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"The Governor View" - The changing face of governance: academic assurance and board membership

In response to the shift in higher education over the last few decades from a centrally planned, publicly funded sector to a more dynamic market environment, with an evolving regulatory framework, governance has had to change.

As discussed in Advance HE’s The changing face of governance podcast, higher education (HE) is more data and minimum-threshold driven, concerned with the student interest, and a transactional environment in which it is under more scrutiny.

According to the governor at a new university in the south of England, the days when “governors were inclined not to get involved and to let the executive get on with it” are in the past. 

Even a decade ago, student and staff governors were rare on boards despite being bigger in size, and governance was “more relaxed, less rigorous and less professional.”

The governors added: “In some ways the ideal governing body is now about seven people with experts from outside and the expertise overall to make sure the university is working well. The feeling is that we need to know what the impact of decisions will be on the various internal stakeholders. Governance is intended to be less about helping and more about controlling and reviewing; that’s the feeling I get from what is expected of us.”

For this governor, much of the regulatory burden follows from the transformation of students into paying customers who therefore need consumer protection. 

A similar point is made by a governor with a wealth of experience across a range of universities. She says that there is much less difference now between the governance of private and public institutions.

“Going back 10 years you would have said there was a huge difference between them because the commercial institution is run more like a company, but you can see that focus on returns and awareness of commercial interests everywhere now,” she said. “Boards have become much more interested in what kind of deals they need to make and understanding the business side of education, as this has become a financial necessity.”

This change in governance means universities have “better managed accountability systems and processes”, according to a governor at a post-1992 university in London. For her, regulation is “not always a bad thing”.

“I know some people would disagree with me because of the precious nature of institutional autonomy, but my view is that autonomy comes with a price. When you are looking at the purpose of education and research and using public money, then we have to be accountable,” she says. “I’m generally comfortable with regulation, the question is how far and deep.” 

At her institution the approach to regulation is proactive - a “make your own weather” strategy. 

She gives the example of the university’s adoption of the IHRA Antisemitism definition that providers were asked to sign up to by the government in 2019. On the back of these discussions, the university set up a small working group, chaired by the head of EDI and including a governor. 

“We engaged with the wider academic community on it,” says the governor. “We looked at the impact and how we would communicate this across the university and we agreed that we would take on the definition with the proviso that there must not be a conflation with challenging the actions of the state of Israel.”

There was some pushback but “we worked through it”. Because of this earlier work, the governor feels the university is better placed to handle possible repercussions from the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

“I’ve been thinking about those universities which haven’t thought about this before and how difficult they may be finding it,” said the governor. “Universities get picked off in the culture war and governors need to keep abreast of that; it’s one of the biggest challenges at the moment. If universities can pre-empt legislation and make decisions on their own, they can stay on the right side of the political hot potatoes.”

Risk awareness across all university business is a major focus of governing boards and committees.  The external threats “are many and legion”, as a board member of a new university puts it. But for this governor, some items on risk registers also present opportunities, which should be seized. 

“A healthy board should not just be responsive to the tide around it, it really should be proactive and looking opportunistically at risk management,” she says. “It is not always about risk aversion. It is about looking at opportunities which may carry a risk and how far you are going to manage that. It is about making a good harvest from the situation that one is is in rather than being constantly worried that it is all going to collapse.”

While risks can be identified and mitigating actions put forward, one governor wonders if it leads to a better service. 

“For instance, we will be saying ‘what happens if you don’t get enough student numbers or international students and how do you mitigate that?’” he said. “But how much attention goes on ‘what happens if we don’t teach very well?’”

For this governor, there are limits to how sure boards can be about academic standards and the extent to which non-HE governors, in particular, understand academic assurance. 

“Are we really in a position to do very much about academic assurance?”, he asks. “We get the minutes of the academic board but they are there for information and how many people read them? There are staff governors who understand it, but they may have a vested interest. We get data and information about dropouts and student satisfaction, and we can raise queries and ask the university what they are doing about it, but I don’t think governing boards are in a good place to really get involved, and some would say they shouldn’t. It raises all kinds of questions about what is a governance responsibility and what is a governing body responsibility.”

Many of these challenges are discussed in Advance HE’s new podcast on academic assurance.

There are measures that boards have put in place to ensure members can get to grips with their responsibilities in this space. As an extra layer of accountability between the academic board, the ultimate body for making and managing academic decisions, and the governing council, one private provider has created an academic standards committee.

“It is an extra level of scrutiny,” said a governor from the institution. “The committee presents to the governing body through the committee minutes. It is chaired by the most appropriate governor so there is a degree of reassurance, in the same way that an accountant heads the audit committee, and that is your best level of defence.”

The academic council at one London university nominates a member to sit on the governing court – an experienced professor who can provide expertise and “hold those two places together”. At the same time, a rota system is in place for governors to observer academic council meetings.

“Everyone on the court attends an academic council at least once a year, all arranged by the clerk to the court,” said a governor. “It means everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their role in terms of overseeing academic concerns, and we thought this was a better system than having just one person observing, which lets everyone else off the hook to some degree.”

The chair of the academic council also reports to each court meeting on academic matters, in what are usually “very lively sessions”. 

Another example of where governance is threaded into key areas of performance is the university’s access and widening participation strategy group, whose membership includes governors. 

Although the regulatory burden has increased there is a strong sense of the notion of “self-regulation”, underpinned by the importance of autonomy. At the same time, there is a fear that HE has become politicised and is under greater scrutiny and as a result, at greater risk of intervention.

“I think it’s very fraught,” said the deputy chair of a board, who is also an audit committee additional member at a separate institution. “We have a mixture of self-regulation but then the regulator is very directive about certain things and there are few clear boundaries.” 

To ensure self-regulation works, the mix of skills on boards is a key priority. Boards are skill mapping, succession planning and exploring methods to improve diversity, including using specialist recruitment agencies. A recent recruitment round at a London university had shifted the age profile and ethnic diversity of the board, bringing new perspectives, for instance. The contribution of student and staff governors was seen as particularly important, as the new Advance HE podcast on staff and student governors discusses. 

One governor said that the focus on improving women’s representation, which has seen the proportion of female board members increase to 42 per cent, should shift to other protected characteristics. 

Setting quotas or targets for diversity, however, was seen as a potential barrier to ensuring people with the right skill set and experience are recruited. One governor pointed out that her board was currently short of male members.

There was a perception that the trend towards remuneration was increasing, particularly with the growth of alternative providers. Chairs should be the first in line for payment, according to one governor, given the amount of time they have to commit to be effective in the role. Beyond that, if remuneration was introduced, it should be for everyone rather than means-tested.

“I think in Scotland, everyone is entitled to remuneration, but you have to ask for it. That’s offensive,” she says. “Either you are paid or not paid. You can’t have a situation where it is ‘this person never asks for it and this person always asks for it’. The same with expenses: they should be automatically paid in a business-like way rather than claimed by some and not by others.”

The fear that if governors are in the pay of the university, it would change the role and dynamic of the board, is overblown because the amounts are likely to be small, according to one governor. 

“I’d imagine the amounts that you would ever get paid are pretty insignificant,” she said. “It wouldn’t be the money that paid the mortgage, but it probably can aid diversity.”

One governor had concerns that paying board member would take away the “giving back” nature of the role, an important aspect for many highly skilled and experienced individuals.

“I think there is something very precious about that,” she says. “There are lots of different sides to this question and I understand that lack of remuneration can be a barrier particularly for younger people, but there are some fantastic people who are board members because of that sense of service.”

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