Support for governance effectiveness is an integral part of the Advance HE offer. Its strategy to 2024 includes a commitment to evolve higher education governance, which states:
Good governance is critical to delivering impactful HE and confidence and trust for stakeholders. Yet we know that understanding what is effective in your context is needed more than ever to navigate turbulence and be fit for the future. We will build on our unparalleled track record of supporting and developing governors, governance professionals, institutions and systems of governance across the world.
As an Advance HE Associate, I have had the opportunity to be involved in a number of aspects to support this commitment, for instance via analyses of governance effectiveness survey benchmark data (at an institutional basis and to understand governance performance and future challenges at a sector level) and undertaking an evaluation of the impact of Advance-HE’s governance effectiveness reviews on institutions. This evaluation feeds into Advance-HE’s ongoing work to evolve the support it provides to the sector.
The work comprised semi-structured interviews conducted via MS Teams with 16 institutions for which AHE had completed governance effectiveness reviews since 2018. The sample included institutions from across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and provided a cross section of types and sizes of institutions including small and specialist, large providers, research intensive and private organisations.
Those institutions that took part reported tangible impacts as a result of the reviews that can be summarised under the following themes:
- Becoming more strategically focussed and forward thinking. Interviewees describe this as being a tangible impact of the review across the Secretariats, Boards and Committees. The reviews helped in planning for future cycles of business, and providing roadmaps for change, with the recommendations helping to streamline and standardise KPIs and the reporting of these.
- Helping to foster a more ‘can do’ attitude for the Secretariat, tightening processes, enabling them to “think differently” and ceasing the perpetuation of outdated practices, often by providing external validation for proposed or past changes.
- Helping to foster buy-in and engagement by council members, and providing a focus around which to base continuous improvement.
- Creating an environment where the Board is more comfortable in taking action by providing assurance when governance practices are working well.
- Helping foster an environment of continuous improvement and responsiveness to feedback, and confidence in making changes.
- Raising awareness of the importance and contribution made of good governance and regulatory compliance
- Creating a better understanding of members’ roles and contributions – (this can include for example better appreciating the role that student members can provide beyond input on the student experience.
- Improving member recruitment and induction – so that it becomes more formalised and standardised. In some cases the findings of the review are used as a selling point in recruitment.
- Raising the profile and importance of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) – and making it part of the Boards’ agenda.
The findings from the evaluation on what worked well revealed that two aspects were raised by the majority of the interviewees as being particularly useful: benchmarking against other institutions (described as a “niche offer” by one participant), and the feedback workshop session at the end of the process, where the more challenging recommendations could be openly addressed. Interviewees also noted that AHE offer a well-integrated service (incorporating the review with a wider offer on governance, such as training).
In almost all cases, the reviews were valued for providing assurance where governance at the institution was working well and for giving external validation and assurance that the institution was complying with the regulatory framework.
A final key theme was that the reviews provided a mandate and impetus for change and continuous improvement, with the mandate in some cases being strong and credible enough to overcome opposition which may have become entrenched. The reviews provided a sense of direction and focus, clarifying key issues and providing a route forward.
Find out more about Advance HE’s work to support effective governance
Kay Renfrew is an experienced consultant and researcher who has delivered assignments for clients in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.