5 steps to managing uncertainty

‘Managing uncertainty’ is a recurring and challenging aspect of leadership. Following his presentation at our recent governance conference, we asked Garry Honey of Better Boards, to summarise his 5-steps approach for governing bodies.

Uncertainty is a challenge for management boards and governing bodies within higher education

Acronyms like TUNA (turbulent-uncertain-novel-ambiguous) or VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) have been used to qualify new turbulent or volatile environments in which decisions need to be made. It is no coincidence that the key words ‘uncertainty’ and ‘ambiguity’ occur in both acronyms. The question we try to answer is – how should higher education leaders manage uncertainty to best advantage?

A governing body has a distinctly different role from a management board, yet there are some aspects shared by both. The most significant is having a vision of the future and making decisions around strategy and risk within the context of an environment containing uncertainty. Managing uncertainty is a leadership challenge.

An active approach

The first step towards managing uncertainty is to adopt an active approach to reducing risk which involves rejecting the traditional risk matrix based on probability and impact. This standard approach to risk management can be worse than useless as it can lead to misplaced confidence that all risks are known and understood; it ignores the fact that problems for organisations generally have multiple causes rather than a single risk event. The approach also leads managers and boards to ignore risks which they think will have a low probability but which could have a disastrous result. Instead, re-profile risk based on different axes: ease of control and ease of prediction. This will enable the leadership to actively reduce risk, and determine specific actions to improve control or prediction – a real benefit.

What’s on the risk register?

The second step is to separate risk, which can be estimated and assessed, from uncertainty which is simply unknown. Many risk registers conflate the two yet there is a growing realisation that a separation can be helpful. It is a matter of determining whether there is sufficient information to determine an outcome, where there is not there is uncertainty. The risk register should focus on outcomes which can be measured, the remainder being uncertainties.

Four types of uncertainty

The third step is to appreciate the four different types of uncertainty ranging from known-knowns to unknown-unknowns. The distinction between known-unknowns (jigsaw-type) and unknown-knowns (library-type) is most critical as correct labelling will determine the most suitable response. In each case information needs to be gathered but the method and location will be different.

Setting up coping mechanisms

The fourth step is the coping mechanism to deal with different types of uncertainty and the resources required to secure and act on it. This is where the governing body needs to work with the management board to calculate the cost-benefit of reducing uncertainty, especially where in some cases forecasts and estimates will inevitably be the more prudent option.

Avoid groupthink: be brave

The fifth and final step in managing uncertainty is to eliminate misplaced certainty. This is the human element inherent in cognitive bias and assumptions. This is challenging the conventional wisdom and beliefs that can render a board too complacent for sound judgement: anchoring, referencing, confirmation bias, over optimism, risk aversion, cognitive dissonance and groupthink.

Effective governance and leadership requires collective responsibility, yet a board is comprised of a disparate group of individuals so achieving this can be difficult. Improving board effectiveness is not simply a matter of getting the right people or processes, but of securing the right mind-set around the table. Judgement is the framework in which decisions are made collectively so this needs to be well-informed and free from prejudice. Bravery is needed to challenge some assumptions.

Why is bravery important? Because forecasting the future is rarely accurate, a cynic will say there are only two types of forecast: lucky and wrong! Higher education faces uncertainties about success metrics. Historically measured by research excellence and global ranking, today universities are expected to perform in student satisfaction and alumni employability rankings. Many universities failed to achieve the rankings they expected in TEF, because their priorities are on research excellence and the funding this attracts. The resources for research are not the same as for teaching.

Bravery is also important in the governing body when it comes to defining value to other stakeholders, such as the Treasury or Government. Who in your remuneration committee will challenge a vice-chancellor salary award or suggest that staff morale should be a higher priority? Furthermore, how should a governing body view the recruitment of foreign students to courses because they pay higher fees and represent a lucrative income stream?

The biggest challenge for universities comes in the wake of the NAO report suggesting that the sector as a whole delivers poor value for money. A loan-based system has a very different dynamic to a grant-based one, creating ‘customers’ who decide on the cost-benefit of a university education within the context of their career.  For the next generation student debt repayment could become a burden as big as mortgage repayment for ours. There is uncertainty about the purpose of higher education and hence how value is determined. There are 130 universities in the UK which, as one delegate commented ‘all operate the same strategy’. Is this sustainable?

