As we continue through the most significant period of higher education change that most of us can remember, it is always worth noting that not all change has a lasting impact. However, some changes really do matter, and a relatively recent requirement introduced, not by the Office for Students (OfS), but by our old friend Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), has had profound implications for the way Boards of Governors/Councils operate. It is also something that highlights a series of tensions at the heart of university governance, namely:
- the role of governors in assuring themselves of the ‘health’ of an institution and the essential relationship between that ‘health’ and an institution’s academic endeavours;
- the almost impossible task governors face in overseeing an institution’s academic endeavours in all their richness and complexity and the almost inevitable risk of intrusion into areas traditionally governed by an academic board/senate.
Following a consultation in 2015, the new operating model for quality assessment included for the first time in 2016 a requirement for boards of governors to submit annual assurances to HEFCE concerning:
- the continuous improvement of the student academic experience and of student outcomes; and
- the reliability of degree standards.
All universities are required to provide these assurances as part of the Annual Accountability Return, which the OfS has maintained as a core component of its regulatory landscape.
Response to the new requirements
The sector has responded in different ways and at a differing pace to the new requirements – though I am sure this includes us all questioning at some time or other whether boards should have been assigned this responsibility in the first place.
Some institutions immediately appointed governors with an ‘expertise’ in academic matters and this is ultimately what my institution has now done, with an additional member recruited from September 2019 with the specific purpose of bolstering the board’s understanding of the area.
However, the University of Brighton’s journey towards this appointment has taken almost three years and has been revelatory for me in regard to the ways in which board members have perceived their new responsibilities and then responded to assurances provided by the University.
Maintaining a high-quality student experience
Our governors take their responsibility very seriously and care deeply about the need to maintain a high-quality student experience. This is certainly not something I have ever doubted, but as with most other HEIs, the expertise of the Brighton board was, and largely remains, focused more towards finance, planning, construction, HR and other areas associated with the more traditional governance requirements of HEI boards.
I have simply been impressed with the way in which the board has challenged itself to take the new QA model extremely seriously and to scrutinise the University’s assurances.
Relationships with Academic Board
Our governors are keen to have a relationship with our Academic Board. This is a bond I am sure we all aspire to foster and I imagine that a recommendation to strengthen the connection will have featured in many an effectiveness review report. What has surprised me slightly are the reasons why individual governors have seemed to want this so much and this has, once again, reinforced my view of their great commitment.
Our governors want to know what the lived experience of academic staff is really like. They value their insights but also understand that academics hold the key to both the maintenance of standards and the continued improvement in the student experience. Over recent years, we have sought to encourage board member engagement with the life of the University and I am pleased to say our governors have responded accordingly.
Building trust and dialogue
Informality can often be the best way of building trust. My colleagues and I have constructed the usual array of elegant papers detailing the University’s Quality Assurance and Enhancement Framework – providing evidence of student success, insights into the role of external examiners and annual and periodic reviews – all in support of a set-piece board discussion.
But far more than in other areas, I would openly admit that our governors have required more time and discussion to get beneath the data and the reports. Our chair, who has just completed his first year in post, and other independent governors have all devoted significant time in engaging with staff and students, particularly heads of schools. The programme of board meetings has also sought to lay bare the academic experience with presentations by students, teaching staff and researchers as well as a standing item for the Students’ Union.
More than anything, it is this time well spent in informal briefing sessions and discussion with academics that has allowed governors to gain the assurance they have required, but it has not been straightforward. Ultimately, it has revealed a difference between the perspective gained by those of us who have spent many years immersed in HE and the forensic gaze of a governor who may be considering these matters for the first time and is inclined to challenge the principles we may have accepted as our natural way of doing things.
An ongoing and evolving dialogue will clearly be necessary if we are to ensure that governors maintain their understanding of academic standards, quality assurance and enhancement. The tensions I listed earlier will, however, all remain and, on a personal level, I still have doubts about the way in which we are over-burdening governors and blurring lines of accountability for academic matters.
Notwithstanding that view, when faced with their new responsibilities for academic assurance, the easiest thing for governors to have done may have been simply to accept that this was the business of the Academic Board/Senate. Instead, the University of Brighton’s governors have risen to the challenge and shown the same level of thought and diligence that has marked their overall approach in the three years since I joined the University.