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Governance in Higher Education: Don’t Panic

  • 8 February 2016

This guest blog has been kindly contributed by John Rushforth ( [email protected]), who is part-time Secretary to the Committee of University Chairs and formerly Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of the West of England.

We live in uncertain times, but universities are complex global enterprises and change is inevitable. One theme of recent years is increasing expectations on institutional governors. They are expected to take an increased role in quality assurance and are now even being asked to take a view on how well their institution is doing in preventing terrorism.

Such demands have generated angst, with arguments from ‘it is unreasonable to expect so much from volunteers’ to ‘this will all end in tears’. The debate has been put in sharper focus by the HEFCE consultation on quality assessment.

In the past, governors have been wary of intruding directly into academic matters. However, it seems inevitable that governing bodies will become more involved while recognising the need to collaborate still with academic boards and senates.

The memorandum of assurance and accountability has for some time placed requirements on governing bodies on to academic and student matters, although there is variation between the four UK funding bodies in the exact wording.

It is hard to argue that a high-quality student experience and, where appropriate, research portfolios are not determinants of institutional sustainability. So they always have been core governing body responsibilities. How can they effectively discharge that responsibility?

Given the complexities of academic governance, it is unrealistic to expect governors to be experts. However, they do not have to be. In many ways, the role is similar to that in other areas, concentrating on strategy and ensuring effective risk management, with others doing the bulk of the work.

Moreover, the fundamental aspects of educational character and academic performance do not change radically very often. They may come under scrutiny in times of major financial challenge or when a new strategic plan is being developed – or perhaps when a new head of institution arrives.

Governors must assess if their strategy can be translated into activities with associated executive responsibilities and timelines. Increasingly governing bodies take a risk-based approach to developing strategy and determining educational character. Deciding the academic strategy is no different.

As in other areas, the governing body needs enough information to have assurance about the robustness of academic governance. This can be provided in a number of ways but the challenge for academic boards or senates and executives is to strike the right balance between communicating what they have done while not overwhelming the governing body with excessive detail and complex language.

The guidance from the Committee of University Chairs identifies a number of possible academic Key Performance Indicators, including: the character of the student population; evidence of academic distinctiveness; position in peer group and league tables; contribution of strategic academic relationships; and the integration of academic and strategic planning.

It is important that the academic community does not see the board as a threat but works with it because it sees the benefits that can be obtained from an effective governing body. These include:

  • specific professional expertise;
  • the ability to connect with other communities;
  • the offering of new business links and commercial connections; and
  • the ability to promote the institution.

One of the key risks that the board itself has to recognise is that it develops a form of group think, based on similar experiences, backgrounds and values. There is an emerging focus on ensuring that boards look outside the traditional recruitment practices to ensure a more diverse group of governors.

Boards also need to consider whether they have the right mix of understanding of the core business of the institution. Some rely on staff governors, while some use retired senior staff from other institutions and others rely on specific members of the executive being present at the board.

It is unrealistic to expect any governing body to encompass all the academic disciplines while remaining a sensible size for effective debate and decision making. But so long as the board has sufficient understanding to ask key questions, trusts its executives and has a clear focus on outcomes and values rather than process and details, it should be able to make an effective contribution.

All of this is challenging enough, but what if the green paper comes to be implemented. What sort of additional challenge does that pose for academic governance? My view is that the green paper offers a series of threats and opportunities.

The TEF is an example. On the one hand, it could be a relatively simple way to assess elements of performance and get some form of comparative assurance. On the other, it could deflect institutions from assessing the totality of academic governance, overlooking the complex inter-relationships that make an institution effective, including the links between research and teaching. Changes to the research landscape might simplify some arrangements, but at the same time may, over time, restrict the flexibility and autonomy of institutions to determine their own research priorities.

So where does that leave us? Universities are some of the most difficult organisations in the country to manage and to govern. But the UK has a long history of doing both functions well, producing one of the UK’s few really world-class industries. The key to this success has been a diverse set of autonomous institutions that are well governed and have adapted to continuously changing circumstances. So the best response to coming challenges is for institutions to consider four things in reviewing their governance:

  1. Composition – Is there sufficient expertise and understanding of the institutions’ core business?
  2. Connection – Does the board get enough feedback from students and stakeholders on how well the institution is performing?
  3. Communication – Is there sufficient, appropriate and clear communication between the academic board or senate and the board of governors?
  4. Concentrate – Do they spend sufficient time on strategic outcomes and values and not too much on processes and details?



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