HE Governance Career Journey:

Alison Benson

Name: Alison Benson 

Job title: Strategic Planning Manager (Governance) 

Institution: University of Leicester 

What does your current role and remit encompass? 

In a nutshell, I manage anything to do with the University’s governance frameworks – corporate or academic – that is distinct from the day-to-day management/running of the organisation.  In practice, my team and I look after our governing body (Council) and the majority of its standing committees (spanning finance, audit, people functions and into areas as diverse as honorary degrees, investments, health and safety) as well as the University Senate which is the highest academic decision-making body.  We also carry out governance improvement initiatives e.g. effectiveness reviews, induction and development for members.  My team is also responsible for some compliance and regulation functions, primarily with OfS obligations and things like good governance codes. 

Our overarching function is to make sure the University makes good decisions i.e. at the right time, with the right people in the room, supported by the right information.  It’s an extremely wide-ranging role that touches all areas of the organisation and deals with a hugely varied amount of information. Governance is fundamentally about checks and balances on the exercise of management responsibilities and I like to think we act as the institutional conscience. 

The best piece of advice I have ever received was ‘never apologise, never explain’

What does a typical day look like for you in your role? 

I would love to have a typical day or even a typical week! 

Taking one recent day as an example, though: 

What is your previous work history?  What led you to a role in HE governance? 

I started out in an admin role in the arts, working as PA to the Chief Curator at Tate Modern.  I moved internally twice at Tate, first to a role in external relations and advocacy, and then into a governance and policy management role.  Then I moved to manage governance at a leading multi-academy trust, before moving into HE in 2016, firstly at the OU and now at Leicester. 

I’ve always worked in roles where there has been a public benefit and also an educational one.  HE is important to me – I was the first in my family to go to university, and benefited from a widening participation scheme which introduced me to Oxford, where I subsequently studied as an undergraduate.   

What sources / training / qualifications have most helped you in your HE governance role to date? 

People and relationship management skills have been the ‘golden thread’ running through all of my roles.  This was the link in moving from an advocacy-focused role into supporting boards and committees.  It’s also been important to have solid writing skills – distilling information into briefings is actually a large part of my role.  I’ve also found that project management skills have been really useful; I gained APM Project Management Fundamentals in 2017 to back that up. 

Which person has been particularly helpful / inspirational in your career to date and what did they do or say that was so helpful? 

I’ve been lucky to have had some amazing managers who’ve nurtured and supported me and I’ve also taken up mentoring and coaching opportunities whenever they’ve been available to me.  The best piece of advice I have ever received was “never apologise, never explain” – from a career coach on returning after maternity, on how to manage working part-time in a very full-on context. 

What role do you hope to move onto next and how will you go about preparing for it? 

I would love to be a Head of Governance or equivalent but I’m also interested in leadership in its own right.  To that end I’m studying a part-time MBA alongside work, at Leicester, which the University has generously funded me to study.  I’m also joint co-ordinator of the AHEP Governance Special Interest Group to expand and develop my reach in, and knowledge of, the wider HE sector. 

What is the best piece of advice you have received about HE governance? 

That it’s about structure, people and processes, and that all three have to work properly for it to be successful.