There’s no escaping the fact that the governance of universities across the UK has been a focus of headlines over the past couple of years.
It’s perhaps a cliché, but we know that the higher education landscape has changed a lot over the past decade, and will change further. In Wales, there was a clear desire from the sector for collective, robust and consistent action to ensure that governance in Wales represented the best practice possible.
For that reason, the Chairs and Vice Chancellors of Welsh universities, supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, commissioned an independent review of governance in Wales. This review was led by Gillian Camm and ran between August 2019 and December 2019.
Recommendations for good governance
The terms of reference for the review made it clear that the sector wanted to step up and lead the way governance, to make sure that Welsh universities were at “the leading edge of good governance”. This included a focus on the composition of governing bodies, the quality of decision making, and the relationship between the executive and the governing body.
In the review, Gillian Camm makes twenty-one recommendations, including that each institution should:
- have a clear appreciation of the culture of the organisation
- have clear mechanisms in place to ensure that the voices of both students and staff are heard
- ensure that stakeholders including staff, students and strategic partners are able to engage with and contribute to the key strategies of the university
- provide a significant increase in the transparency relating to governance
- ensure that challenge and discussion is encouraged throughout the organisation and by the governing body
- ensure that relevant information, benchmarking and guidance is available to ensure that the governing body can provide valuable, effective and focused challenge
- work with HEFCW to ensure that universities adopt a way of understanding institutional risk in the round both on a short term and longer-term basis
- ensure that the training and development of governors and executive members enables all governing body members to make a full contribution
The review also emphasised that the recommendations needed to form part of a governance change agenda across Wales and suggested that there should be a public document from the sector to this effect, a “Charter for Change”.
The new Governance Charter is not a governance code as universities in Wales will continue to adhere to the Code of Governance drawn up by the Committee of University Chairs. Instead, it is a commitment to a series of steps to transform governance and adopt best practice from both within and outside of the sector.
These documents aim to address the recommendations made by the Review including the need to address culture, engage staff, students and strategic partners, and encourage challenge and discussion.
Through these documents Chairs and Vice Chancellors in Wales have committed to undertake a detailed programme of actions in the short to medium term. Perhaps most important among these actions are those focused on culture, with a review of quantitative and qualitative data relating to organisational culture. There are also commitments to 360 feedback reports and to consider any gaps between actual and desired culture.
Other important areas highlighted in the Commitment to Action include stakeholder engagement, the size and shape of the governing body, diversity and inclusivity, and governor development including that there is thorough induction and support in place for new governors.
The Governance Charter is also clear in the expectation that it is to be seen as a living document, and it emphasises the ways in which the sector will be accountable for implementing the commitments made. Each university in Wales will provide an update on progress in its Annual Report. And HEFCW will provide regular updates in relation to the work they are leading on, and producing reports commenting on progress made against the commitments.
This approach has been endorsed by Chairs, Vice Chancellors, unions and HEFCW. Throughout the review and the development of the sector’s response to the review, the work was supported by a small review group which was made up of stakeholders from across the higher education sector in Wales.
This isn’t the first time that we have sought to address challenges collectively in Wales. The outcome of the Diamond Review saw universities, students, and political parties endorse a student support and higher education funding package that has already seen a 46 per cent increase in part-time undergraduates in Wales. We believe that the outcome of this work on governance will also demonstrate the benefits of collective action, led by the sector, and will be more effective as a result.