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Ingredients for good higher education governance

19 May 2021 | Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones, Chair of Council Queen Mary University London, highlights that alongside 'setting and adhering to a strategy for sustainable growth', key ingredients for effective HE governance are 'demonstrating public contribution' and 'managing risk'.

Chairing a Higher Education institution is a continual learning process and it was useful to reflect on governance in the run up to Advance HE’s recent discussion session with myself and Jane Hamilton, Chair of Council of the University of Essex.

Governance needs to be fit for purpose in terms of setting and adhering to a strategy for sustainable growth with a clear set of key strategic objectives and doing it by reference to a set of core values. And I entirely agree with Jane that behaviour and culture which reflect those values are as important as governance processes.

But the context is much more difficult than when I chaired the School of Pharmacy from 2008 when HEFCE was the regulator. Or even when I chaired UCL’s audit committee from 2012. The OfS is a different animal altogether and despite the assurance of autonomy in the Higher Education Act, it feels a more highly regulated and more prescribed environment than ever.

I was a Company Secretary of a FTSE 100 company for many years so I have some standard of comparison with the corporate sector! Current university governance, I believe, in addition to the strategic aspect, has two crucial overarching challenges.

First, particularly in the face of what some have described as the culture war, there is the crucial importance of making, and being able to demonstrate, public contribution through – for example – showing that:

  • We have widened access
  • We are a crucial component of social mobility, diversity and inclusion and enabling life chances
  • We provide value for money
  • We provide not just an excellent student experience but social capital and a pathway to employment as well
  • In relation to FE, we are complementary and not just the privileged sibling
  • We are making a contribution to post-COVID recovery in many different ways, and contributed to the ‘COVID effort’ through our expertise and voluntary activity in particular
  • We make a strong community contribution especially with our local schools
  • Our partnerships in research and research output make a significant difference.

All this of course needs to be much broader than simply the metrics in the Research Excellence and Knowledge Exchange Frameworks or the National Student Survey.

The second important challenge is managing risk in respect of the many issues that are thrown at us for example

  • Funding: Post pandemic funding, subject mix issues-arts funding in particular. The impact of overseas student recruitment dropping. National Security and Investment Act requirements reducing partnership opportunities. Loss of London weighting. Possible fee reduction following Augar Report recommendations
  • The implications of action on climate change
  • USS pension issues
  • Student welfare issues such as mental health and digital exclusion
  • Issues related to the Prevent programme
  • Ethical Investment in general, Fossil Fuels in particular
  • And, of course, freedom of speech issues brought to the fore by the recent Queen’s Speech.

This is not exhaustive as colleagues involved in higher education will testify! There is correspondingly a new emphasis on enhanced communication in both areas given what is at stake.

In a heavily regulated sector there is clearly a formal requirement for good governance in our institutions and processes and I think it’s true to say, without being complacent, that Covid lockdowns have tested these and shown that they are largely fit for purpose and able to respond in an agile way. We ourselves at Queen Mary, when going virtual, instituted a greater frequency of meetings and regular financial gateways to ensure the Council was fully on top of the changing risks. We will all, I know, want to take some of the innovations forward in new hybrid processes where they can be shown to contribute to engagement and inclusion.

But Covid has also demonstrated how important informal links are in terms of understanding perspectives and sharing ideas. Relationships are crucial and can’t be built and developed in formal meetings alone. This is particularly the case with student relations. Informal presentations by sabbaticals can reap great rewards in terms of insight and communication. More generally, it is clear that informal preparatory briefings for members can be of great benefit before key decisions are made in a formal meeting.

External members have a strong part to play in the expertise and perceptions they have, in the student employability agenda and the relationships they build within the academic community and harnessing these in constructive engagement is an essential part of informal governance.

So going forward what is and should be the state of university governance? There will clearly be the need for continued agility and there will be no let-up in the need to change and adapt to new challenges. KPI’s are an important governance discipline but we will need to review the relevance of KPIs at regular intervals. We will need to engage with an ever wider group of stakeholders, local, national and global. All of our ‘civic university’ credentials may need refreshing.

The culture will continue to be set by VCs to a large extent, but a frank and open “no surprises” approach can be promoted as part of the institution’s culture. VCs have become much more accountable than in the past. Fixed terms and 360 appraisals are increasingly the norm.

The student role in co-creation of courses and the educational experience is ever more crucial. The quality of that experience is core to the mission of HE institutions, so developing a creative approach to the rather anomalous separate responsibilities of senate and council is needed.

Diversity on the Council in every sense is fundamental so that there are different perspectives and constructive challenge to the leadership. 1-2-1s with all council members on a regular basis to gain feedback and talk about their contribution and aspirations are important. At Council meetings we need to hear from not just the VC, but the whole senior executive team and heads of school: distributed leadership is crucial.

Given these challenges, how do we attract the best council members? Should we pay external members? Committee chairs perhaps could receive attendance allowance type payments. But I would prefer it if members can be recruited who continue to want to serve out of a sense of mission.

This will very much depend on how the mission and values are shared and communicated. So we come back to strategic focus, and the central role of governance in delivering it!

Tim Clement-Jones

Lord Clement-Jones CBE was Chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence (2017-18) and is Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Artificial Intelligence. He is Deputy Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on China and Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Digital Regulation, The Future of Work, Music, Performers Alliance, Publishing, Writers and Intellectual Property.

Lord Clement-Jones is Chair of Council Queen Mary University London. Previously, he was an external member of the Council of University College London and Chair of its Audit Committee from 2012 to 2017. He was made CBE for political services in 1988 and a life peer in 1998. Until July 2004 he was the Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson in the House of Lords and thereafter until 2010 Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Lords. He is now the Liberal Democrat Digital spokesperson in the Lords.

Advance HE Governance Professionals Programme 2021

We will consider this topic and explore:

  • the need to balance the senior executives’ own thinking with that of all other stakeholders and how that is a conscious juggle for Boards.
  • understanding the needs, interests and expectations (NIEs) of future stakeholders e.g. future students, their families and employers,
  • how universities can have systematic and robust approaches to hearing all of the voices, recognising the risks that ‘corridor conversations’ become the ‘one voice’,
  • finding more creative ways of listening to avoid survey fatigue among stakeholders and to ensure diversity and inclusivity in what you hear.
Governance Professionals in HE is now open for bookings. 

Core session one: 15 June 2021

Core session two: 2 July 2021


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