Leadership intelligence: how to ensure good governance

Governing bodies play an important role in universities, but how can institutions ensure they are functioning at full capacity?

March 12, 2020
Source: Alamy

As questions around vice-chancellor pay and the value for money of degrees continue to circulate in the UK, universities face increasing scrutiny of their behaviour and strategies. This conversation has led to mounting pressure to ensure university governance is more robust and effective.

According to Chris Sayers, chair of the Committee of University Chairs, “Who governs the governors?” is not a new question but has become an important one considering the erosion of public and political trust in universities.

“We have a huge responsibility to ensure we are governing our universities well,” he said. “[Universities] need to demonstrate to [the English regulator] the Office for Students that we are compliant with registration conditions, have responsibility towards our staff and students and show the taxpayer and government we are making the best use of the resources that are given to us.”

Speaking at a seminar on governance, organised jointly by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Advance HE, Mr Sayers said that there was still a need to improve the effectiveness of the relationship between governing boards and the university executive. That relationship, he said, can be “uncomfortable at times but should be close, built on mutual trust and a common objective: the success of the institution”.

“Vice-chancellors and executives must respect the governing body and recognise this is a collaboration, but the relationship goes both ways,” he said.

There could be a number of reasons why governors might end up not working effectively or not doing what they need to do, for example when those on the board are “captured by a strong vice-chancellor” or are worried about disrupting the strategy of an institution with a good reputation, he said.

For Mr Sayers, what such situations required was “strength of character and confidence of independent members” to challenge the status quo.

Part of the problem is often that the authority of the governing body is not well understood by students, staff, those outside higher education or even the institution’s executive, he said, and “that lack of visibility can create a weak platform”.

“Boards must be more transparent, so that our stakeholders know the decisions we take and why,” he said. Transparency is effective in ensuring good understanding and sensible decisions are made and there is “even an argument that we should consider having an annual public meeting…in front of our stakeholders to explain why we are making the decisions that we are making”, he added.

Also speaking at the event was Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, who agreed that transparency was an important issue. “It’s no longer good enough to say: ‘We are engaging.’ [Boards] have to show how they are affecting the governance process,” she said.

According to another panellist, Monica Chadha, vice-chair of council at Queen Mary University of London, “There could not be a more important time to be a member of a university board.” What with new regulatory bodies, increased fees, a focus on the level of teaching and Brexit looming over the UK sector, “it is important not to shy away from discussing the topic”.

For Ms Chadha the role of the governing body is to ensure that the organisation has the right strategy. “A highly engaged governing body can help executives, faculty members and students map perspectives and prove valuable sounding boards,” she said.

However, many university boards are failing to recognise how important it is to have a diverse membership, she said. “For a sector that places high value on diversity, we are abysmal at appointing diverse talent to our governing bodies.”

This need is not simply because it is an issue of social justice, but because there is a working benefit from a wide background of voices and opinions. “As university stewards we must be assertive, we must refuse to work with headhunters who argue that the candidates [for governing boards] aren’t out there. It is easy to find them…Chairs need to be unrelenting in this area,” Ms Chadha said.

She added that the composition of a governing board could be improved in many other ways.

“A frequent challenge for boards is their size, which can be around 20 members. I’m inclined to think six to eight board members would work better, based on human dynamics, with access to an advisory council made up of faculty, students and people from a wide cross section of society,” she said. “This would put an emphasis on how issues are discussed, rather than which issues are discussed.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: How to govern the governors

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