Garry Honey is the co-founder of Better Boards, leadership advisors on governance and risk issues. He has worked with several universities and leading business schools together with his colleague and co-founder Paul Moxey. Better Boards works with governing bodies and leadership teams to help them implement this five step process to managing uncertainty. 

For more on the Leadership Foundation’s series of programmes and events for those working in governance in higher education, including our new Academic Governance resources visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance


How I got onto a board

Jenny Ames worked in academia for 35 years across eight universities. Keen to join a board she attended a Women onto Boards event in 2017 and was appointed board member of Aneurin Leisure in July 2017. Here she reflects on her personal journey to board member.  

Becoming a board member is something that I started to seriously consider around 10 years ago, but the seeds were sown much earlier at the beginning of my career.

My background is in food chemistry research, as an applied subject this meant much of my research involved collaborating with industry. For example my first postdoctoral contract was funded by an American multi-national and following that as a head of my research group, most of my grants involved at least one external company. I enjoyed working with people from the private sector, learning how their companies operated and seeing my expertise being applied to address the challenges they faced. They valued my knowledge and ability to manage my research team and deliver projects on time. I got a sense of achievement.

Get a mentor or coach who is right for you

When I started my academic career in the early 1980s, there was no Leadership Foundation and, at least in my university, no culture of formal mentoring or coaching. From 2005-2017 I lived away from the family home in the week and progressed my career at four universities in different parts of the UK. It became important to me to be part of the community where I worked. I had also reached the stage where I had a wealth of experience that others could benefit from, including mentoring however, it was only in my last 10 years in academia that I myself benefited from various mentors and coaches to whom I will always be grateful.

The most valuable experience I had was with a professional coach and it was she who encouraged me to work towards a board role. The advice was three-fold: find someone who has such a role and ask to shadow them, go on a course so you understand more about what it involves, and join the Institute of Directors (IoD). I didn’t get around to shadowing someone but I did join the IoD.

Learn the basics

Importantly, my faculty supported me to attend an intensive two-day programme, The Effective Non-Executive Director, run by the Financial Times. This covered the soft skills and the hard skills required of a successful non-executive director (NED). This course gave me the tools I needed and it included a session with a NED head hunter. She advised that for someone who hadn’t been on a board before (like me), a good place to start was as a school governor or a trustee of a charity. Another attendee suggested joining Women on Boards to find possible roles. I also engaged with Reach Volunteering and I registered on the SGOSS Governors for Schools website.

Understand the value of the skills you do have and know your own values

It was the SGOSS site where I found an advert for a school governor about 10 miles from my flat. I applied, met with the head teacher and chair and deputy chair of the Board of Governors and was appointed.

I have a separate CV and covering letter template for board roles. The focus is hard skills like budgeting, health and safety, and governance. Soft skills include committee chairing and mentoring. I do not have any children, and so had no experience or knowledge of the current school system, but working at a local university was attractive to the school along with my experience of, for example, managing budgets and chairing large, formal meetings (although all in a research context). It was also important to be able to demonstrate that my values about enabling people to reach their potential aligned with their own.

This role got me off the starting blocks and I was very fortunate to find myself in an excellently run school. I learnt a lot about school education and was able to contribute to the finance and resource sub-committee. I left after a year as I was moving to another university.

Use your network

Early in 2017 I attended one of the Leadership Foundation Women onto Boards events aimed at encouraging more women to apply for a board position. Having given up the school governor role and done nothing since I decided to look for a new position. One point made at the event was that men often get a board position by asking someone in their network for help. Having a large and diverse network, I decided to take this approach. I had recently met someone at a regional IoD meeting and was due to follow up with him. When I asked for advice about a board role, he mentioned that something was coming up that might suit me. He put me in touch with the organisation so I could find out more. Shortly afterwards the job was advertised nationally and I applied. I was interviewed in June and appointed in July 2017 as a member of the board of trustees at Aneurin Leisure in South Wales.  It is early days and I plan to spend a day with the trust to help me to better understand how I can contribute.

