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We work with non-profits and for-profits including universities, further education institutes, schools, charities, the NHS and arts/cultural organisations.

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Latest news

Senior Independent Governors

Jan 15, 2021

A Senior Independent Director/Governor/Trustee (SID) now appears, in some form, in the governance codes for all sectors:

The codes all operate on an ‘apply/comply’ or ‘explain’ basis. The Senior Independent Governor (SIG) is new to the CUC code, and as a result, many universities are either considering whether they wish to appoint one, or considering how they are going to ‘explain’ that they have considered it and decided not to do so.

Given that the SIDs have long been part of good governance in other sectors, one might ask whether some of the governance and reputational issues that have arisen in HE in recent years may have been avoided had we had this role in our university governing bodies. Indeed, The Halpin Review of the Governance at the University of Bath in May 2018 recommended that the University appointed a Senior Independent Governor and the Advance HE Governance Effectiveness at De Montford University in March 2020 stated that the University “should consider” appointing a SIG.

So, what is a SID, and do you need one?

The SID is described very similarly in both the UK Corporate Governance Code and NHS Foundation code:

“The board of directors should appoint one of the independent Non-Executive Directors to be the senior independent director, in consultation with the board of governors. The senior independent director should be available to members and governors if they have concerns which contact through the normal channels of chairman, chief executive or finance director has failed to resolve or for which such contact is inappropriate. The senior independent director could be the deputy chairman.” NHS Foundation Code

“The board should appoint one of the independent non-executive directors to be the senior independent director to provide a sounding board for the Chairman and to serve as an intermediary for the other directors when necessary. The senior independent director should be available to shareholders if they have concerns which contact through the normal channels of chairman, chief executive or other executive directors has failed to resolve or for which such contact is inappropriate." UK Corporate Governance Code

Later in the UK Corporate Governance Code, the role of the SID is described as leading the non-executive directors to appraise the chair’s performance annually, and on such other occasions as are deemed appropriate. It also states that the SID should attend sufficient meetings with a range of major shareholders to listen to their views to help develop a balanced understanding of the issues and concerns. So the SID is another way to provide a listening ear to ‘stakeholders’.

The Financial Reporting Council outlines how “when the board is undergoing a period of stress” the SID “becomes critically important”. He or she is expected to work with the chair and the rest of the board and/or shareholders to resolve issues that are deemed significant.

The following examples are given as to when a SID may intervene:

  • There is a dispute between the chair and the CEO;
  • Shareholders or non-executive directors have expressed concerns that are not being addressed by the chair or CEO;
  • The strategy being followed by the chair and CEO is not supported by the entire board;
  • The relationship between the chair and CEO is particularly close, and decisions are being made without the approval of the full board; or
  • Succession planning is being ignored.

SIDs are commonplace in the context of NHS Trusts or Housing Associations, although less so in the Charity sector where the Good Governance Code mentions the role of senior independent trustee only in relation to larger charities:

*"a vice-chair, ‘senior independent trustee; or similar, who provides a sounding board for the chair and serves as an intermediary for the other trustees if needed. This person may be the deputy or vice-chair of the charity." –*Good Governance Code

Again, given some of the recent high-profile issues relating to governance in the charity sector, the question arises - if these charities had a senior independent trustee in place would trustees, staff, stakeholders have had another route to air their concerns?

A key question we might want to consider is whether and how a SID or SIG might differ from a Vice or Deputy Chair role. Whilst the Charity guidance might suggest that the two can play a similar role in other sectors, they are clearly defined, separate roles with different functions. The benefit of a SID is that they are independent of the ‘front bench’. They are not the next Chair-in-waiting and do not cover for the Chair in her absence. As the CUC code states, the SIG is “different to the Deputy Chair who should be part of the leadership of the Board and deputise for the Chair as well as take on specific duties which are assigned to them.”As such they are a valuable sounding board at all times and in times of crisis are invaluable.

So perhaps the question should not be “should we have one?”, but “why would we not have one?” Why would we decide not to have an additional route to enable voices to be heard or concerns to be raised? Why would we not have in place a role that could help enable us to handle a future governance issue?

Universities are facing huge uncertainty and executive leaders and governors are having to make difficult decisions often outside of ‘normal’ governance cycle. Having another mechanism for mitigating the risks that could arise, and giving governors and stakeholders another means to express any concerns they have has to be a step forward.

Susie Hills is Joint CEO of Halpin, the home of experts in governance.

A seven-step approach to ‘remote’ problem solving with your team.

Jan 05, 2021

A colleague sends you an urgent email which begins, “We have a serious problem…”.

