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