A final word

It is important to join an organisation that you feel passionate about. One whose values align with your own. You are contributing your time and skills, usually for free. If you and the organisation are well aligned, you will both be amply rewarded.

Women onto Boards
For more information about the series including dates, location, pricing and how to book your place visit the Women onto Boards homepage.

Governor Development
Find out the latest in governance, including recent publications and what’s next in the Governor Development Programme, via our website

Our Equality and Diversity Programmes
The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is committed to addressing the lack of representation in senior executive leadership positions of both women and people from BME backgrounds. You can find out more here.

About Jenny
Jenny Ames had a 35 year academic career across eight universities before establishing Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd in 2017. She works with universities, businesses and their stakeholders to develop strategy and talent and initiate and nurture cross sector collaborations. Jenny is now a member of the board at Aneurin Leisure and an Aurora role model.


11 Key Insights from Higher Education Governors

Following the recent launch of our updated Framework for Supporting Governing Body Effectiveness Reviews, Helen Baird discusses some of the findings emerging from analysis of survey data from our governing body effectiveness reviews, and outlines our new comparative analysis and insight service. 

Last year we reviewed and updated the Framework for considering the effectiveness of higher education governing bodies. The drivers for the review were changes to higher education governance since the Framework was first introduced in 2010, broader sectoral developments and the evolution of ideas on good governance more generally.

The main conclusion from our research with the sector was that the three elements of the Framework remain an effective basis for considering governing body effectiveness. These are enablers of effective governance (processes), working relationships and behaviours, and outcomes of an effective governing body. We also found that as well as looking internally at their own governance, universities would value better comparative information to assess the relative effectiveness of their governing bodies and learn from peers. However, they required meaningful information and insights, rather than simply comparisons of what can be easily measured, such as size or composition of governing bodies.

Consequently, the Leadership Foundation has developed a new and unique comparative analysis and insight service, making use of the growing dataset we are building from the anonymised results of surveys as part of effectiveness reviews we undertake. As our new dataset develops, there will be potential to add other more ‘descriptive’ data from providers or from that collected by HESA, to enable more sophisticated analysis to benefit the sector and individual universities.

While our current dataset is relatively small at present, early analysis (carried out by Kay Renfrew, a Leadership Foundation associate consultant) has enabled us to produce some emerging findings which are worth sharing. These should be treated with caution and they will be subjected to further testing and analysis as the dataset grows. Some notable findings from surveys of 232 governors within eight institutions are as follows.

  1. While in some areas questions remain, there is almost universal agreement amongst the governors surveyed that there is a genuine and shared commitment by the governing body and the executive to ensure effective governance.
  2. There are variations in the extent to which governing bodies review their own performance and demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement, from a low of 60% of governors agreeing that this takes place at one institution to 92% in another. Governors in small institutions (65%) were less likely to agree that this takes place, compared with those at medium-sized or larger institutions (80% and 81%).
  3. Although there are high levels of agreement that there are effective arrangements in place for involving staff and students in the governing body, this view is more prevalent amongst lay and co-opted members (93% and 100%) than with staff and student members (83% and 80%).
  4. Staff members are less likely to agree that there are mechanisms in place to give the governing body confidence in the arrangements for monitoring the quality of teaching and learning. Only 67% of staff members agree with this statement, compared with 78% of lay members and 80% of student members. There is also variation between institutions in terms of their size, with governors in larger institutions more likely to agree this is the case (82%), than in medium or small institutions (62% and 69%).
  5. Governing bodies were confident there are mechanisms in place to enable assurance to be derived about financial stability, data integrity and value for money, with 100% of governors from four of the institutions agreeing this was the case. The lowest figure for an institution was 74%. However, there was variation between the views of lay and staff members with 93% of lay members agreeing compared with 78% of staff members.
  6. There was considerable variation in the views of lay and staff members that there are processes in place to ensure the recruitment of governing body members addresses equality and diversity requirements. While 90% of lay members agree, only 56% of staff members do.
  7. There is also variation at institutional level on whether recruitment, succession planning and reward is effectively undertaken, with only 56% agreeing in one institution and 92% at another. Lay members are more likely to agree this is the case than staff members, but the difference is less pronounced than in the case of equality and diversity.
  8. Individual institutions varied greatly as to whether the contribution of all members is reviewed regularly (lowest 35% of governors agreeing and highest 75%). Variation was also found in the responses as to whether regular performance reviews of the Vice Chancellor are undertaken. At one institution only 54% of governors agreed, rising to 92% at another (although at most institutions under 70% agreed).
  9. Most governors agreed that the governing body was provided with reliable and up-to-date information to ensure it is fully informed of its legal and regulatory responsibilities. However, they were less convinced that there is effective communication between the governing body and key stakeholder bodies. In one institution only 46% agreed, with the highest percentage agreeing reaching 83%. While staff and lay members had similar levels of agreement (78% and 74%), only 33% of student members agreed.
  10. There is also variation at institutional level on whether the governing body actively reviews the extent to which existing corporate governance arrangements will be appropriate to meet long term strategic plans, ranging from 45% of governors agreeing at one institution to 90% at another. Lay members are more likely to agree than staff members, and in this case small sized institutions are most likely to agree.
  11. It seems existing arrangements for academic governance to meet long term strategic plans are not reviewed in the same way as matters of corporate governance. In one institution only 36% agreed that they were reviewed, with the highest level of conformation being 75%. Lay members were slightly less likely to agree (61%) than staff members (67%). A higher percentage of respondents at large institutions agreed (72%) compared to medium (56%) or small institutions (53%).

