This article is more than 3 years old

From crisis to creativity: how Covid-19 could change HE governance

Despite the challenges boards of governors are facing, Debbie McVitty discovers an appetite to use the Covid-19 crisis as an opportunity for innovation.
This article is more than 3 years old

“You can’t stay in crisis all the time”, says Chris Sayers, outgoing chair of both the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) and Northumbria University.

“We know we’re going to have a very difficult time for a year, possibly two. The conversation that the vice chancellor, executive team and board are having now is about ensuring that we adapt and take advantage of the new opportunities that will certainly come out of this so that we end up even stronger, because this is going to be playing out on a global scale and there will be winners and losers globally.”

Over the past month, universities have operated in crisis management mode: taking decisions quickly, with minimal consultation. As the emphasis shifts from emergency rapid response to events to scenario planning for coping with the consequences of the pandemic, boards of governors are considering how best to contribute.

“Lots of boards are predominantly in cooperative mode at the minute, rather than the traditional ‘agency’ mode of purely providing external challenge” says Victoria Holbrook, assistant director of governance for Advance HE. “That’s fine as long as you recognise that and what role you as a governor are performing, and consciously adapt as the situation and discussions require.”

Ways of working

Chris believes that the series of shocks the HE sector has seen over the last five years, with the removal of the student number cap in England, Brexit, and the Augar review, has strengthened the resilience of governing bodies to changing, often challenging, external circumstances.

Yet it’s frequently observed that governing bodies are insufficiently focused on institutional strategy, as opposed to day to day matters and discharging “sign off” duties. A recent Advance HE survey of governors identified support of the institution’s long-term strategic plan as an area that governors believe requires further development, along with performance review of heads of institution and the governing body itself, and the diversity of voices on governing bodies.

One practical effect of the pandemic and the shift to remote working and meeting has been that boards of governors are forced by circumstance to strip down agendas only to critical items, focusing discussion where the most value can be gained.

“Some governors have said the change in the way of working has made meetings much better – more productive, more inclusive,” notes John Rushforth, executive secretary to CUC, who believes that boards are likely to use virtual meetings in some form when we get to the new normal.

Victoria warns that while the shift to online may be working reasonably well, boards should be mindful of what may have been lost as a result. “It doesn’t enable conversations over coffee breaks, or to see things in practice on campus affecting students and staff,” she says. “It’s important to recognise those things are missing and think about what that means for the sorts of questions you need to ask as a governor or other ways of working.”

On agendas, what’s critical remains deeply challenging. “Risk assessment is more difficult, and also more important,” says John. “Boards may need to have more direct discussions about academic decisions – how the shift online is affecting students, what the offer is to incoming students, how we might share academic resources with other institutions. A challenge will be how to balance the interests of your own institution and the others in your region – this is a time when collaboration is much more important than competition.”

Boards of governors are likely to take heed of CUC’s advice to keep a record, not only of decisions taken, but of the rationale for each decision. In an environment of imperfect information it’s accepted that decisions may be taken that with the benefit of hindsight are not correct, but were reasonable at the time.

It’s likely – in a judicial review of a regulatory intervention, say, or a student case brought to the OIA – that some boards may be called on to provide an account of, and rationale for, key decisions taken. Under the circumstances, it’s worth thinking through a potential retrospective test of reasonableness in relation to each decision: what evidence is the decision based on? Whose voices and views are being taken into account?

There’s also potential for fundamental change – not necessarily in the character of universities, but in how work is done. “The executive and the board are working through short and medium term scenarios now that go from bad to pretty appalling,” says Chris. “But we’re also moving from crisis management to the next stage – and now the conversation between the board and exec is much more about things not being the same when we do go back – staff, students, research, TNE – what does all this mean from a cultural point of view, and how does this actually give us opportunity to accelerate and advance things that were in our strategy anyway?”

John speculates that professional behaviours and expectations across society may change as the remote working model beds in across different professions as a result of the pandemic. “Boards will need to think about what that means for estates, for professional services, for business support functions.”

Though the prospect of such fundamental change in ways of working could be daunting, there’s also an opportunity to explore the alternative to cost-cutting – creating new forms of value. “Like most organisations, universities can sometimes be reluctant to change operating processes,” says Chris. “Covid-19 has created a burning platform that has forced people to change, and staff and students have changed really quickly and done a brilliant job. Now, though, people can also see that it’s working, and this will certainly change the way we operate from now on. For example, as soon as you take the need for geographical co-location out of the equation, our ability to collaborate on all sorts of things increases and we would expect that to impact everything from basic services through to multi-disciplinary research projects.”

Victoria suggests that governors’ assessment of their university’s initial response to the Covid-19 crisis should give an indication of the underlying culture, capability and capacity at that institution. “All leaders will be remembered for how they did things, not just what they did,” she says. “There’s an opportunity to evaluate whether the institution is living its values, where the senior team might need extra support, which risks were identified and mitigated and which weren’t.”

