance incidents, and ever more pressing market forces all combine to place an unprecedented level of attention on our councils, courts and Boards.

In the past, the sector’s approach to governance has served it well. In less turbulent times, (cast your mind back, if you will, to the days of steadily rising funding, student number controls, government proactively welcoming international students, ample funding for capital projects etc), some institutions could go about routine business with a relatively distant governing body. On the whole, the strategic choices available to institutions were somewhat narrower, and in the main, most universities prospered steadily in a broadly supportive environment. Competition was less fierce, and to a large degree, institutions could co-exist confident that students would apply and that capital funding could be accessed.

The relatively stable environment of the early 2000s have been replaced by turbulence, not just in relation to funding, but with increasing concerns over wellbeing and mental health for students and staff, safeguarding and the protection of students against harassment and wider issues relating to health and safety, security and counter terrorism. These are among the new issues which universities face, and that are also of direct concern to governors, in a way that would not perhaps typically have been the case for Boards a decade ago. 

Times have changed, and with it must our approach to governance. Firstly, the sector is so much more complicated: there are now over 300 providers on the OfS register in England alone, and institutions in all four countries of the UK face a more testing environment. Our appreciation of what constitutes good governance has had to change significantly, and some positive steps are underway, particularly when you see the diversity of governance models which are now in operation in the sector. Secondly, there was a time when the prevailing view was ‘public good, private bad’: whatever your take on the role of private provision in higher education, it is now firmly part of the landscape; and with that shift comes a broader range of approaches, including paid non-executives, and shareholder members on Boards.

This is not to say that the volunteer model is dead – for many institutions, especially universities – it remains perfectly appropriate. However, this should be a conscious choice, appropriate to the context of the provider. But even when the volunteer model remains appropriate, some areas of a volunteer model do need to be enhanced.

I would propose a number of initiatives to achieve this, including: mandatory annual appraisal of every governor: appointments explicitly considered against skills required; the interface between a Board and its sub-committees actively reviewed, especially where a Board only meets quarterly; and a missed meeting should be absolutely exceptional and fully monitored. I would also argue that there is now a far greater requirement for lay members to have a really good knowledge of higher education regulation, quality and standards. Governors must be formally and regularly supported through induction programmes, annual training and ongoing development; in this way, they will be better equipped to work with the Executive teams and offer more effective scrutiny of the provider’s performance measures and benchmarks.

There is no doubt that issues highlighted by the negative publicity about vice-chancellor pay, and strained relations on campus over disputes about pay and pensions have led to a degree of tension between staff and the management and governance of their institutions. While management teams must lead the work to rebuild relationships with their staff, Boards have a role to play too. I think this should be centred on really meaningful engagement with a clear plan for how the key decisions, agendas, strategy, key performance objectives and impact of a Board is continually given profile as part of an ongoing dialogue with staff. In many higher education providers, it’s quite possible that the Board will be completely unknown to the employees of the organisation. I am not for a moment suggesting that staff suddenly need to know the names of all the governors, but I am saying that the key pillars of the strategy, the role that the board plays and relevant performance measures should become a ‘lived’ part of the experience of staff, both formally through governance structures and informally too. It’s vital that staff feel they have a voice in decision making, and also in the role they are playing to help deliver the strategy once it is agreed.

We need to reflect on the collective capability of our Boards to really understand the performance of the university they govern. This includes, but goes well beyond the key performance measures which they should have had a role in agreeing and then monitor. We need to open up the conversation about what truly constitutes success. Bluntly, there can never be more than 50% of universities occupying the top half of league table places, so I think Boards, together with their executive, should evolve and widen their approach to measuring performance to reflect this. For many universities this means performance measures which genuinely reflect their identity, their mission and their specialisms, rather than simply focussing on the same basket of national measures which nearly all others focus on.

There is a delicate balance for Boards to strike between support and challenge. This isn’t an immovable line - it will change over time depending on the context of the institution. In order to calibrate challenge appropriately, a Board needs to really understand good, bad or indifferent performance in the sector well beyond the headline measures of student number growth and league table performance.

In my view, Advance HE is really well placed to support the development of governors and Boards. In the last academic year, we engaged with over 800 governors, and there’s now even more we can do. Working with representative bodies across the sector including UUK, GuildHE, Independent HE, CUC, AHUA, NUS and others, we recently launched our new portfolio of induction programmes and training and development proposition for every stage and step in governance: governors, council members, trustees, non-executives and Board members. Many of the core components, such as dedicated events for Chairs, Staff and Student Governors, Clerks and Secretaries have been retained. These programmes are now complemented with a deliberate move to engage with the breadth of provider types. We continue to offer online courses, round tables, and we have moved further into new territory, tackling emerging issues that Boards are facing such as cyber security, institutional closure and trustee remuneration.

We have also begun to frame much of our development offer in line with the development journey which Board members themselves go on; from thinking about joining a Board, early induction, to becoming a more experienced governor, through to stepping up to become a sub-committee or full Board chair. Different governors come with different previous experience, and we have reflected this more explicitly in our proposition.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, as governance becomes more important, the space to exchange practice, ideas and experience becomes all the more vital too, and we want to work with Board members and governors from all sorts of providers across the UK to learn from each other, but also to further enhance what we do. I’m confident that this portfolio establishes the opportunities to forge those networks and shared spaces.

Now that the spotlight is firmly on, let’s rise to the challenge and demonstrate that governance truly is fit for purpose.

Aaron Porter is the Associate Director (Governance) for Advance HE. He is also on the Boards of Goldsmiths and BPP universities, as well as Chair of the Board of governance of Nelson College London.

Advance HE’s Annual Transforming Governance for a new normal: Governance Conference 2020 took place virtually on 20 November. Find out more.

Information about our work to support effective governance in higher education, including our Governance Development Programme, can be found here.


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