As a leader, often the desire is to jump into action and get the problem solved as quickly as possible. In pre-Covid days, this might have meant calling an urgent meeting to get all those involved around the table. Now, the first instinct might be to convene a video call.

The key to successfully handling serious problems is to step back and immediately begin a process to help you gain a calm and thorough understanding of the problem. This helps you successfully lead your team to an effective solution and, crucially, ensures the organisation has learned in the process.

As a leader, it’s your job to calmly set out the process by which you would like your colleagues to go about tackling the problem.

The seven-step process to dealing with complex problems can be summarised as follows:

  1. Definition – Establish exactly what the problem is, the scale of the problem, who is affected, the risks and the costs involved.
  2. Understanding – Gain a full and detailed understanding of the causes of the problem – avoidable and unavoidable. Consult those affected to learn from their experience and insight.
  3. Identification – As you talk about the problem, constantly ask, “What does good look like?” and collect the answers. This will help you to develop some success criteria and establish some potential solutions.
  4. Exploration – Consider at least three potential solutions – even if you think you are pretty clear what the solution is.
  5. Decision – Agree on the best solution – a plan, timeframe and budget for implementation.
  6. Implementation – Ensure effective implementation of your plan within an agreed timeframe and agreed budget. Communicate this to your team and stakeholders. Show how this solution addresses the problem.
  7. Learning – Review the implementation process and check that it is delivering your success criteria. See what you have learned as a team and see how it applies to other areas of your organisation. Share your learnings with other teams and stakeholders.

Share this process with your team, so that they know when they say, “We have a problem…”, the first thing you will say is something like, “Let’s define exactly what the problem is.” Indeed, if they know that this is the process you will use they should come into your office with the beginning of a definition. It’s only the beginning of a definition because it’s vital that you dig beyond the information they give you when they first alert you to the problem.

So how does this work?

Stage 1: Definition

Successful definition of the problem will require you to ask lots of questions. Questions like:

  • What has gone or is going wrong?
  • How serious is it?
  • Are there any legal, financial or safety implications?
  • What are the effects?
  • Who is involved?
  • Who is aware of the problem?
  • How was the problem identified?

As you will be asking lots of questions, you might find a mind map is a helpful way of making notes of your discussions. As you listen to the answers, you will find that factors interact. Your mind map will help you make connections and literally ‘picture’ what has happened.

Stage 2: Understanding

Sometimes this stage is skipped over, often due to the desire not to create a ‘witch hunt’ or ‘blame culture’, sometimes to avoid difficult conversations, or sometimes simply to rush to solve the problem.

However, you really can’t spend too much time understanding what caused the problem. This doesn’t have to feel like an investigation and can be a true learning exercise for your team. Explain to your team that, “If we don’t understand how we got here it will be harder for us to build the right solution together. There is nothing wrong with us facing problems; it’s part of doing what we do. The only mistake will be not learning from the situation we are in.”

The deeper your understanding of what caused the problem the better. Different colleagues may have different perceptions as to the cause of the problem and it is important to hear all views. Find out if the issue is a systems and processes issue, a people issue (capacity/skills?), or resources issue (budget?).

One way of capturing what you learn is to write down the problem and then list the first-level contributing factors. Then list the contributing factors to each of those first-level factors – you dig down level by level. The best way to capture this is to create a diagram that lists levels of contributing factors. This could work well as a shared document on a Google drive so your key team members can share it, add to it and develop a shared understanding.

“All well and good, but how exactly do I get this to work - especially when we are all working remotely?”

1. A shared list of questions. Brainstorm all your questions before you talk to those involved, and share this list of questions with them - they will have more to add. This list will help you define the problem.

2. Making time Your diary may already be pretty booked up and you may have an assistant who books meetings. You need to have initial meetings quickly and close together. Ask your assistant to make time and explain the process to them.

3. Initial team meeting Have a short video meeting with the key colleagues involved to set in motion the process, establish a shared understanding and review your list of questions and any initial answers they may have.

4. One-to-one meetings Follow your team meeting with one-to-one discussions with each of them to get their perspective. It’s best to do this over a day if you can rather than have these meetings over a protracted period. Video calls are more necessary for group discussions but you might find phone calls work better for one-to-one calls. Often people find it easier to talk about difficult subjects over the phone than on video. Ask your team members to prepare for the meeting – ideally sending you bullet points of key points they would like to make so you can dig deeper in your discussion.

Stage 3: Identification As you learn about the problem, constantly ask, “What does good look like?” Aim to find out who does this well and how they do it. The clearer picture you have of success, the closer you will come to achieving it. This isn’t about jumping to finding the solution, it’s about defining what you want the solution to deliver.

