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.

Finance
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.

Co-design
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?

the-invisible-problem_cover-graphic-002

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

Book review: Nonprofit Governance

Nonprofit gov

by David Williams

Nonprofit Governance, published last June, discusses governance in ‘nonprofit’ or ‘not-for-profit’ organisations. While sector boundaries are imprecise and can change, the focus is on ‘third sector’ organisations. There are no specific examples of higher education institutions in the book, but it does explore issues of governance that vice-chancellors and their governing bodies will find of interest.

The contributors to the book are largely academic staff working in Australia, North America and the United Kingdom. The book takes a research perspective, but includes case studies illustrating aspects of governance in a specific sector or organisational setting. Nonprofit Governance is a collection of 14 chapter length contributions, organised under five themes. Each theme explores a current area of research on governance.

The reader is reminded that governance is a function and a board is a structure. Further, there is a need to look beyond composition and structure and give attention to board behaviours. Questions about the groups most likely to be represented on Boards, and democratic participation through and beyond Boards are explored.

The behaviour of the board chairs, individual board members and the board as a collective form two of the book’s themes The chapter entitled ‘Board monitoring and judgement as processes of sense making’ considers issues of monitoring non-financial performance and explores ‘sense making’ by Board members. The idea of ‘failures’ of board monitoring being ‘good people struggling to make sense of their circumstances’, rather than ‘bad people making poor decisions’ is introduced.

A review of organisational crises experienced by two museums and two performing arts organisations forms one of the case studies in the book. The problems created by unchallenged trust by the Board of the chief executive and a failure to receive, or demand, adequate and regular information about financial performance are set out. Subsequent financial difficulties resulted in a pivot in the Board’s focus towards financial matters, and away from ‘mission orientated’ activities.

The balance of ‘trust’ and ‘control’ between the Board and the chief executive was changed by the crisis. A period of intensive Board control (i.e. the opposite polarization to the previous situation), during which the organisation’s problems were addressed, was followed by the emergence of a ‘negotiated balance’ to the relationship between the Board and the (and in some cases, a new) chief executive. For some organisations, a further element to post-crisis governance was the remaking of the Board to change the balance of members with business skills and those with professional, sector-specific, expertise.

Not all contributors to the book support a move towards more conventional board structures and membership, and the Community Engagement Model™, is put forward as an alternative approach for at least some nonprofit organisations.

The case of English housing associations illustrates the impact of context on governance. Many associations have assumed responsibilities for what was formerly a public service. As a consequence they have moved from operating as ‘a small-scale complementary service provider to the main provider of social housing over the past 30 years.’ As a result the changes to the scale and complexity of running these organisations has affected governance substantially. Board membership has moved from the inclusion of representative members (e.g. tenants and local authorities), working on a voluntary and unpaid basis, to boards of ‘professional’ independent non-executives now paid for their work. A change from representational to professional boards.

The book goes on to consider ‘multi-level governance’. Contributors distinguish, and discuss, ‘nested’ (intra-) and ‘network’ (inter-organisational) governance in the context of federations and collaborative structures.

Although this book contains many interesting observations and insights, and claims to be written in ‘an accessible manner’, it unlikely to be read by those who might benefit most from some of its contents. As one contributor acknowledges when discussing their own contribution to the book, research on nonprofit governance is frequently published in scholarly journals (or discussed at academic conferences?) and risks never reaching practitioner communities. This is a pity, and a timely reminder to academic researchers of what should be an important purpose of their work.

Nonprofit Governance: innovative perspectives and approaches, edited by Chris Cornforth and Wiillam A Brown.

David Williams is the Leadership Foundation’s governance web editor.

The beating heart: student governors

beating-heart sept13

By Dr Mark Pegg

I have been asked to speak to student governors about why the Leadership Foundation needs to listen to the agenda set by emerging student leaders and how we need to develop leadership skills for careers beyond the university boardroom.
I was delighted to be asked. I am a believer. Student governors make a real difference. At several levels – big picture thinking, where students influence university strategic decision-making, at the practical day to day learning about leading complex organisations and through significant early exposure to personal leadership development – all with long term benefits.

I was a president of a student union and student governor myself many years ago. It was a small college, but the principles hold good, and I still use learning from the experience pretty much every day. When I was at university we had a voice, but no real power. If lecturers were indifferent (sadly many were) the response was: ‘tough, like it our lump it’. If we did not like the rise in fees in a time of great inflation we went on rent strike, did a demo and occupied the university offices. We developed as political animals, but actually had zero influence in corridors of power or any decisive impact on decision-making.

Today, at the strategic level, the balance of power has clearly shifted in favour of students. With the NSS, student loans, overseas students, increased competition for students, league tables, it is obvious universities need to contract with students. To hear and heed the student voice. They need a responsible, empowered student representative body, one they listen to, respond to and incorporate the thinking in to decisions. Learning for student governors here is invariably around complexity faced by leaders, where decisions are ambiguous and difficult. To progress issues where student governors have a lot to offer – such as efficiency, sustainability, employability and diversity – is often hard. To turn discussion into decisions and then into action and achievement is never clear cut.

Learning from the best leaders, those who take this on, bring people with them and make it happen is gold dust. It is also a two way process. Students are more than  consumers; they are part of the body politic of a functioning university, part of the beating heart. It’s a commonplace observation that students should provide some reverse mentoring and inform senior decision making on the digital future – resources, investment and working practices on social networks, mobile learning and the learning space students need.

At the practical level, you learn so much about administrative complexity, how culture eats strategy for breakfast, the illusion that pulling a lever in the boardroom is necessarily connected to anything moving or more importantly, moving in the direction you want it to go.

I was fortunate to attend meetings held by a very good chair. At meetings I chair, I use this approach as my baseline and endeavour to live up to the standards he set. I learned about organisational dynamics and the politics amongst the members of the Governing Body, about facing up to difficult issues (what happens when you don’t) and the challenging business of negotiating student fees and rents.

Personal learning about leadership helped me throughout my career. I had formed a mental picture of what was needed. It helped me get a job as executive assistant to the chairman of a large corporation and to grasp quickly the challenging scope of the job and what doing it well looked like. As a CEO today, I still call on deeply etched memories of sitting on a Governing Body in leading my own organisation and, completing the circle, in the Governing Body I sit on today.

Being a student governor can seriously affect your life. Never lose the learning as your career progresses, stop every now and then to reflect on what you have seen and heard – the good, the bad and the indifferent – and make a mental note to use it to become the very best leader you can be.

Dr Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Programme. The annual student governor seminar attracts almost 90 students from around the UK and is the first event of the 2013-14 leadership development year.