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'Measuring What Matters'

12 Sep 2023 | Phil McNaull and Kim Ansell Kim Ansell, Advance HE Senior Consultant Governance and Leadership, introduces a thought piece by Phil McNaull, Strategic Finance Consultant, Executive Coach and former Finance Director at the University of Edinburgh, which challenges leadership teams to consider their ways of working and the tools that might help.

As Advance HE convenes a steering group to consider how higher education measures and reports its purpose, performance and value to students, staff, and society, I welcome a thought piece by Phil McNaull, Strategic Finance Consultant, Executive Coach and former Finance Director at the University of Edinburgh, which challenges leadership teams to consider their ways of working and the tools that might help. Phil reflects on what progress four institutions have made in using an ‘Integrated Thinking and Reporting’ approach, considers the sector appetite to better articulate value to stakeholders over that time, and summarises what has happened in the world of reporting to more easily make that step.

In my view, reporting impact and value is critical for organisations which exist for the public good. They need to be accountable to their stakeholders, their eco-system, environment and society.  Being accountable to your environment may be a difficult concept, but it is only if we consider the precious use of all our resources whether they be our people, our intellectual capital, our estates or our financial assets through the lens of accountability that we can really become sustainable institutions.

In a round table in 2022 chaired by HEPI, senior leaders and policy experts reflected that, “The evidence and metrics that governing bodies and senior executives have do not always build a comprehensive picture of what it means to be a healthy, inclusive and sustainable institution.”

This is further validated from insights gained from board effectiveness reviews delivered by Advance HE, which include observations, interrogation of Board and Committee papers and a benchmarking survey where institutions self-score.  Responses from Board members suggest that governing bodies lack confidence about assurance of performance and that they often lack holistic oversight.  We see a disconnect between the biggest issues for the sector and what many boards use to measure progress and success. In a recent (2020) survey of governance practices, board members commented on key performance indicators 90 per cent highlighted the use of metrics on finances and student outcomes, but fewer than a third cited student wellbeing and only 20 per cent mentioned staff wellbeing or civic engagement.

It is well reported that universities capture a myriad of data and information and report much of it in a range of reports, (internal and external), to various audiences but I am always challenged to answer the question – “where can I see the whole picture and how do I know what is strategically important and speaks to our mission and values?”  That likely means that some governing bodies are too.

The aforementioned round table and a sandpit event about the Board’s role in sustainability oversight and ESG (environmental, social and governance) in 2023 have clearly established an appetite for finding better ways to demonstrate and articulate the value and credibility of HE.  This is especially critical when the world beyond the university is putting ever more emphasis on ESG and we have daily reminders of the climate crisis affecting our world.

Looking at ‘what’ institutions do, alongside ‘how’ they do it enables us to reflect on how decisions are made and the basis for those decisions, to better understand our impact on society and the environment using principles which are transparent, holistic and accountable – principles which are fast evolving outside of HE.

This thought piece from Phil McNaull mostly considers the ‘how’ and brings us up-to-date on the journeys that some universities have been on in this endeavour. Under the oversight of the steering group, some related research and analysis looking at ‘what’ is being undertaken by Professor Carol Adams which will be published in coming months. These stimulus pieces, along with other related work mentioned here, will enable the steering group to engage with the sector on what next for ‘Measuring What Matters’. 

Let's Talk Value - the need to Measure What Matters
Let's Talk Value - the need to Measure What Matters View Document

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