Embracing Alternative Perspectives

Ahead of the AHUA's Spring Conference in April, Andy Shenstone, director of consultancy and business development at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, looks at some of the key issues facing the governance of the UK’s HE sector. He will be discussing these themes further during a workshop at the conference in Ulster.

To make sense of a turbulent world means we must embrace alternative perspectives

The complex interaction between changing government policy, the new regulatory environment (and, for Scotland, the new governance environment and student number controls), Brexit, immigration policy, REF, TEF, pensions and national demographics, to name but a few meta factors, is demanding continuous and close assessment by executive teams and by extension oversight by governing bodies.

All of this boils down to one simple truth – the environment for universities is now inherently more risky and difficult to navigate than it has been for a generation.

If you accept this contention then it follows that governing bodies must ask themselves – ‘do we remain sufficiently well-equipped to protect and advance the interests of our university?’

This points to the importance of Boards not only welcoming, but actively pursuing a breadth of perspective. This is not about diversity for its own sake but recognising that a high performing Board is defined by two major factors:

  • The individuals, their skills, competencies and experience – allied to their commitment to collaborate and invest the necessary time and effort in fulfilling their roles
  • An environment within the Board room itself that stimulates effective execution of its core purpose, in particular identifying and evaluating significant opportunities and risks and providing guidance and challenge regarding major strategic decisions

In response we are seeing:

  • Nominations committees and university clerks and secretaries increasingly stepping back from and critically assessing the criteria and skills matrices used to inform Board level appointments (and renewals).
  • Boards being more likely to undertake 360 degree feedback including their Chairs and act forthrightly on the findings

Where this is taking place it speaks to an appetite for establishing a Board culture that both values breadth of experience and which is inherently focussed upon the outcomes it is seeking to enable.

Understanding the core business

The extent to which governing bodies understand and are equipped to fulfil their remit as it relates to academic assurance has become especially topical of late.

The HE Code of Governance has long established the link with institutional reputation thus providing the rationale for engagement and oversight in academic governance, “operating satisfactorily.”

With the advent of a judgement from the Funding Council on quality, by means of annual letter to governing bodies in the annual risk letter, academic governance has found itself a topic of increasing deliberation.

On behalf of HEFCE, HEFCW and DFE (NI) the Leadership Foundation is undertaking work to design and implement an approach to identify and analyse any gaps in the capabilities of a range of governing bodies in this area.

This involves exploring current practice which is revealing a variety of both well established and developing approaches across the sector including (excuse the list – of which this is just an extract):

  • Governing bodies dedicated time on oversight of the academic strategy (including the TEF) with a particular focus upon academic partnerships and the outcomes of academic governance reviews
  • Joint meetings of council and senate/academic council with a stronger role for academic council in the development of the institutional strategy
  • HE/academic expertise being identified as key skills need on governing body allied to revisions to the content and focus of Board inductions
  • Governors (particularly independent members) being paired with PVCs/Faculties and being encouraged to spend time with course leaders (an approach that is quite contentious in some institutions)
  • The Student Union seen as critical friend, embedded in all academic processes with the ability to report direct, uncensored to the Board
  • An internal audit service that looks at academic assurance processes and audit and reporting on public information (particularly relating to academic matters)

As with anything concerning UK HE ‘one size’ certainly does not ‘fit all’ and from the range of responses from our fieldwork this is certainly proving to be the case.

I will be leading a workshop at the Spring Conference in Ulster, where we will explore how those charged with serving the Board see these and other issues and the responses different institutions are pursuing.


About the author

Andy Shenstone is the director of consultancy and business development at the Leadership Foundation. Andy has worked in higher education for more than 19 years with a personal focus on executive teams and governing bodies and strategically critical transformation initiatives. In addition to working in the UK, Andy’s international experience includes working for, and advising governments and universities in, Egypt, Myanmar, the Gulf States, China, Malaysia and the Caribbean.