Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

‘More work to do’: internal academic governance and governing body assurance

  • 4 October 2023
  • By Alex Bols
  • This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Dr Alex Bols, Deputy Chief Executive of GuildHE.
  • AdvanceHE, Universities UK, Committee of University Chairs and GuildHE are publishing a new set of reflective questions for institutions to consider on the topic of academic governance and assurance.

Ongoing media headlines about ‘low quality’ or ‘rip-off’ university courses are just the latest in a series of headlines relating to quality and standards that go back over twenty years to talk of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees.

The political expectation is often a regulatory intervention that can raise questions about the independence and autonomy of universities. However, with the significant costs of the student loan system, and therefore to the taxpayer, there have been increasing questions as to whether this autonomy is still automatic or whether it is based on trust and needs to be earned. If that trust begins to be lost by us not being seen to tackle our own problems, then the state will start to claw back some of that autonomy, clearly something that is in no one’s interest given the links between autonomy and excellence.

Despite much excellent work by Universities UK, GuildHE, QAA and others at a sector level, ultimately all universities are autonomous institutions and so are responsible for protecting their own academic standards. Therefore, the role of university academic governance and assurance is central.

I have written previously for HEPI on some of the historical developments about the increasing expectations of governing bodies to do more on academic quality (HEPI Policy Note 36). I have also highlighted some of the ways in which universities have been seeking to enhance the role of governing bodies, including increasing the number of governors appointed with an understanding of higher education, better induction and training for governors, and developing a culture of academic assurance amongst Council members. Increasingly university councils have the competence and confidence to explore these issues in more detail.

I therefore wanted to complete the picture of academic governance by considering some of the internal processes as well as wider questions of the role of the governing body.

Academic governance

In the Spring GuildHE along with Universities UK, AdvanceHE and the Committee of University Chairs ran a series of workshops on academic governance, and are publishing a set of reflective questions for institutions to consider their approaches to academic governance and assurance. One of the things that came through most strikingly in the roundtables was the descriptions of the robust internal academic governance procedures that many universities were outlining.

We heard from a number of institutions dealing with issues of academic quality and standards throughout their committee structure – from the departmental level which was able to look at student attainment over time in particular subjects, to the faculty or institution level considering comparability of outcomes across different subject areas – that, say, there aren’t significantly more firsts in the law department than in nursing. There were examples of the academic quality committee or senate commissioning deep dives to explore academic issues within the institution such as awarding gaps between white and black and minority ethnic students.

However, if I were to be provocative, I wonder whether these academic governance processes are equally robust in all universities? And if they were as robust as everyone likes to say, surely we wouldn’t have so many questions about quality and standards in universities?

I have certainly seen quite large university senate meetings where there is little opportunity to get much beyond skin-deep questions on many of these issues. The university senate can sometimes become quite a process-focused committee approving papers from other sub-committees rather than actively setting the academic strategy of the institution. In some institutions, the professoriate can feel less able to challenge senior leaders. There are also questions with an increasing reliance on data and metrics: whether all members of these internal committees have the relevant skills to be able to appropriately scrutinise the figures, to determine what is meaningful difference and what is not.

There may be highly robust academic governance processes in some institutions I do wonder whether we can hand on heart say that is the case in all parts of all institutions. There is therefore more work that could be done to enhance internal academic governance processes to ensure that they are fit for purpose.

This also suggests a role for governing bodies to assure themselves that the internal processes remain robust. As a member of a university audit and risk committee, part of our role is to seek assurance that the organisation’s governance and internal controls processes are operating effectively and we can commission internal audits to seek these assurances. 

Role of the governing body

But this doesn’t quite get to nub of the question of what the role of the governing body should be in relation to quality and standards.

Is it just about assuring itself that the internal academic governance processes are robust? Or going further, setting the institutional risk appetite and overarching organisational strategy, and ensuring that they have enough expertise to be able to ask the right questions and understand the answers?

With the expectation from the OfS that the governing body oversees compliance with their conditions, should they have a wider role in probing the organisation’s RAG rating of the different OfS Ongoing Conditions of registration? Assuring themselves of the university’s compliance might suggest a more active role including commissioning deep dives or examining these issues through board committees.

There might also be a role for the governing body to prompt the management where they think that there is a risk that isn’t managed, or that the actions that management have put in place aren’t having an impact – we’ve all seen extensive NSS action plans that don’t tackle the issues that come up year after year.

So would we want to go back to a situation where academic governance is completely separate from corporate governance? I don’t think it is possible to go back, now that the genie is out of the bottle, as the regulators will maintain their interest. But even if we could, I would argue that we shouldn’t anyway.

I would argue that teaching, quality and research are the core activities of universities and so governing bodies shouldn’t completely exclude themselves from this activity as a matter of principle. There are a number of clear roles that governing bodies have in relation to academic governance including assurance, compliance and setting strategy. I would also argue that there have been many benefits of having university councils getting more interested in these issues. This includes having a semi-independent group consider the robustness of the processes and holding the feet of management to the fire, ensuring that issues are investigated and followed up.

The fact that issues of quality and standards continue to resonate with politicians and the wider public suggests that we haven’t done enough to tackle these perceptions or demonstrate the impact of our actions. Enhancing the role of boards of governors is just part of the answer, which includes more focus on strengthening internal academic governance processes. But evolving the role of the board will add to the external perception of having more independent scrutiny and be more likely to safeguard the central role of academics in academic governance in the future. I hope that the reflective questions will provide an opportunity to further enhance these processes.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *