We are delighted to have launched our 2017-18 governance year with a joint event with HEPI, the leading policy institute of higher education in the UK. In this blog post we provide a summary of the debate on the challenges facing good governance that took place last month, which included contributions from governors and governance specialists from within and outside of higher education.
Following adverse comments in the press on its leadership and speculation about changes to the future funding of the English higher education system, the panel session organised by the Leadership Foundation and Higher Education Policy Institute on the challenges facing good governance in higher education proved timely.
The panel brought together individuals working in higher education, those who had chaired and served on governing bodies and those involved with regulation and governance in other sectors of the economy. Panel members offered different perspectives on higher education governance, noting areas of strength, but also highlighting aspects of governance that needed attention.
The context of the discussion was the scale of change facing institutions. ‘Winners’ and ‘losers’ were emerging from competition for students and funding. Balancing the academic and business aspects of running an institution had become more challenging. A dynamic environment made conventional five-year strategic plans a thing of the past. The changes were placing greater demands on governing bodies, changing the manner in which they needed to operate.
Central to good governance was the relationship between the head of the institution and the executive team and the governing body. A culture of openness and trust, was needed to encourage governors to act as ‘critical friends’; able to question and support the institution’s leadership as appropriate. There should be ‘no surprises’. The role of governors was summed-up as ‘noses in; hands out’.
Good governance meant that it was insufficient to focus on structure: attention needs to be paid to processes. In this context, it was important to examine how governance really operated, and not how it was described on paper.
Engagement of the governing body with the institution was critical: ‘lazy’ governance should be avoided. Governors need to hear about issues, while being mindful that the actions to address any issues raised would normally fall to the executive. Effective engagement might mean, for example, participating in staff and student forums held outside of the formal meetings of the governing body. Similarly, in the reverse direction, academic staff might need to be educated about the work of the governing body and its members. Each needed to understand the other.
The composition and orientation of a governing body was key to underpinning effective governance. As governing bodies were now expected to seek assurance about academic governance, the need to have lay governors with an understanding of the higher education sector had grown. Equally, it was important to have members who would forensically examine matters in great detail (e.g. in relation to matters of audit and compliance) as well as individuals who had a deep understanding of finance. Similarly, a governing body should have individuals amongst its membership who had a creative mindset, thereby helping to avoid a governing body becoming overly risk-adverse.
Governors must be able to demonstrate that they are competent in discharging their responsibilities. There should be a process of governor evaluation allowing a conversation between, say, an independent governor and the chair of the governing body to take place at regular intervals. Where a governor was unable to contribute effectively, the individual should be asked to step-down from the governing body.
Chairs and heads of institutions should discuss and agree how the governance within the institution would operate. Setting the right ‘tone’ in the boardroom was crucial. This could, for example, mean encouraging the executive to share ideas, as part of a process of testing and development, with the governing body at a formative stage, rather putting a chosen and well-developed option to the governing body for endorsement.
There was a high-risk that following the most recent criticism levelled at higher education, the sector would respond in a defensive manner: this would be a mistake. The danger was that the sector ‘feels sorry for itself’. Far better to reflect on the matters raised, consider carefully and then respond. Universities also had the opportunity to learn from the mistakes made in other sectors, and to avoid making the same mistakes. The observation was made that ‘universities don’t have the right to be silent’. Accountability was an essential part of autonomy. The risk was that if institutions did not take early and effective action, someone else would.
It was noted that in comparison to other professions such as law and medicine, academic staff were in an easier place in relation to professional codes of practice. For these other professions, there were explicit codes of behaviour, and an individual was at risk of facing sanctions if they failed to adhere to them.
An element of radicalism was needed in relation to institutional governance. The following conditions needed to be met:
• Governance needed to be perceived as honest and independent
• The role of a university, including the balance between teaching and research, needed to be made clear
• The processes of governance needed to be sufficiently open and transparent
• ‘Active’ trust needed to be achieved
Critically it was important to invest time into making the board process meaningful.
As one speaker noted, being a governor might be characterised as ‘intelligent people, asking stupid questions’.
David Williams is the editor of the Leadership Foundation’s governance website. We are hosting a major governance conference Governance: Improving Effectiveness for a New Age on Thursday 30 November. To book places for this conference or on our other governance development programmes and events, or to access our governance resources please go to www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance
To find out more about the work of HEPI, and also whether your institution is a member of the HEPI University Partnership Programme (providing advance embargoed access to all HEPI reports and briefing papers), please contact Sarah Isles, firstname.lastname@example.org at HEPI.