A longer term view of university governance effectiveness

The sector has been talking about making governance work better for a long time. Advance HE head of governance and consulting Collette Fletcher sets out how much progress has been made

Colette Fletcher is Head of Consulting and Governance at Advance HE

There have been some really thought-provoking articles on Wonkhe recently about the current state of governance in higher education and the importance of culture, particularly when attempting to facilitate a more generative approach to governance.

Important issues around overly complex bureaucracy, lack of democracy, and an over-focus on compliance, have been surfaced – and there has been suggestions that we haven’t made nearly enough progress challenging the lack of diversity on Boards and the formation of cliques and hierarchies within them.

It has led me to ask the question: how much progress have we actually made?

Progress file

This year Advance HE is celebrating 20 years of supporting governance effectiveness in higher education, so we are well-placed to offer some insight about the changing face of governance. We have conducted over 60 governance effectiveness reviews in the last 4 years and have the privilege of hearing the views of hundreds of governors and governance professionals each year in the course of our work. This tells an interesting story about how the sector and its focus on governance is shifting.

In 2020, Advance HE published Governance in Higher Education: Understanding Governance Performance and Future Challenges. The report drew on surveys of 20 institutions carried out as part of governance effectiveness reviews, which gave us a snapshot of how well the sector judged it was governing itself. Overall, the sector perceived that governance was generally effective, but with a number of areas requiring attention. The key issues that emerged still resonate today: the need for a better approach to performance management of the institution and its Board members, providing better support for and integration of student members, a need to engage with the development of the long-term institutional strategy to become more proactive and less reactive, and a lack of diversity that was constraining effectiveness.

The strongest performing areas were perceived to be the governing bodies’ commitment to organisational vision, culture and values, and working relationships and behaviours, i.e. encouraging active involvement, relationships between governing body members and the executive, etc.

In 2021 we undertook a review of the impact of our own governance effectiveness reviews, which included case studies from a sample of the reviews that we undertook between 2018 and 2021. From this, we can clearly see an increased focus on the importance of compliance (probably linked to the introduction of the new code of governance by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) the year before, as well as the emerging regulatory regime of the Office for Students in England) and the management of strategic risk. The case studies reveal a spectrum of effectiveness, and each institution had demonstrated reasonable progress against the majority of recommendations put forward in their reviews. The most common recommendations made included improving inclusive governing body culture, supporting student members more effectively, recruiting additional student members, and reviewing committee structures to facilitate more effective business.

In 2022 Advance HE presented headline findings from two sector surveys (for governors, and governance professionals) covering governance practices and future needs. It was clear that many institutions were grappling with the challenges of the pandemic and regulation, but the results highlighted some positive developments in equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI): three-quarters of responses reported recent development and training in EDI, focusing on board culture and relationships, improving diversity and improving understanding of EDI to enhance assurance. The majority of respondents had made use of the Advance HE Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit and had actively taken steps to improve the diversity of their governing body and its committees. Membership of CUC appears to illustrate this somewhat, with increased diversity of Board Chairs (e.g. over 40 per cent are now women), and Advance HE’s report on the Diversity of governors in Higher Education analyses the state of play in 2022 compared to 2020. Further information will be available when we launch the 2024 report at this year’s Advance HE Governance Conference, but the overall picture is one of cautious optimism.

So what have we learnt over the last 20 years?

Obviously, there is still more to do, but have we made any progress? A quick look at some of our more recent reviews of institutions show that some of the challenges in terms of the perception of board diversity, culture and inclusion remain. It is also clear that the governing bodies’ attention and focus is increasingly mirroring the changes and increasing complexity in the regulatory environment. Recent recommendations continue to be largely focused on board member induction and development, improving the strength of student membership and the focus on the student and staff experience, developing the right culture and behaviour to enable collective scrutiny and robust challenge, and ensuring effective academic governance and assurance.

The findings of all of our work underline just how fundamental culture is to the effectiveness of the Board. If you have the right culture in place to facilitate debate, enquiry and (when needed) robust challenge, the rest will follow. You can have the best processes and papers in the world, but if the culture isn’t right, you won’t be able to get maximum value from them.

Finally, diversity in all its forms really is key. Different perspectives contribute to more effective collective scrutiny, and constructive and challenging dialogue is essential for effective university governance. Enabling that diversity to thrive is a leadership act that requires attention and self-critical reflection from all involved. This feels even more important at a time of significant strategic change and choice-making in the sector, which seeks the support of students and staff.

The recent debate highlights that although some progress is being made, there is simply no room for complacency.

4 responses to “A longer term view of university governance effectiveness

  1. As the main author of the CDBU report, I’d like to thank you for this measured response. You’re quite right to talk about the progress made over the last two decades, including gains in diversity (something about which many of the project interviewees were very positive). Indeed, the research findings could be summarised by a single sentence of yours: “If you have the right culture in place to facilitate debate, enquiry and (when needed) robust challenge, the rest will follow”.

    It’s interesting that you draw attention to the 60+ governance effectiveness reviews that AdvanceHE has conducted in the last four years. Some interviewees did question whether AdvanceHE is always best placed to deliver the ‘full and robust’ independent reviews that the CUC code expects given the training and support services it also offers to governing bodies. In light of concerns that university governance is sometimes prone to in-group cultures, I think the work you’re doing on the impact of these reviews is particularly important and helpful.

    1. Many thanks for the link to your fascinating paper, Thanos.

      A number of interviewees noted the extent to which university governance is vital for mitigating the effects of suboptimal or misguided management strategy in HE.

  2. There is validity and value in these examinations of board culture, and as the author notes, particularly in the pursuit of more diverse and inclusive composition and perspectives. However, the real question is – to whom are Boards accountable? We can point to the CUC, or articles, etc as to why they are there and what they are doing, but where is the measure of Board performance? Student reps are typically sabbaticals on limited tenure, likewise staff governors, so the reality of holding a board accountable for the institution’s strategy, character, performance etc is negligible, and there aren’t shareholders in the background to agitate. Board effectiveness reviews? Yes, usually conducted by the board itself … no comment necessary… or by a 3rd party (eg Advance HE – and to be clear this is no comment on their professionalism/competence/value) – but these are commissioned by boards, paid for by boards, and implemented (or not) at their discretion. The regulator(s)? Where are the examples of the OfS holding a board to account – and/or pursuing the legal fiduciary responsibilities of directors? Or the charities commission? Take a look at primary/secondary/FE or the NHS … the regulator is very clear about Board responsibilities, testing it, and holding them to account for institutional performance.
    Linking to the current hot topic of financial sustainability in the sector, if there are institutions threatened to possible failure, Governors have a duty to be instructing management to act, and create recovery plans, or if there is no path, to be contemplating other more drastic interventions (closure, merger?) Maybe this is happening, but its under the radar, but would seem to be that this is the most compelling of evidence to share of financial threat, rather than scare stories to try and get policy makers to raise fees (and place more burden on students!).
    None of this is to say Boards or Governors aren’t highly motivated, capable, and operating effectively, but if we want to be the best that we can be, relying on this self-monitoring isn’t actually a good mechanism for avoiding board under-performance, or the cliquey-ness, or self preservation, or correcting until its too late. The question therefore of how external stakeholders (of all types) understand Board performance and hold them to account therefore seems critical, when we identify as civic institutions operating for public good, not profit.

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