PwCHow Covid-19 is improving university governance

How Covid-19 is improving university governance

Institutions have learned a lot about best practice and priorities from how they responded to the pandemic

Sally Jeffery, partner at PwC Middle East and global education and skills network leader, believes that university leaders are immersed in “the oddest start to any academic year we’ve ever seen”. Revealing preliminary findings from the company’s global higher education leaders survey at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit 2020, she explained that there is now a gradual shift from the crisis decision-making efforts of the early stages of the pandemic towards reflection on how the past six months can shape governance and strategy going forward.

Jeffery said that two sets of priorities were emerging for university leaders: operational challenges such as managing risk and controlling costs, and the people aspects of running a university, encompassing everything from staff and student well-being to learning outcomes and research. According to PwC’s survey, the two highest ranking priorities for leaders at present are “scenario planning/risk management” and “cost containment/financial management”. Furthermore, 85 per cent of respondents said that they expected Covid-related challenges to persist for at least one academic year.

“I was not at all surprised that financial sustainability, cost containment and cash management were right up there in terms of priorities,” said Ali Breadon, education industry lead partner at PwC UK. Universities in the UK were already facing a “financial cliff edge”, she added, with existing challenges such as Brexit, competition for students and increasing debt levels putting a strain on finances.

Breadon argued, however, that the coronavirus pandemic has forced university leaders to embrace a more cost-conscious culture. She added: “There has been a swing in focus from executives in terms of getting more of a financial grip. The pandemic has forced them to have a greater level of granularity and understanding about where the money comes from and where it ends up.”


However, Breadon said that university executive committees would need to ensure that they had the right mix of skills to maintain that focus on financial management: “It’s time to take stock of whether the mix of skills on the board is right and also lean on the skills that exist already. There are often governors that can bring in a huge level of insight from other areas of industry, where tight financial management has been a prerequisite for survival.”

That said, universities must avoid applying the brakes on spending in areas that require it. She added: “Many universities have stopped non-essential spend but without too much thought into what is essential. This could be a false economy down the line, so an evaluation process needs to take place.”

As well as a sharper focus on financial management, the pandemic has accelerated openness to change, according to Laura Van de Bogart, managing director of public sector and higher education at PwC Canada. “We saw a lot of incident response teams led by [university] presidents and provosts, with sub teams focused on operations and academic advisory groups working alongside,” she said. “There was a clear flow of information and strong communications across institutions. Now we’re trying to build on these mechanisms to respond to the secondary effects of the pandemic.” These could be new approaches to collaborating on inclusion issues such as accessibility, or ensuring that students have the right resources to be able to study online.

Jenny Dixon, deputy vice-chancellor of strategic engagement at the University of Auckland, said that the findings of PwC’s survey pointed to the need for university leaders to “keep the big picture in mind” when making critical decisions. “There are a number of things they need to think about: the role of universities as civic institutions, what teaching and learning will look like in the future and whether there might be opportunities for collaborations with other universities globally, and what future funding streams are going to look like. Covid-19 has exposed some extreme vulnerabilities in the university system,” she explained.

Specialist governance consultant Michael Wood added that the pandemic has meant that universities have never been more socially embedded. “It’s encouraging that the survey shows they are putting a high accent on student and faculty well-being, but they need to keep this under review, not neglecting it in terms of investment,” he said. “They have a duty of care to the people that make up their communities, whether they are internal or external, individual or collective, academic or non-academic.” Staying true to their core values would help them retain this focus, he advised.

Universities face not just a difficult first academic term but a host of social, digital and financial challenges that could linger for months or years. Strong governance will be crucial for survival, concluded Dixon. “There will be significant change and we may not look like we did before, but what’s critical going forward is clear leadership, strong vision and the right mix of skills and capacity to help senior leaders to make the best decisions they can.”

Watch the full discussion from the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit 2020 above or on THE’s YouTube channel.

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