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Power List 2018: The rise of the board

Powerlist judge Aaron Porter evaluates the changing role and nature of university governance.
This article is more than 5 years old

Aaron Porter has a portfolio of advisory and non-executive roles in higher education

It’s been a tough year for higher education and a good chunk of the scrutiny has zeroed in on decision making and governance. Vice chancellors may have come under fire, but as the bodies ultimately responsible for the institutions – including the weighty matter of hiring and firing of VCs – the actions of boards also put them in the firing line.

The 2018 Wonkhe Power List reflects that the power of the vice chancellor has been somewhat diminished (with fewer VCs appearing than previous years) and this is largely explained by a combination of unconventional political times and the transfer of power toward the regulator. But another interesting power shift is afoot, between management and governance.

Since its modern inception, HE has relied on a volunteer model of governance. When many of the UK’s universities were created in the early 20th century, it was the great and the good from the local area that clubbed together to form them. These local grandees then provided ongoing stewardship and governance for institutions that were integral to their locations.

This volunteer model of governance largely prevails, but the context is changing. The introduction of tuition fees and the heightened competition to which providers are subjected has been game changing, not just for management teams but also for governing bodies. The line between governance and management has never been black and white and – in an increasingly volatile environment – governing bodies are seeking to recalibrate the nature of their support, scrutiny, and challenge.

Another shade of grey?

Governance hasn’t just shifted because of the market. Both the government and the regulator have explicitly drawn governing bodies closer to the coalface. Recent years have brought a surge of specific additional requirements on boards – from Prevent, to value for money statements, Modern Slavery legislation, and explicit sign off on academic governance. Some of these items have been routine, others like academic governance arguably should always have been within the purview of the board. But the volume and combination has added to the burden and changed the nature of higher education governance. But perhaps the biggest single shift has come through the new registration process developed by the Office for Students – a significant range of declarations and documentation are now needed – requiring the sign off from the governing body who are ultimately responsible.

In an environment of stable funding, significant HEFCE grants, and student number controls, the process of setting and monitoring the strategy of a provider – although not simple – was relatively straightforward. The respective roles of the board and the executive had reasonably clear water between them and the options open to an institution were more constrained than those to which universities are now subject.

But over recent years, as the responsibilities and requirements on boards also increased the contribution of chairs. The strategic options open to an institution are now considerably more varied and complex, and the room for manoeuvre on the part of both the executive and the board are finer and more susceptible to error. There can be no coincidence that the tenure of vice chancellors have dropped sharply as market forces and complexity has increased. Some vice chancellors do well to survive longer than a Premier League football manager.

The drift of power

Given the increased emphasis that has been placed on governing bodies, it stands to reason that the power and responsibility that lies with the board (and the chair in particular) has increased. However, much work is still done in a low key way and is arguably remote from the university community. Part of the criticism aimed at HE governance is related to a lack of transparency of what goes on. The vice chancellor pay saga is the prime example of this.

As power continues to shift to boards, equal steps need to be taken to ensure that greater emphasis is placed on openness and transparency of both processes and outcomes. More radical would be to consider how long the volunteer model can survive. A small number of institutions have taken the step to remunerate (albeit modestly) the chair in recognition of the significant time commitment required. There is also an argument to support greater diversity (particularly if the aim is to appoint individuals of working age or those who require compensation for their time). In much of the private HE sector, remuneration is standard and this reflects practice in the NHS, housing sector, and government department boards.

The Wonkhe Power List has not yet featured its first university governor (to be strictly accurate, it has not featured someone because of their role on a governing body but it has included individuals who are on a university board), but it may only be a matter of time before one appears in his or her own right.

Find the 2018 HE Power List in full here.

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