In summary, it seems that not all institutions regularly undertake reviews of their own performance, including the contribution that individual members make. Similarly, there is variation in whether reviews of the vice chancellor’s performance or the quality of teaching and learning take place, or are reported to the governing body. There is however general agreement that governing body members are committed to effective governance, and that working relationships are in the main positive. Interestingly, the views of Lay and Staff governors can vary considerably. Overall, Staff members were less positive than Lay members, perhaps suggesting that they perceive the governing body to be less effective in its role.

Further analysis will be undertaken and the results disseminated as we develop our comparative analysis and insight service. For further information please visit www.lfhe.ac.uk/en/governance-new/governing-body-effectiveness/index.cfm

Helen Baird is a Managing Consultant in the Leadership Foundation’s strategic consultancy team and led the recent review and revision of the Framework for Supporting Governing Body Effectiveness Reviews.

Take a look at our next Governor Development Programme, Governance professionals in higher education for clerks, secretaries and staff in the professional support teams. The programme starts on Tuesday 5 December 2017, London. For more information, click here


Challenges facing good governance

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, s.isles@hepi.ac.uk at HEPI.

Reflections from Leadership Matters: supporting senior women in higher education

Rachael Ross is the course director of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation programme for senior women in higher education. Two years on from its inception, Rachael reflects on why the programme is needed and how it was developed.

Why Leadership Matters?

Just 18%  – or 36 – of the top 200 universities in the world have a female leader, according to the latest THE 2016-17 world university rankings, and men still overwhelmingly dominate the top leadership roles in 166 higher education institutions across the UK (Women Count: Leaders in Education 2016).

Higher education leaders work in a world where rapid cultural change is the norm rather than the exception. Understanding how our institutions are financed and governed, combined with the political savviness needed to navigate them, is essential, and the wider economic and social waves of change require a firmly grounded leadership purpose and resilience.

Women leaders have a huge amount to bring to the higher education sector and fully releasing that potential is, I believe, essential to the long-term health and sustainability of the sector.  But research shows that gender bias in organisations continues to “disrupt the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader”. (Harvard Business Review)

In the development process of Leadership Matters we listened to feedback from leaders across the sector, from our alumni and from the Aurora community. Crucially, the course had to be a safe space where women leaders could develop their own unique authentic leadership and navigate the cultural challenges they face.

As course director of Leadership Matters, the programme created two years ago to meet that need, I feel it is timely to take stock and share some thoughts about my approach and what I believe makes Leadership Matters so suited to senior women leaders.

Clear direction

Leadership Matters is a five-day programme that addresses both technical and personal leadership aims. Participants have a clear goal from the beginning, with each day serving a defined purpose. For example, day one demystifies the financial frameworks of higher education while day two focuses on governance and legal requirements. There is then an action learning set day for women to reflect on their learnings so far in a small peer group. Day four then tackles the cultural and political challenges that all leaders face, working to build participants’ confidence to navigate these in the context of a higher education institution. Finally, on day five, the focus is on participants identifying their true purpose as a leader, and confirming their own leadership identity and “narrative” or story.

