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How are governing bodies seeking assurance on academic quality?

  • 17 January 2023
  • By Dr Alex Bols

This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Dr Alex Bols, Deputy Chief Executive of GuildHE.

The recent HEPI paper, Opportunities to improve university governance in England (HEPI Report 155), by Dr Alison Wheaton, is an insightful look into how we can improve university governance in England. It suggests that there have been recent moves towards more interactive governance, and that these rely on clarity of role as well as capacity and capability.

I was unsurprised that governors expressed least confidence in their role relating to academic governance and institutional performance monitoring. This is something that I have written about for HEPI, Why it is time for university governors to do more on academic quality (HEPI Policy Note 36). The Policy Note highlighted the increasing expectations on governing bodies to seek their own assurances that standards are being maintained and to enable governors to have a more interactive role in this.

Where are we now?

GuildHE have been working closely with Universities UK over the last few years to strengthen quality and standards across the sector. We recently surveyed institutions about various elements related to this – which will be published shortly – including how governing bodies assure themselves that academic quality and standards are being maintained.

The survey suggested that this happens in a number of ways including the more traditional route of the assurances that they receive from Senate / Academic Board, something that almost all respondents agreed happened.

Governing bodies now usually receive their own assurances through approval of degree outcomes statements, an annual quality report submitted to the governing body and monitoring compliance with Office for Students’s B conditions in England. These reports provide the clarity that governors require to focus their attention where most needed, although it should be noted that there is still more to be done.

The survey explores how confident respondents were that their institution’s governing body provided effective and robust quality assurance scrutiny and also the extent to which they were confident that the institution’s committee structure provided assurance. Responses suggest that while respondents were confident in both they were much less likely to be ‘very confident’ that the governing body was providing effective and robust quality assurance scrutiny.  

Capability

The capability of governing bodies to undertake these assurance roles is being enhanced in a number of ways, with almost all respondents agreeing that they have governors nominated from senate / academic board. At least one institution noted that they have an annual joint meeting of the governing body and academic board.

Many governing bodies also have independent governors nominated for their quality / academic skillset and there was training for governors on academic issues provided in almost half of the institutions that responded. In addition to including this in the induction for new governors, one institution mentioned preparing videos and other asynchronous materials for their board members as well as training and Q&A sessions.

Board academic committees

Interestingly, the survey also identifies that almost a quarter of respondents have established an academic committee of the board – separate to the senate / academic board. This board committee aims to provide more active assurance for independent members of the board. At least one example of this is a committee that has a slightly wider remit so that it looks at both the student experience as well as quality and standards.

There is still, however, a degree of nervousness about this in some institutions with concern about the possible overlap with academic board. Dr Wheaton referred to the deteriorating academic involvement in institutional governance among scholars resulting from the rise of managerialism and the tension with questions of academic self-governance.

Active assurance

I also referred to this in my Policy Note reflecting on the changing expectations from the English regulator and the revised Committee of University Chairs (CUC) Guidance that expect governing bodies to actively seek assurances that academic governance is robust and effective. This becomes ever-more important with the political interest in issues surrounding quality in higher education and ensuring value for money for public expenditure.

The recent increase in the number of governors appointed with understanding of higher education, better induction and training for governors, developing a culture of academic governance and enhanced information and opportunities to discuss these issues will all help provide better assurance to the wider public and result in improved governance of the core activity of universities. 

There is still more to do to improve governing body oversight of academic issues. GuildHE will be working with AdvanceHE and Universities UK to explore these issues of academic governance in more detail over the coming year through a series of round-tables to help identify what support universities need and how we can best meet this.

GuildHE is an officially recognised representative body for UK Higher Education. Our members include universities, university colleges, further education colleges and specialist institutions. Member institutions include some major providers in professional subject areas including art, design and media, music and the performing arts; agriculture and food; education; business and law, the built environment; health and sports.

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