Good Governance – How to Avoid Being Front Page News for All the Wrong Reasons

Ahead of their session at the AHUA Spring Conference 2018 in April, Diane Gilhooley, Partner and Head of Eversheds Sutherland’s UK and International Education Practice, discusses the headline issues currently affecting higher education.

It is difficult to remember a time when the HE sector was more in the spotlight than has been the case over the last year or so. This scrutiny provides an ongoing challenge for university leaders to protect their institution’s reputation, both internally and externally, on issues such as senior pay, sexual harassment, tackling under-representation and promoting wellbeing and mental health. In our day to day dealings with senior university managers, these are the topics that are constantly at the top of their list of priorities.

This is why we have chosen them for discussion at our session at the AHUA Spring Conference on 10 April 2018 when we will consider the relevant legal and practical issues which arise and managing media interest in these areas.

Senior pay

The issue of Vice-Chancellor and senior staff pay has always been a matter of high importance in the sector, as is evidenced by the advice we are regularly asked to provide to remuneration committees, but has become a topic of constant national interest over the last 12 months.

More recent developments have included the proposal by the OfS to make senior staff pay transparency an ongoing condition for registration by HE providers, including the justification of remuneration packages in excess of £150,000 pa, and CUC’s draft higher education remuneration code which proposes the publication of pay ratios.

This is clearly an area which will increase even further in importance with the OfS likely to be taking a more interventionist role and an increased scrutiny of remuneration committees and the justification for pay and severance arrangements. In our session we will consider the importance of accountability and how to operate robust pay systems in compliance with legal, regulatory and governance requirements.

Sexual harassment

The issue of sexual harassment and misconduct continues to be high profile with widespread coverage across many sectors and jurisdictions. This has included discussion of the issue in the UK higher education sector. Dealing with allegations of sexual harassment can present significant challenges and in our session we will provide guidance on this sensitive issue.

Whilst it is essential that institutions have appropriate policies and procedures in place, these will only be effective in addressing issues of sexual harassment if they operate in an environment where staff and students feel able to raise concerns and where there is an institutional willingness to act on any issues identified.

We will consider how institutions can best protect their reputation where the traditional method of using confidentiality provisions may no longer be appropriate or advisable, as well as exploring key considerations such as dealing with historic/multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, reporting to the police, legal and practical issues in conducting investigations and the difficult interface between staff and student procedures (where the allegation is by a student against a member of staff, or vice- versa).

Under-representation and equality

At the time of writing this blog the deadline for the publication of the first year’s statistics on the gender pay gap (30 March 2018) is fast approaching, with many higher education institutions yet to report. If your institution’s figures have a double-figure percentage pay gap and quartiles showing a majority of male staff in the upper pay quartile with more women in the lower quartiles this is likely to further raise the issue of diversity in more senior management levels and in your professorial ranks.

Although there is no obligation to publish a supporting narrative, this is recommended by the ACAS guidance, as is an action plan for reducing the gender pay gap. Amongst the ACAS suggestions is that employers consider taking positive action. Whilst the recent legislation is about gender pay gap reporting, institutions should not lose sight of their more longstanding obligations on reporting in compliance with their public sector equality duties covering eight protected characteristics.

Therefore, in our session we will consider strategies for dealing with under-representation and promoting equality, including the scope for making greater, and more confident, use of positive action to accelerate the pace of change, as well as considering the direction of travel in this area, which may well mean future obligations to report on ethnicity and disability pay gaps.

Wellbeing and mental health

The issue of mental health, both for staff and students, is already of course a priority area for the education sector, with initiatives such as the #stepchange framework launched by UUK and the work of the Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Working Group.

However, the topic received further national interest following the publication of the Stevenson/Farmer review which recommended the promotion of a set of mental health core standards that all employers should adopt and additional enhanced standards for adoption by employers with more than 500 employees.

We will look at how wellbeing and mental health can be promoted, where the key challenges lie in the current environment and what you can do to tackle them.

My colleagues and I very much look forward to seeing you on 10 April for our interactive session on these important topics and to share our thoughts and experiences with you.

To book your AHUA Spring Conference 2018 ticket and see the full programme, please visit the conference page

By Diane Gilhooley, Partner and Head of Eversheds Sutherland’s UK and International Education Practice