Are governors ready to play their part in quality assessment?

University boards need the right skills if they are to ask the right questions, says Gill Evans

April 18, 2016
Men in suits holding question marks

The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s revised operating model for quality assessment hit inboxes on 18 March. There’s enough reference to the other UK funding councils to suggest that its intentions go beyond England, and Universities UK (UUK) was quick to put out a briefing on 23 March.

UUK is the vice-chancellors’ “club”, but it is the boards of governors who are going to be shouldering new responsibilities. There are several paragraphs about that in the new scheme, because Hefce admits that the plan to “place more emphasis on the role of a provider’s governing body” was an aspect of its proposals that received “less support” in the consultation.

The chairs of governors have their own club, the Committee of University Chairs. I looked for the CUC’s briefing and found nothing, although its half-yearly plenary meeting was due on 14-15 April, taking “performance and quality” as its theme. “Members will have the opportunity to consider the role of their governing bodies in the advancement of these issues within their institutions”, says the CUC website. They were due to hear a keynote address from the chairman of the Quality Assurance Agency board, although Hefce has conspicuously ignored the QAA in its planning. Members were also due to enjoy a workshop presentation on “academic governance and governing bodies”. 

The CUC does not publish online the addresses and presentations that its members receive at these meetings, or run Twitter comments while they go on; and it allows only its members, or exceptionally an approved replacement member of a board, to be present. It will be hard to guess what they learn.

Baulked of much information about the CUC’s plans to brief its members or anyone else, I looked at the website of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. I could not see anything on offer relating to quality assessment or Hefce’s plans.

Now this is puzzling, because Hefce says that both CUC and LFHE are already “undertaking work to support governing bodies in implementing the December 2014 HE code of governance, particularly its expectations for safe academic governance arrangements and oversight of the student academic experience”. Presumably the fruits of this work by CUC and the LFHE are needed quite urgently. Hefce promises a “refocused periodic assurance review visit, conducted by the relevant funding body”. This will “test the basis on which a governing body can provide assurances about the provider’s activities in this area”. But governing bodies will not be left to work this out for themselves. Hefce “will put in place support and guidance for governing bodies as they undertake this role”.  It says that it is relying on the CUC and the LFHE to do the groundwork.

It is also relying heavily on the CUC’s still-new code of governance published in December 2014. “The sensible implementation of the requirements of the code…would meet Hefce’s quality assessment needs without any additional expectations or burden for governing bodies,” the new quality assessment proposals say.

What would be a basis for this “sensible implementation”? There’s the crunch. The relationship between the academic activities of a provider and the role of the governing body in keeping an eye on key performance indicators has usually been a respectfully detached one. It will be vital, as Hefce notes, to “ensure that the important role of senates and academic boards [is] not undermined”. The UUK briefing is worried about that too, saying: “The role of the governing body would be to receive reports and challenge assurances from within the institution and should not be drawn into quality management activities itself.”

“It seems to us that we should be clearer about our intentions,” says Hefce. Indeed. But perhaps we need not worry, for “the funding bodies intend to contract a third-party organisation to evaluate any gaps in the capabilities of a range of governing bodies in this area, so as to design and pilot different approaches to additional support for governors”.  Then the successful bidder will “evaluate the pilot activity and propose evidence-based and cost-effective longer-term approaches to support governing bodies in both new and established providers”.

The problem with the operation of governing bodies, as anyone who has sat on one knows, is that they are not good at asking the right questions in areas where no one has the relevant expertise. So how about encouraging each to have a board member to act as a “champion” in this area, to attend the meetings of academic boards and senates and report to the governors at each meeting on the understanding that the board will do more than “receive” such reports, will actively discuss their implications, and will publish them with the agenda and minutes? This governor with special responsibilities could also play an observer part on behalf of the governors in whatever process may replace QAA audit or review. The devil is in the detail and the governors will need to get their heads round plenty of that.

Dipping into governing body minutes online, I was amused to note one from the University of Warwick in which the registrar reported that “a letter had been received from the Hefce indicating that it would be asserting itself into the quality assurance landscape”.  It certainly is.

Gill Evans is emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

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