As a whole, the programme provides a mix of technical and development skills, ensuring that participants leave feeling more confident in their own leadership, prepared to navigate their organisations’ culture, and equipped with real insights into their organisations’ financial and governance system.

A network of female leaders for continued learning

The programme supports learning groups that live powerfully, well beyond the limits of the programme itself, providing women with continued support as they work towards reaching the highest executive levels. At the heart of this are the Leadership Matters action learning sets, which provide women with the opportunity to build strong ties with a network of peers.

Learning from the experts

I’m proud to have brought together a multidisciplinary team of facilitators and speakers to work on Leadership Matters. Each is an expert in her own field, with deep experience in the academic world, and we all share an ambition to truly equip delegates for senior leadership.

  • Gill Ball OBE, former director of finance at the University of Birmingham
  • Christine Abbott, former university secretary & director of Operations at Birmingham City University
  • Sally Cray, an experienced Leadership and Organisational Development Specialist.

You can read more about myself and my fellow 3 facilitators here.

A personal learning environment

As the programme is designed for senior leaders who are striving to reach the very top tier of higher education, the cohort sizes reflect this. While the Aurora programme now attracts up to 250 women per cohort, Leadership Matters is designed to provide participants with a much more intimate training in cohorts of around 20 women.

Active, sustainable learning

Our job as facilitators is to find a balance between introducing some key concepts and models, allowing time to reflect, and encouraging delegates to experiment by applying the learning to their own personal and organisation context, which makes the learning sustainable well beyond the five days of the programme itself. As a result, Leadership Matters draws particularly on Kolb’s Learning Cycle, which emphasises an active learning style in which we learn from our experiences of life, and reflection is an integral part of such learning.

Leadership matters – now more than ever

“As a result of attending the programme I understand my own impact better and the action learning sets I’ve attended with other members have continued on past the programme itself, and have been invaluable.”  – Kirsteen Coupar, director of student support and employment at London Southbank University

I believe that Leadership Matters has shown itself to be an essential programme – for both women leaders and for the higher education sector as a whole. It is critical that the sector draws on all the talent and potential within its realm, to nurture and develop leaders with the vision and confidence to guide higher education through the turbulent economic and social change it is facing. Leadership Matters is helping to meet this urgent need, supporting women to strive for the highest possible levels of leadership so that they can play their part in steering their institutions to greater success.

Rachael Ross has a background in industrial relations and change management in the energy sector. She is now a leadership and diversity consultant and coach for senior leaders across all sectors. She is the course director for Leadership Matters.

Leadership Matters will be taking place in Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol in Autumn, Winter, and Spring respectively in the next academic year. For more information and to book a place please click here.

From Kazakhstan to Myanmar: building capacity in higher education internationally

The Leadership Foundation has led or participated in higher education development projects in more than 30 countries in Asia, Africa, North and South America, Europe and the Middle East. What have we learnt about the common challenges that have to be overcome to build capacity in the countries in which we work?

Andy Shenstone, the Leadership Foundation’s director of consultancy, shares his experience of co-designing solutions to wicked issues in higher education systems around the world.

The Leadership Foundation’s international work takes place within a vibrant higher education environment and contributes explicitly to multiple UK higher education sector-wide objectives. These objectives include those of the UUKi, which aim to create opportunities for UK Higher Education Institutions to establish new relationships with overseas providers and the promotion of UK higher education internationally. It also addresses the governments expressed priority as regards to enhancing the international standing of UK higher education. Finally, the Leadership Foundation is committed to supporting the development of more robust and autonomous higher education systems in overseas nations including contributing to the wider UK government agenda of supporting capacity-building as a key plank of overseas development through the Newton fund and other programmes.

Each country we’ve worked with has had very different characteristics – which is perhaps not surprising if you consider that we’ve worked in countries as diverse as Kazakhstan, Myanmar and Egypt. Yet, there are still some fundamental similarities in the challenges these countries face, and how we work together to overcome them.