Planning for post-Covid education policy

Given the projections of the financial impact on the sector of the Covid-19 pandemic, along with the – at best – incremental approach to offering government support, it is hardly surprising if governing bodies feel the lack of a policy framework within which sensible decisions can be made.

The ideal would have been a bailout that stabilises the sector, but not one that preserves the status quo at any cost. “Chairs would really like something that keeps things relatively stable for a while, but then gives the opportunity for reflection in the long term about what society wants from its institutions,” says John. “But my view is: don’t make this just about bailing out, make this about transformation and a different sector emerging, rather than pleading, ‘help us keep things the way they were’.”

“Higher education and further education have tended to continue along a similar trajectory year in and year out, responding only to changes in government policy” says Anne Milton, former Conservative minister of state for skills and apprenticeships. “Though there’s plenty of examples of innovation out there, in the broadest sense they tend to continue on a similar path unless directed by government. The world we’re likely to see emerge after this crisis will have very different needs – productivity, working smarter and in different ways are all going to be high on the list of priorities. HE and FE need to think about how they are going to be part of that and what skills people will need.”

In Anne’s view the risk for universities is that they await government intervention, rather than taking the initiative. “Without a doubt HE is a jewel in the country’s crown,” she says. “But everyone’s got a special case to plead – if you stand in the queue of people with a special case it’s going to be a very long queue. Decision-making in government is never fast, and waiting as a recipient of government action can be frustrating and lead to a sense of powerlessness.”

Though some of the government’s policy agenda following the December general election has receded into the background in the wake of Covid-19, that agenda remains live. A plan for post-compulsory education, investment in regional infrastructure, science and technology, social care and climate change, and now, economic rebuilding from Covid-19 while continuing to work through the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU.

“Education and skills is what rebuilds this country; it’s what will help people get back into work in industries that have suffered during the crisis, so there is a massive opportunity for HE and FE to deliver the skills,” says Anne. “But you have got to be quick, and fast, and imaginative – come forward with properly worked-out plans, and only ask for investment where it can’t be got from elsewhere.”

Further education clearly continues to play a central role in government policy in supporting places and regions, and Gavin Williamson noted recently that work has begun on a new FE white paper. Under the circumstances it could be an important time for governing bodies in HE to seek the counsel of their counterparts in FE and consider where there could be opportunities for joined-up thinking and planning.

Julie Nerney, chair of the Association of Colleges and Greater Brighton Metropolitan College is characteristically optimistic about the future, despite the challenges facing colleges as a result of Covid-19. “Colleges have responded magnificently to the change – you can see how integral the students are to colleges’ focus, and how they’ve shown leadership in their communities,” she says.

But, similarly to universities, there is a need to refocus thinking away from short-term and urgent issues and look to the medium and long term. In a historically fragmented post-compulsory sector in which education providers have been encouraged to adopt a competitive and commercial mindset, this could look like efforts to seek competitive advantage and protect institutional interests at all costs.

This would be a mistake, believes Julie. “The risk is that out of this crisis priorities will be about expanding the organisational footprint, and trying to take market share. It might make people want to pull back from partnership, and entrench into a competitive mindset. This is not the time to do that. This is the time to ignore historic differences and power imbalances and find a situation where everyone can flourish, and provide strong place-based leadership.”

Traditionally, effective governance has been framed as protecting the longevity and sustainability of one’s own institution. But Julie believes that governors can offer strategic leadership on how education institutions can fulfil their mission to serve their place, as well.

“People think governance is a really dry subject, about rules and compliance,” she says. “I like to think the role of any governing body is to be the strategic mind of the organisation – giving a fresh perspective, drawing on their own experience, testing different approaches from different sectors. Governors should be mindful about our role as place-based leaders, as strategists, as having oversight of partnerships. We’re already being forced to think creatively about things so let’s make that an advantage and take the opportunity to have conversations that might previously have been in the ‘too difficult’ box.”

In search of a conversation

“I hope we are now starting a more engaged and constructive conversation with government,” says Chris. “In the past we seemed to get into an unhelpful spiral of on one hand the sector asking for better funding and on the other a perception that we are delivering low-value degrees and paying senior staff too much. We need instead to be able to agree what is a realistic expectation of what universities can deliver within the funding that is available.”

A key question for chairs is where and how the conversation about transformation might take place. In England especially, policy shifts in the last decade have fostered competition between universities rather than cohesion. HEFCE’s role as a convening body, particularly helpful in times of acute crisis, remains vacant. Though each university may have its own internal discussions and scenarios, there’s a loss of quality and efficiency of strategic thinking about the sector as a whole.

Governors, of course, have a responsibility for the sustainability of their own institution, not the health of the sector as a whole. But a potential lack of sector-wide and sector-led thinking about the future shape of higher education leaves a gap that in the absence of a coordinating body only government and regulators can fill. This isn’t only about institutional autonomy but about sourcing the best ideas and insight about the role of higher education in a post-Covid-19 world. Might governors be in a position to kick-start that conversation?

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