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Key challenges for university boards: a bird’s eye view

04 Mar 2020 | Ellen Roberts As leader for Advance HE’s programme on ‘Rethinking Governance’, Ellen Roberts hears first-hand from governors and governance specialists across higher education about the key challenges that HE institutions currently face, and about the implications of these challenges for governance. She shares this bird’s eye view here.

During Advance HE’s course on Rethinking Governance, delegates share their perspective on the current key issues for governing bodies within higher education. These perspectives, from members of governing bodies and governance specialists across a wide range of institutions, provide a bird’s eye view of the current higher education (HE) landscape, and of the implications of this landscape for governance.

Strikingly, while delegates come from a diverse range of roles, institutions and backgrounds, they share remarkably similar views about the nature of the current landscape facing HE institutions.

Top themes include how to set a clear strategic path within a climate of considerable disruption and uncertainty, how best to achieve financial sustainability in an increasingly competitive environment and the need to differentiate within this environment, both nationally and internationally.

‘Newer’ themes, coming to prominence over the last 18 months, include concerns about student and staff wellbeing, how to make substantive progress on diversity, and how best to define and measure the ‘value’ that the university creates. At the back of this substantial agenda is an even deeper issue concerning the purpose of universities, and the tension between competitive and public good objectives.

This agenda is a demanding one for any university, prompting reflections both about the key challenges for boards, and how best to equip boards to meet them.

Key challenges include:

  • How best to manage in an environment in which market-based competition and government regulation are increasing.

  • How to manage relationships with multiple stakeholders, partners and constituencies. This seems closely related to the question about what kind of 'value' the university should aim to create, and for whom, and to what ethical standards.

  • How to measure performance without bringing unintended consequences into play. In layman's terms, how to avoid the trap of ‘hitting the target but missing the point’.

  • How to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, both among the university's current student body and those it might seek to serve.

  • How to engage with the potential of technology in pursuit of effective learning.

  • How to secure institutional sustainability, in the face of these various challenges. This includes the management of risk, and an appreciation not only of the risk involved in 'new' ventures, but also of the risks inherent in not confronting emerging trends

Resilience required

Underlying these challenges are three key tensions that university boards will need to navigate, regardless of their type of institution: the pressures to compete and to collaborate, the different types of accountability imposed by the market-place and by regulators, and the importance of achieving public good objectives while also securing financial sustainability.

In this very challenging context, how can we build the capacity of those steering the university to engage with complexity, uncertainty and change? This is likely to require resilience, an understanding of the levers that institutions can control and appropriate, constructive challenge.

What this might mean in practice for boards is debated among delegates, but some key ideas include:

  • Creating space for strategic thinking, including scenario planning: often difficult amidst the immediacy of everyday pressures.

  • Clarifying the respective roles of non-executive and executive board members.  This is especially important in times of turbulence and change, when increased pressures can start to skew those respective roles. Time out to consider this relationship, and how to make it work as effectively as possible, is likely to be time well spent.

  • Increasing the diversity of voices within the board, in order to avoid ‘group-think’ and to increase the effectiveness of decision-making.

  • Tackling information asymmetries: ensuring that the non-executive members of boards have sufficient information, yet without drowning them or overburdening those who service boards.

The development of the tensions identified above, together with the degree of current uncertainty, perhaps marks this out as an especially challenging time for anyone who has a role in HE governance.

Based on my experience of facilitating the ‘Rethinking Governance’ course, there are benefits for all concerned in acknowledging the sheer complexity of the current environment.  Understanding why it is so challenging can be the first step in helping deal with it.


Rethinking Governance is a five-week long online course run in partnership with the University of York, starting on 26 May. Find out more and book your place here. #GrowInHE

Professor Ellen Roberts is Director of Online Studies in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York, overseeing a set of online postgraduate programmes for public service professionals. She is a National Teaching Fellow, and is passionate about the contribution that simultaneous work and study, via online learning, can make to individual and organisational learning.


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