Getting the most out of governance effectiveness reviews

Dr Jacqui Brasted, Director of JB HE Consulting and independent governor at Bath Spa University, outlines the key considerations in a governance effectiveness review and how to get the most out of a review.

Why have a governance effectiveness review?

Governance effectiveness reviews (GERs) have been a key part of higher education governance for many years. Although not prescriptive in its management and governance requirements, the Office for Students (OfS) includes regular independent GERs as one of the behaviours indicating compliance with the ongoing condition of registration E2. The Committee of University Chairs’ Higher Education Code of Governance (CUC Code) also favours regular independent GERs as good practice.

There are other good reasons to have a GER. Periodically reviewing your governance arrangements can be hugely beneficial. It:

  • provides assurance to your stakeholders that all is well
  • allows you to evolve governance with good practice and identify any emerging issues early
  • reduces burden for management by suggesting different approaches to achieve the same or even better outcomes.

What should the governance effectiveness review cover?

A good starting point is to consider your governance arrangements against any code of governance that you follow.

A GER is also an opportunity for the governing body to gain assurance about compliance with the OfS’s management and governance conditions of registration (particularly E1 and E2). Including this aspect in the GER scope involves largely the same documentation and people, so the additional cost is pretty small relative to the benefit received.

It is worth noting that full compliance with a governance code (even the CUC Code) does not equate to full compliance with the OfS’s conditions E1 and E2. So the additional assurance is worth it if you wish to ensure that you are complying with the OfS’s requirements.

The GER should also include general good governance practice that is not necessarily set out in either the OfS’s requirements or a governance code (such as the CUC Code).

Finally, the scope should include the committees of the governing body to ensure you get a rounded view of governance and the assurances to the governing body on key matters.

Who should we choose to be the reviewer?

There are a number of options available:

  1. Internally led by the clerk/secretary to the governing body – this is appropriate for annual reviews, as an externally facilitated GER is not necessary every year. If you have annual checks (e.g questionnaires), you should supplement these with an externally facilitated review. This would add helpful challenges, bring in good practice from other providers and enable you to demonstrate behaviours highlighted by the OfS as important for E2 compliance.
  2. Externally delivered by a clerk/secretary from another provider – this can be a cost-effective way to bring independence into the GER, particularly if the other provider is also seeking a GER on an exchange basis. Depending on their experience, the person may have a broad and deep knowledge of governance good practice. Of course, there is a risk that the person is less experienced, so this should be a factor in who you approach.
  3. Externally delivered by a consultant – this approach can add more value than that in (2). It enables you to gain the expertise of a reviewer with broad experience of governance in higher education and, depending on the reviewer, possibly in other sectors too.

Providers often value an annual questionnaire-style governing body and committee effectiveness review that are supplemented by an externally delivered full GER every four to five years using either of the approaches set out in (2) or (3) above, depending on their size and context.

Approach to the review

To get the most out of your GER, there are some key considerations:

  • Ensure that you appoint the right person with the right expertise to carry out your review.
  • Consider whether there are any thorny issues or concerns that your governing body or the senior management have identified that the reviewer can advise on as part of the GER – an external perspective on these can be invaluable.
  • Be open and honest with the reviewer, and encourage your governors, senior managers, auditors and anyone else meeting with the reviewer to be open and honest also.
  • Include a good cross-section of governors and senior staff – and ensure student governors are included.

Be open to change and keep in mind that recommendations may be made with a number of intentions:

  • To address an issue identified in the GER;
  • To deliver good practice in governance; and
  • To reduce burden by suggesting alternative ways of doing things.

Should we publish the GER report?

There are arguments for and against publishing GER reports. The most useful report for a governing body is one that openly and honestly sets out:

  • Any issues, with appropriate remedies of course, and
  • Opportunities for delivering best practice in governance.

However, a ‘warts and all’ approach can often be at odds with the drive to put this information in the public domain and the associated risk of it being selectively quoted or taken out of context by others.

One approach is to publish a summary of the report rather than the report in full. This might be more appropriate for the audience who, in any case, may be more interested in the high-level messages from the review. The summary is consistent with the full report but simply provides the overall opinion and a high-level description of the main findings.

Dr Jacqui Brasted is Director of JB HE Consulting and independent governor at Bath Spa University. Follow Jacqui on LinkedIn or on Twitter.