Remember you don’t need to understand how to get there at this stage, you just need to be able to articulate what you are aiming for. Depending on the scale and importance of the issue, this may be the appropriate time to discuss the issue with your Governing Body so you are clear on their expectations.

You now have a picture of the problem through your mind map, a clear idea of all the contributing factors and a picture of what success looks like. Stages 1-3 are complete.

Stage 4: Exploration

This can be a creative process for you and your team. Lead a thorough exploration of potential solutions - don’t accept the first one offered to you.

Ask questions like:

  • How else could we address this?
  • How many options do we have?
  • What are the pros and cons of each?
  • How do others solve this problem?
  • How could we solve it if we had no additional resources? (This tests whether the extra expenditure is needed)
  • What is the fastest solution?
  • What is the most long-lasting solution?
  • What is the simplest solution?

Ask your team to put forward at least 3 options. Test each option against your success criteria so you are sure it delivers what you need. Interrogate it further by asking questions like:

  • How could this be better?
  • What is missing?
  • What risks are there?
  • How long will it take?
  • What have we forgotten? (My favourite for bringing out further information).
  • What do our stakeholders think?
  • Does this address their needs/concerns?
  • Have we asked them?
  • Do we need their views on these options?
  • How can we best get them?
  • Are there any EDI implications we have not considered?

Ensure that your options are shared in some form with senior colleagues and the Governing Body (if you have determined that the problem warrants their involvement). Asking for their input at this stage will gain their confidence and ensure your decision is supported.

You will need to set aside quality time for this stage – at least one long video session, even better two, so people have time to reflect in between. You will need someone to capture notes in a shared document.

Stage 5: Decision

With all you have learned in stages 1-4 this stage should be straightforward. The key to success though is not just deciding on a solution, but agreeing on a timeframe and budget for implementation. It seems obvious but it’s amazing how often a timeframe and budget are not mutually understood and agreed upon. Sometimes teams who are under pressure offer unrealistically short timeframes or underestimate the budget required. Ensure the timeframe is realistic and that there are key milestones for the project and dates for these.

Ask your team to agree this plan and milestones to ensure it works alongside other projects which colleagues may be working on.

Ask questions like:

  • What might prevent us from putting this solution in place within the timeframe? –
  • What might lead us to go over budget?
  • What are we doing to mitigate these risks?

Stage 6: Implementation

By now many colleagues may have lost interest as they understand what happened and have agreed on a solution, but a robust implementation process must be in place. So often leaders find that problems recur and are frustrated that the institution hasn’t properly addressed them. To avoid this, ensure the project has a champion at a senior level and a project manager who oversees implementation.

Clearly articulate what information you would like your champion and project manager to give you at each stage of the project. Ask them how they will report on the achievement of project milestones, and escalate any issues which arise. If the team knows you are maintaining interest in the project, they will maintain the momentum and deliver the project. If they feel it has lost importance or urgency they may prioritise other activities.

Finally, at this stage, ensure that a communications plan is in place:

  • Who do you need to share your decision and plan with? Internally? Externally?
  • At what stages of the process do you need to communicate with them?
  • Do they support the decision and implementation plans?

Nothing frustrates stakeholders more than hearing nothing. As a consultant, I often hear, “I never did hear what they did about…”.

Stage 7: Review

So, the problem has been resolved, a solution is in place and you are achieving your success criteria – fantastic! But can you be sure that the problem will not arise again and that your team and wider organisation have learned from the experience?

Bring those who have been involved in the problem and its solution together and ask questions like:

  • What are the key learning points?
  • What could we have done better?
  • What other similar problems should we be aware of?
  • With hind-sight how do we feel we could have avoided being in that situation? Have we successfully delivered on all our success criteria?
  • What can other teams learn from this?
  • How can we share the learning?

This will help them to see that you value the work they have done to solve the problem, and their insight into your institution. It may also highlight further improvements you can make. It also establishes a culture where things get done and we truly learn from our mistakes.

Sounds simple, but how often have we worked in institutions where the wheel seems to be reinvented every few years and the same mistakes seem to be made again and again? Nothing undermines confidence in leadership more quickly than the same errors recurring. It’s also vital to document what you have learned in some way as it’s amazing how much can be lost when team members leave, and none of us will be there forever.

Many leaders need support to undertake this process. It may be that they do not have time to undertake the process, or that they prefer an independent view to be brought in.

Halpin undertakes this full process in partnership with our clients. Our highly experienced consultants have the sensitivity, insight and gravitas to support leaders and their teams to deliver change.

