Build Back Higher: bringing university governance into the 21st century

Selena Bolingbroke, Smita Jamdar and David Bell make the case for better university governance after the pandemic.

Selena Bolingbroke is a Consulting Fellow with the Halpin Partnership


Smita Jamdar leads the education team at Shakespeare Martineau


David Bell is Vice Chancellor of the University of Sunderland.

What should we ditch and what should we keep?

Selena Bolingbroke

It’s been a stressful time for everyone in higher education – students, academic staff, professional services staff – and we’ve all had to consider what it’s been possible to do to support people through the pandemic. But there’s a danger that during all of that, we’ve overlooked those who voluntarily give up their time to sit on university boards.

The governance of our universities over the last year has been particularly challenging – normal modes of decision-making and communication have had to find a new agility and flex, the risk register has been rewritten and frequently flashed red, the finance forecasts have been stretched across multiple extreme scenarios, and the customer base feels short-changed and at times in the mode of persistent revolt. Ditto the workforce.

Now, as we emerge from some of the uncertainty and plan for the future, governing bodies are thinking about what in their crisis-mode of working is worth retaining.

Some will want to retain an element of the Zoom meeting for the future – remote access has enabled more presence from governors, especially those balancing a day job and other life commitments. Others may miss the relationship building that comes from the face-to-face meetings over a cuppa pre board, but some find the video-call space one less likely to be dominated by the loudest voices, generating a more even sense of member participation.

Some lay members of boards have noted that engagement with stakeholders – especially students and staff – has increased and improved during the pandemic and that they have felt more in touch with the operational life of their university. In turn this has helped inform their strategic decision-making and bring the impact on stakeholders to the fore. More engagement with the breadth of student and staff voices will remain a priority for successful governing bodies.

In England, there was already an increase in the expectations of governors responsibilities before the pandemic arising from the demands of the Office for Students. The board’s responsibility for academic assurance – previously left in the hands of the Academic Board or Senate – is probably the most significant. The pandemic and its impact on students and their teaching, learning and assessment brought alive the importance of the academic assurance process. Many boards will now be considering how they strengthen their oversight of this area, and those that have already started to address it recognise the importance of greater engagement with their academic governance as a starting point.

Five big changes that will make governance more effective

Smita Jamdar

Like all aspects of university life, university governance has had to change in response to the pandemic. Here I’ve identified five changes which, though not radical in themselves, when taken together have the potential to transform and energise the way universities are governed:

The use of virtual meetings, written resolutions and 21st century working practices generally

Technology has finally properly arrived in university governance and many university governors we have worked with are delighted that it has, as it allows for more meaningful participation using less of the resource that governors prize most but have the least – time. This could also help widen the pool from which institutions can seek their governors, improving the diversity and representation of governing bodies.

Clearer and more effective delegation to committees

Governance in the sector has never been great at true delegation, preferring instead to delegate the detailed legwork on a proposal that then comes back to the full board for debate and determination. But proper delegation can free up the board to focus more on the big questions, and many institutions have had no choice but to do this during the pandemic.

Regular discussions about key challenges

A number of institutions have introduced regular but shorter virtual meetings at which key issues facing the institution are discussed, giving the governing body a greater understanding of and opportunity to influence their institutions. The key risk to avoid is allowing these regular discussions to blur the crucial distinction between governance and management.

Streamlining of business

Institutions have had to question both what goes to the board and why, allowing more matters to be taken as read, or dealt with elsewhere and for questions to be dealt with more efficiently (eg raised, answered and recorded as such ahead of the meeting).

Improved “link” governor schemes

Technology has also allowed for schemes where governors are linked to named academic or professional services departments to thrive, as contact can be more regular and more meaningful relationships developed.

We can be heroes – for more than one day

David Bell

It goes without saying that universities have to be governed and regulated properly. But the last year has shown us that “properly” can also be “differently”.

We can start at the top with the whole paraphernalia of OfS regulation, as so much of that cascades down. And credit to the OfS for being prepared to lighten the regulatory burden at the beginning of the pandemic. But the signs are that most of it will return, and soon. The last year has demonstrated vividly that universities have operated in a nimble and responsive way, relentlessly focused on supporting students. If lighter regulation can work this year, why not every year?

But we have to put our own house in order too. We love our university committees but maybe the last year has demonstrated we don’t need to love them quite as much. Those that need to continue can operate just as effectively with shorter agendas, less time in them and minimum bureaucracy. In most cases, action points are usually sufficient rather than formal minutes.

Anyone in a leadership position needs to challenge every request for data, alongside subjecting every other bureaucratic requirement to a “Why?” test. There must be no “secret gardens” either – so that includes examination and assessment arrangements, health and safety checklists and the like.

Just blaming the “centre” doesn’t work either. Each of us has agency to reduce the bureaucracy and the over-governance we create. And we all can be heroes too. University leaders can be bold in slashing over-governance, as can trade unions in not mistaking process for action.

We have shown that we have the ability to make decisions at lightning speed without going through endless layers, all while engaging students and colleagues in new and innovative ways. That should be our “new normal”.

At Wonkfest Digital on 9-10 June we’ll be thinking through how universities can Build Back Higher after the Covid-19 pandemic. Find out more about Wonkfest Digital and get your ticket here.

One response to “Build Back Higher: bringing university governance into the 21st century

  1. Re-reading the article on ‘University governance -a model for the future’ in the Hume Policy Papers 1995/6 is worth doing for some ideas, methinks. Like most papers it was ignored (who cares, it was interesting writing it if only to get away from the tedium of governing body meetings), but there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel so I recommend it. I must say the dangers of over-delegating, writing minutes before the meeting, and reducing independent scrutiny of major plans all seem to me to be self-evident.

    Dennis Farrington
    (3rd Ed of David Palfreyman’ and my ‘Law of Higher Education’ was published on 8 April 2021, 25 years after the Policy Paper!)

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