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'I just need to get this past the Board!': a chance to do the leader-governor dance differently

09 Dec 2020 | Jo Chaffer Advance HE has been working with the British Council to develop governance and leadership capacity in the HE sector in both Myanmar and Vietnam. Jo Chaffer, our Australia-based Key Global Associate, discusses how best to optimise the leadership-governance relationship.

As both Vietnam and Myanmar higher education sectors move towards institutional autonomy there is opportunity to establish governance that is optimally integrated within the university, while agile- and judicious-enough for the times we are in. I suggests diversity is the answer – in the relationships, the way we interact and of course, in who we are and how we think.

Some scene setting: As noted, both Myanmar and Vietnam are in the midst of legal, policy and structural shifts away from centralised control of their higher education sectors, albeit at slightly different points.

Shape-shifting at pace and scale: Whilst there is plenty of talent and expertise in the academic aspects of leadership there is a recognition of the need to develop organisational and financial leadership capacity within institutions as these responsibilities transition from their respective agencies.

And this is not just about being confident and able to lead day-to-day business. The need now is to transform existing institutional structures, systems and culture to those demanded of the modern university in a marketised and fast-moving operating environment that meets the needs of a dramatically increasing student body. The challenges are immense: create a university charter, constitution, mission and values, devise a strategy for transformation and success, source new income streams, build effective management and keep your people with you through all this to keep delivering, widening and improving the student experience, creating knowledge and engaging with the wider world; all of this, at the same time as establishing new institutional leadership and governance structures.

At the tipping point – risk and governance: There is an acute awareness of the risks and exposure that accompany the immanent loosening of the existing systems of control and the much longed for, and much needed, shift towards institutional, financial and academic autonomy. Good governance is perceived to be the guardian against these threats. The vision for exactly what good governance might look like, how it will be empowered and also accountable, how it will support leadership is still being developed. In Myanmar, the national governance architecture has some shape with the key agency, NAQAC matured and framing much of the policy and regulatory environment. The national road map, articulating the change steps for the first batch of universities to attain autonomy, is yet to be fully ratified, but the sense of what revitalised Myanmar Higher Education looks and feels like, is clear.

The time is now: This is the opportunity to develop institutional governance the Myanmar Way, evolving hand-in-hand with leadership with common purpose, values and tempo. Similarly, for Vietnam, which also has only a small percentage of universities granted some degree of autonomy. Critically, there is good support from respective governments, funders and agencies such as the British Council, the Open Society and Universities Wales in terms of expertise and finance.

The best we can be is…? So, what are the questions to consider, the lessons to be drawn from other countries and particularly the deep understanding we have of the UK sector? Free from legacy models, with constitutions yet to be drawn up and a still evolving legal and policy framework, what could ‘fit for the future’ leadership-governance look like?

How do we create and maintain diversity: diversity in thinking, in representation and in our relationships? This question is, firstly, about the people who become governors – to set up governing boards that are really of the communities the university sits within and that form it. People from our neighbourhoods, our employer networks, our student bodies, our arts communities: people who not only have skills and expertise, but think differently-enough from each other and from our leadership teams to have the spirited, critical and open conversations necessary to provide the checks, balances and creative insights to drive wholesome strategic thinking and direction. This requires some deep thinking about who to recruit, where to find them and how to ensure open and fair processes which actively enable diverse candidates to be considered and appointed. The corollary to this question of course is not who the university wants, but why any of these good folk would actually want to get into governance? What would motivate them? And would their motivation align with that of the university? Recruitment is therefore not just about fair process, but clear communication about the purpose and values of both the institute and the governance body itself.

The second point around diversity of thinking is partly answered by the diversity of ‘who’. It’s also answered in the final point around the diversity of ‘how’. ‘How’ refers to building diversity into ‘how we interact’. It’s about creating structures and systems for governors and leaders to have multiple different types of interactions and catalysts to build many and different types of relationships. This might mean creating scheduled spaces for informal conversations; matrices of temporary committees providing agile and judicious guidance on contemporary issues and opportunities; reverse-mentoring and of course the various essential, deep-focus structures such as committees for audit, finance, risk etc. There are many options for how, how often and how well we communicate and for what end.  I suggest the key is to change the shapes and relationships often-enough so that we both match the pace of change in the operating and policy environment and prevent ossification of these vital relationships into un-attentive and unhelpful habits of protocols.

So that senior leaders are not heard uttering phrases such as, ‘I just need to get this past the Board’, because the Board is not ‘other’. Because Board-leadership relationships are robust, respectful, open and multi-faceted. Because the leadership-governance relationship drives a culture of support balanced with challenge. Because leadership and governance are working as one towards building high-quality, high-integrity, autonomous higher education institutes.

Find out more about Advance HE’s services for governing bodies. We know that every provider of higher education, wherever you are based in the world, is unique and your requirements will be bespoke as a result.

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