Beyond Accountability to Strategic Leadership

How much should governing bodies govern, and how much should they lead? Eamon Mullan, University Secretary at Ulster University, looks at the evolving role of university governing bodies in strategic leadership.

There is nothing new about ‘‘governance’’. However, in recent years, high profile corporate scandals have led to an unprecedented focus on the individuals, structures, and policies that inform decision-making processes of organisations.

The higher education sector is not unique in having to come to grips with aspects of governance that have not previously featured high up the agenda of priorities.

In an era where we are all more risk aware, issues of financial, reputational and legal risks have become causes for concern, particularly in an environment where innovation is not only desirable but is necessary to the ongoing wellbeing of sector institutions. When developing robust and defensible decision-making processes and arrangements for creating strategic dialogue across the institution, it is critical that the role of the governing body is about more than just accountability.

This presents huge challenges: how do you maintain the balance between innovation, academic freedom and collective buy-in, and develop new processes and change that would bring about enhanced strategic focus, without overlooking the traditional elements of good governance that contribute to clear and distinctive strategic and accountable leadership? These are that good governance is participatory, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, and inclusive and that it follows the rule of law.

Governance is as much about strategic leadership as it is about accountability.  Providing clear and distinctive strategic leadership and direction is at the core of that challenge and requires a shift from governance being considered solely as a tool of accountability to becoming the essence of institutions, giving strategic leadership, mainstreaming value norms, securing organisational sustainability.

University governing bodies have a significant role to play in bringing about this transformation. Their main responsibility is for stewardship, for determining strategy and ensuring that the strategy is delivered. They are responsible for approving the mission and strategic vision of the institution, and monitoring the University’s performance against plans. Whilst these are all important depending on the local situation, it is critical that the impact and relevance of personal relationships as well as those formal relationships encapsulated within a governance structure are considered.

The key nexus of governance within universities generally consists of 3 parts:

  • the Council, or the governing body which has overall responsibility for all its affairs;
  • the Senate, which is, in essence, the academic board and is responsible for academic matters; and
  • the senior management group, charged with making the high level day to day decisions.

Clearly, the Vice-Chancellor plays a key role, influencing not only the strategic direction of the institution but also uniting these three strands of governance.

This approach to developing strategic governance starts from a first principle examination of areas of responsibility of the governing body and relating these to strategic priorities. It is no longer sufficient to make good decisions, nor even the right decisions. Governing bodies must continue to make decisions that add strength to their institution.

There is also an external context. Strategic corporate governance must develop the structures and processes to interact with the political institutions at local and central government level. Traditionally, universities have tended to move and change more slowly than the external environment. As a result of greater strategic focus, governing bodies will have a greater understanding of the role that is expected of them.

Individual members, too, will have a more informed acceptance of the role they are required to play and the responsibility that goes with it. They are more aware of the responsibility they have for staff and other key resources, their ability to influence and enhance the student experience, and the importance of using the limited time available to them to focus on strategic matters and at a strategic level.

Awareness is one thing, but putting that awareness into effective practice is necessary to ensure the advancements that have been made can be sustained for the benefit of institutions. That is, of course, as much the responsibility of the Vice-Chancellor and senior leadership as it is of the members of the governing body.

This is, however, a journey along a continuum. It is a process of continuous improvement. As the sector strives for excellence, so too the role of governing bodies must evolve individually, collectively, corporately and strategically.

Whether changes in governance are effective cannot satisfactorily be measured at one point in time, but must be measured in the context of the institution’s changing internal and external environments.

For HE Institutions to be excellent, innovative and engage effectively with society, governing bodies must go beyond accountability, and continue to drive strategic ambitions. This is something the sector must continue to strive for.