The first challenge is that, generally, higher education provision is underdeveloped. Typically, it has been managed through command and control mechanisms, through government diktat and tight management. That manifests in ways that those of us familiar with the UK system would find very difficult to comprehend. For example, in Egypt, principals or vice-chancellors have virtually no discretion over who to appoint and certainly no capacity or capability to let anyone go or dismiss staff for poor performance. In Myanmar, any significant leader in an institution is forcibly rotated to anywhere in the country every three years, with no choice over where they are sent, regardless of their seniority. In the Ukraine, the direction of travel is moving away from a Soviet-era command and control model to one which is more reminiscent of western and UK models of institutional autonomy but, of course, it will take quite a significant time to make that journey.

Leadership capability
Generally speaking, we find that our clients in overseas countries want to enhance the leadership and management capability of university leadership. Allied to that, there is a keen interest in establishing resilient and sustainable processes for identifying and supporting a pipeline of future leaders – succession planning. Inevitably, if you are the leader of a university and have achieved that position of seniority by dint of your approach under the existing model of governance and politics, that may well mean that you are, perhaps, ill-equipped to be an effective leader in the future when the political and social environment is going to change, potentially quite significantly. That places particular demands on you to develop your skills and capabilities. That isn’t to say such change isn’t possible, but it can be demanding and, of course, longer term, simply focusing on those who are in roles already misses the point. That is, to build capacity to bring forward future leaders who have the skills, capabilities, attitudes and insights that their countries need to develop and modernise their higher education systems. That’s what we’re in the business of doing.

Legislative framework
Another key challenge in global higher education, for a number of countries, is that while they aspire to modernise higher education leadership, governance, and management, the legislative framework (which establishes the boundaries of what is or is not possible under the terms of the law) often takes quite a long time to change. So while there’s a need to develop individuals and direct the travel of leadership in a way which may well speak to an agenda of greater institutional autonomy – and support institutional leaders to develop their own strategies – they have to feel that they’ve got permission to do that. They’ve got to feel safe to do that. They’ve got to feel that the system at large is providing them with the framework within which they can operate.

Take Myanmar. Up until very recently if you said or did the ‘wrong thing’, the impact on you personally could be very significant. That included speaking out and having any ideas of your own that were not acceptable to the military junta that ruled the country for over 40 years. It therefore takes a significant amount of bravery to start behaving outside the norms of those practices. Individuals, naturally, will be very cautious. Having some confidence in the integrity of a redesigned legal framework, which empowers them to behave differently but is also respected by the government and powers that be, is crucial. One of the challenges we face is ensuring that the ambition of change is aligned with those national structures and legal systems, because if they don’t develop hand in hand, you end up with major tensions arising and a real risk of disconnect.

The other key challenge facing global higher education is finance – how it is all paid for. Budgets are under significant pressure. Where you have challenges around education provision in developing, or even middle income, countries, primary care and schooling are often prioritised and higher education can sometimes be lower down the pecking order. Which means, in turn, that it can be difficult to recruit and retain talented people, who may well be attracted to work in other industries or find it much more economically and personally attractive to leave to work in other countries.

At the Leadership Foundation we know a lot about working overseas, borne out of our applied experience in many different countries and geopolitical contexts. Fundamental to our work is a deep appreciation of the importance of us coming to understand the context in which any particular intervention or support might be provided. Critically, this concerns the degree of maturity and capability of the existing higher education sector and the outcomes that are sought.

Our international work is intended to deliver on three levels; firstly, create partnership opportunities for our UK member institutions as a direct product of service design and co-delivery. Secondly, to assist in the internationalisation of our programmes (and through this provide exposure for members on domestic programmes to international practice). And finally, be expressly valued by members and key external stakeholders (e.g. UUKi, BIS and the British Council) as a contribution to the status, reputation and reach of UK higher educations.

Underlining it all is our listening and co-design approach to working with other countries, which means that we are not only be incredibly sensitive and mindful of an individual nation’s needs and context, but we will offer ideas and solutions borne out of that experience that will assist them to achieve their goals.

