Eight questions university governors should ask their vice-chancellors

Times are changing – and university boards need to understand what their executive are doing about it, writes Nick Hillman

October 16, 2015

The governing bodies of universities are likely to be even more important in future, given the extra responsibilities they are being expected to take on.

That will make the relationship between governors and executive teams more crucial, but may also make it more difficult. 

So, when I spoke to the Committee of University Chairs autumn plenary in London on Friday, I was asked to propose some questions that governing bodies might ask of their vice-chancellors.


First in my list was a question on a particularly current topic. Given the likely inclusion of retention rates in the teaching excellence framework, what are you doing to ensure your induction of new students is truly world-class – including for those students recruited through minority routes, such as clearing? 

This matters because, even after controlling for factors such as discipline and location, longitudinal studies show retention rates are better where a higher proportion of first years perceive their early university experiences to be “excellent”’. Conversely, non-retention rates are highest among those with the lowest prevalence of “excellent” experiences.

Freshers recruited through clearing are considerably less likely to rate their early experiences as “excellent” and to recommend their university to others.

Sometimes modest tweaks can help – for example, one university tackled its high non-continuation rate among clearing students by offering them the same guarantee of accommodation as students recruited by other means.

The government is right, in my view, to want a focus on retention rates, not least because when student number controls were removed in Australia, non-completion rates soared at certain institutions.

It is probably not too simplistic to say better induction equals better retention (which equals a higher TEF score).


Secondly, given that we know the well-being of students lags behind the rest of the population, and that we are likely to see an increase in first-in-family students as a result of the removal of student number controls, what are you doing to ensure your non-academic support services are sufficiently well-resourced? Are your mental health services able to cope with their current workload, for example, let alone the future one?

In the US, institutions seeking to make fee increases more palatable to their students have committed to assigning much of the extra income to mental health support services.


Thirdly, given that 75 per cent of undergraduates do not think they have enough information about how their tuition fees are spent, what are you doing to explain your true cost base to students and policymakers? 

Personally, I think providing better information on how tuition fees are spent is an inevitable consequence of relying so heavily on student loans.

Without rapid sector-led progress, it will probably be forced on institutions by policymakers. There is a self-interest incentive here too, because without such information, higher education will fare less well in the coming battle for funding between further education and higher education.

Moreover, without such information, students are more likely to undertake ill-informed calculations that ignore the breadth of university life, as when they simply divide £9,000 by the number of contact hours they receive.


Fourthly, we know from both our surveys and a survey by the Student Room that students want their lecturers to be trained in how to teach – and also want to have information about this. 

So what are you doing to ensure that a growing proportion of your teaching staff have some form of teacher training and to tell your students about it? Or, if you don’t regard this as an important metric, what is being done to explain to students why they are incorrect to care so much about this?


Fifthlywhat are you doing to ensure your students are registered to vote? 

The shift from a household system of electoral registration to an individual one is a one-off change but it brings permanent headaches. No longer can universities sign up all the students in university-owned accommodation in one go, as in the past.

While a large number of students did register in the weeks running up to the general election, for many students there will be no general election during their time at university, so there may not be the same incentive. Moreover, if the higher education sector is serious about wanting students to play a full role in the EU referendum, then students need to be registered to have their say.

A tiny minority of universities have cracked this by merging their student enrolment process with their local councils’ electoral registration process so that the two things can be done together. Have you?


Sixthly, while all in higher education (including me) agree about the huge value brought to this country by international students, where I think the sector is perhaps on less firm ground is that it does not have a really good answer about where its former international students go.

It rightly criticises the government’s exaggerated figures for how many students stay here to work. But can you say, with hand on heart, that you make as much effort to stay in touch with your international alumni as you do with your home students? Surely, given that they pay more, they have just as much right to expect their university to continue some form of relationship with them?


Seventhwhen you hold your senior management teams to account for your institutions’ league table performance, do you really know what is being measured?

Given that the full algorithm of every single league table is not public, the answer is surely no. I understand why league tables matter, but the metrics that go into compiling them are likely to change as the teaching excellence framework starts and matures, so those who measure themselves solely against current league table performance are not guaranteed similar success in the future.


Eighthwhat are you doing to plan ahead for further expansion? 

My strong view, based on the year-long study we made in 2014 of Australia, is that the removal of student number controls will eventually turn out to be a more significant policy than the tripling of tuition fees in relation to full-time study.

In Australia, there was substantial growth in higher education participation across the board when they removed student number controls – in every type of university, every discipline area and every socio-economic group.

Some say such growth won’t appear here. But our own history and international experience suggest levels of participation could go on growing.


Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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Reader's comments (2)

The Higher Education Policy Institute includes Sir David Eastwood and Sir Nigel Thrift, Vicechancellors who are deservedly without the support of their teaching staff. Perhaps university governors should be asked why such people have not been sacked. I challenge Mr Hillmann to show a single instance where university governors have challenged or rebuked their Vicechancellors, no matter how much damage they do to the reputation of the universities they pretend to run.
When universities collaborate with extremists and corrupt individuals, thereby harming the reputation of the university, who holds the VCs responsible? https://web.archive.org/web/20100124195746/http://westminsterjournal.com/content/view/241/30/