University chairs finalise governance code of practice

A new code of practice makes for a more hands on style of university governance. David Kernohan investigates.

Though it feels like another geological era, we examined the shift from the old Committee of University Chairs Higher Education Code of Governance to a new draft code back in January of this year.

Jim Dickinson got to the nub of the matter in his usual eloquent fashion:

The old code talked of sound academic governance being based upon collegiality, governors respecting its role, and “receiving assurance” that academic risks were being effectively managed – backing off, in other words.

The new one makes clear that these days it’s the governors themselves that have to provide assurance on academic standards and the integrity of academic qualifications, so now it will “work with” the Senate/Academic Board to maintain standards and continuously improve quality”.”

But now we have the finalised code, drawing on consultation responses received just before a global pandemic was declared, does this bear out? In short, yes. Even more so.

Value judgments

The draft code consulted upon consisted of values, objective, and six key elements. The core values “which HE governance should be founded on” get a sort and a revamp. Front and centre now comes a new value – “integrity” – that seems to respond to the fashionable contemporary concerns of freedom of speech and academic freedom while incorporating more traditional charitable goals of transparency and accountability.

Academic freedom has moved around the code a lot (it was a value in the previous version, and fell to a mere mention in the draft sustainability element for the consultation), but central placement among the new values – alongside a commitment to freedom of speech – signals just how important this issue is.

Some may ask why governors should have a concern over freedom of speech, as surely this is an academic matter that could be left to the Senate or Academic Board to manage? Of course, the Office for Students Public Governance Principles is a clear influence here (though there was freedom of speech included in the old Privy Council guidance too, the free speech terminology doesn’t appear in the previous CUC guidance). For many reasons (some of them political, others practical) this numbers among the key values university governors need to be concerned with.

Outwith free speech, financial and environmental sustainability, inclusivity, excellence, innovation, and community make up the remaining key values that HE governance should be founded on. We note the clearer emphasis on “civic” work – “public service, citizenship, collegiality, and collaboration” – and the link drawn between social, economic, and cultural benefits and “innovation and growth”. This latter neatly situates the wider benefits of HE within new initiatives rather than business of usual – and emphasis a far more “civic” character to the code than in previous iterations.

Objective reality

The six objectives – which are more future focused – in the draft have become nine in the final document. If anything the language is even more activist than the draft – compare the passive:

Support the delivery of the provider’s mission and success”

in the consultation with the hands-on:

determine, drive and deliver the institution’s mission and success in a sustainable way (financial, social and environmental)”

in the final version. The latter makes clear the leadership role required of governors, not only in supporting delivery but deciding what to deliver and how to deliver it. New objectives include those focusing on excellence in learning, teaching, and research – and protecting and promoting the student experience. The draft code sat the student interest in with the interests of what we could call other stakeholders – we now have a split between the experiences of the students themselves and the ways in which the outcomes enjoyed by students can now have a wider societal benefit.

Again I am struck by the central place afforded to transparent and accessible information – a theme of civic (and societal) responsibility alongside civic action.

Elemental or ephemeral

The top level elements remain broadly as proposed. “Diversity and Inclusion” has become “Equality, Inclusion and Diversity”, and has also gained a codicil on “fair outcomes for all”. On “sustainability” the governing body gets an even bigger role – it now “actively seeks” as well as receives assurance, putting the onus very much on governors in a very OfS way.

“Effectiveness” notes the reality that governance performance must be assessed against other codes as well as this one. A note on using the code reminds governors of the existence of the Scottish Code of Good Higher Education Governance, the Welsh Governance Charter, and the the aforementioned OfS Public Interest Governance Principles.

And in a way this is the central issue – the CUC code is very much no longer the only game in town. With the recent, and seemingly arbitrary, DfE fulminations about the costs of complying with voluntary codes there is a need to make a case for the value of compliance to providers who have other governance guidance that must be complied with. This code is expected to be used on an “apply or explain” basis, recognising that for newer providers structures and processes may vary substantially from those that are assumed to underpin governance.

What does it all mean?

So – whither governance? – as we used to say. This new code describes a more active and interventionist role for governors than has been the historic norm. Situating this within the split between academic and lay governance, we see a clear expression of the value of a non-academic role in leadership that speaks perhaps to the distrust of “experts” that has been a cultural theme stretching from the realities and myths of Brexit to, er, the realities and myths of Brexit we are still arguing about. The myriad functions and responsibilities placed upon universities are now firmly under the watchful eye of newly empowered governors – let’s hope that the training and support offered to them is up to the mark.

However, the pachyderm in the place is that no part of this code answers the questions that governors are asking right now, during the Covid 19 pandemic. How often should governing bodies be meeting, how and who should they be consulting, and how closely involved in risks and their mitigation? – on these matters, the code is silent. This is a code of governance for normal times – and who knows when we will see them again?

3 responses to “University chairs finalise governance code of practice

  1. Am I missing something? The link to the finalised Code goes to a page that does not contain anything purporting to be the finalised Code.

  2. An amended link (or some changes to the originally linked page), it would seem – thank you, David.

Leave a Reply