Embedding capacity building
We typically look to develop solutions which embed capacity building within the national context|: training the trainers and enhancing the capacity of the workforce with whom we’re dealing to take forward the work that we are doing with them. We do not support, condone, create or facilitate a culture of undue dependence.

And, important in all the work we do overseas is to deeply respect, understand and appreciate other countries’ accomplishments. Ours is not a deficit model but a model of adding value by bringing in a genuinely international experience to support colleagues in these countries to tackle the quite wicked issues they are trying to resolve.

The Leadership Foundation has recently launched a global services brochure, which details all of the services we offer as well as examples of their impact. To download your copy of the brochure please click here.

Alison Johns, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation will chairing a session ‘Future scoping for higher education leadership’ at Going Global 2017 on Tuesday 23 May 2017. Andy Shenstone, director of consultancy and business development will also be attending, if you would like to arrange a meeting please email andy.shenstone@lfhe.ac.uk.

For more information on the global works of the Leadership Foundation, please visit the website: www.lfhe.ac.uk/international

Has the governing body given attention to the institution’s policies and actions in relation to students’ mental health?


David Williams the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor, highlights one area where governing bodies may need to give increased attention following the recent report from HEPI, on the students’ mental health.

Governing bodies have overall responsibility for the strategic direction and sustainability of higher education institutions (HEIs). Governors are concerned about all matters fundamentally affecting the institution and its sustainability. Typically, amongst the many matters that a governing body will exercise oversight is student recruitment, retention and achievement. An emerging concern will the potential to impact significantly on student retention is mental health.

A new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), ‘The invisible problem? Improving student mental health’, suggests that increasing numbers of HE students are experiencing mental health problems. The report highlights that the matter has significant implications not just for the student, but also the institution. Students experiencing mental health issues are at greater risk of not completing their studies, and the institution facing a loss of tuition fee income. Given the rising incidence of mental health issues, the report suggests governing bodies could consider giving one governor a specific remit to track their institution’s progress in improving mental health support.

The majority of higher education students in the UK enter full-time undergraduate education aged 18 or 19. While these students are classed as adults and able to vote in public elections, less attention is paid to the major transitions they face when entering higher education for the first time.

The HEPI report points out that unlike many other countries the UK has a ‘boarding school model’ of higher education. This means students normally live away from home for the first time.

At precisely the point when they face significant academic and personal changes, including the need to come to terms with new forms of learning and build new friendships, students are separated from their support networks. The increasingly demanding nature of the graduate labour market and rising student debt levels add further pressure on students to do well at university.

Student distress is particularly centered on feelings of stress, anxiety and unhappiness. The report highlights the need for students to develop emotional resilience and learn how to become more compassionate to themselves and others. Cognitive ability on its own is insufficient to ensure student survival and achievement.

Although the data is incomplete and increased levels of disclosure and awareness may account in part for the rising demand falling on university counselling services, the HEPI report suggests there is clear evidence that mental health issues are becoming more common amongst higher education students. The assessment is supported by the responses from HEIs to recent freedom of information requests made by The Guardian newspaper.

The HEPI report questions the level of current support for mental health being provided by some HEIs. Expenditure to support students shows marked variation.

The report cites examples of institutional good practice, but equally suggests that governing bodies need to seek assurance that the institution has a formal mental health policy and associated action plan. A pre-condition for assessing such policies and plans is ensuring the scale of the problem at the institution is understood together with the current level of support offered. Data about the scale of students’ mental health problems tends to be patchy.

If they haven’t already addressed the issue, a governing body should examine the provision provided by their institution to support students with mental health difficulties. Above all, governing bodies need to ensure mental health issues affecting students are understood and appropriately addressed.

David Williams has been by the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor since 2013. He has worked with the governing bodies and senior leadership teams of different higher education institutions for over 20 years.

Editor’s notes

  1. For a full set of briefing guides on governance edited by David, please go to www.lfhe.ac.uk/govbriefings
  2. Read the latest news on governance, including the latest newspiece by David on students’ mental health and the role of governing bodies, click here
  3. Other blogs on governance include:
    Book Review: What can governance in higher education learn from other sectors?Book review: Nonprofit Governance
    How can universities enhance the strategic development of the academic portfolio?Poland’s rapid response to change in higher education makes it a hidden gem