Leading Through Covid - Lessons for HE in Transition

Dec 07, 2020

This report tells the Covid-19 leadership story in HE so far as seen through the eyes of those who are in key sector leadership roles. The aim of the project is to capture the leadership lessons as we travel through this extraordinary period. The following summary provides headlines on the methodology and key themes.


In October and November 2020, Halpin conducted 28 structured in-depth conversations with university leaders individually and in groups, many of them Vice-Chancellors, across the UK. There were also conversations with the FE sector. The interviews covered a wide range of leadership perspectives, including crisis management, the student experience and academic leadership, decision-taking, civic leadership and institutional governance. The conversations will be repeated in 2021, probably from a wider range of viewpoints

Higher Education has been a key player in the pandemic story. It is making a profound impact through its research-led endeavours to develop a vaccine and find other treatments and technologies to mitigate the effects of the Coronavirus. At the same time, under challenging circumstances, it is delivering education to nearly 2.5 million students from the UK and internationally, directly employing approximately 500,000 staff, and working with key partners in business, civic authorities, and communities across the UK. Unlike other parts of the economy, ‘HE never closed’.

The narrative flowing from this study is pulled together under the following emergent themes:

• Crisis leadership – developing a newfound agility and flexibility in handling change; putting to the test a range of variants of the ‘Gold /Silver/Bronze crisis command systems, balancing top-down with bottom-up. • Student support and academic leadership – pivoting between variations of on-line and blended learning in a process of co-creation between students and staff, balancing quality standards and safety in a delicate industrial relations context; striving to maintain an acceptable quality of social experience for students during testing lockdown situations. • Staff engagement and support – achieving a step-change in volume and style of communications with high levels of engagement, using on-line platforms, balancing home working with on-campus activities in teaching and support services; placing a major emphasis on well being and support to address anxiety and fatigue • Civic leadership – making a unique contribution to collaborative leadership at every level of surrounding the community, city and region • Decision taking processes – implications of shift to online meetings: greater agility and informality, with a range of impacts on the quality of engagement • Culture – many positive lessons about support, compassion, well-being and kindness; a range of perspectives on shifting expectations in relationships: balancing energy and burn-out; • Institutional governance – reflections on style and flexibility of Council meetings; handling risk and the relationship between academic and institutional governance in developing post-Covid strategies.

Questions and frameworks are offered to encourage reflection around these themes, to be used internally within institutions or across the sector in webinar conversations.

It is a story of major achievement and success, but also one that has understandably generated anxiety, tension and controversy. While focusing on the current story, the Report invites university leaders at all levels across the sector to find the opportunity to reflect with staff and students on lessons learned and to look ahead to beyond the pandemic crisis. A key challenge for the future is to decide which of those different dimensions of running our universities should be retained.

At its height, leadership inside the crisis was hugely challenging, but ironically, leading out of the crisis may be more demanding on leadership capability if lessons from the multitude of innovations are to be embedded into the culture and practices of our HE institutions.

This is an initial report. We are not yet completely through the most intense phase of the pandemic. This project will continue through 2021 to refine the methodology, maybe to widen the community consulted, and to capture more of the lessons, and to reflect them back to the sector.

Ewart Wooldridge CBE Consulting Fellow, Halpin The home of experts in higher education.

Halpin is running a webinar on Weds 3rd Feb, 10-11am to discuss the key findings and reflections in the report. You can register here.

Halpin Sector Report: UK Universities' Response to BLM

Nov 19, 2020

Halpin is delighted to today release the much-anticipated report: 'UK Universities' Response to Black Lives Matter.

Halpin Consulting Fellow Osaro Otobo was commissioned to lead the research project, which combined of interviews with senior university leaders, SU presidents, and activists, along with an in-depth desk review and public online survey.

Osaro has authored the resulting report.


You can also watch back our webinar where we discussed the findings here.

Halpin has a range of services available to help you combat racism in your institution. Get in touch today if you'd like to discuss your particular challenges.

Halpin is proud to announce our partnership and support for #Kindfest2020.

Oct 15, 2020

Halpin is excited to be a partner and supporter of the inaugural #Kindfest2020, being hosted by #Teamkind.

The brainchild of Halpin’s Joint CEO Susie Hills, #Kindfest2020 is an online celebration for World Kindness Day – Friday 13th November, from 2-7pm.

This event features five curated ‘tents’ covering kinder work, kinder politics, kinder youth, kinder lives and kinder thinking. 100% of the profits will go to TeamKind’s chosen charity partners – YoungMinds, Captain Tom Foundation and Blurt Foundation.

An extraordinary programme of speakers has been announced, including Cherie Blair CBE QC, TV presenter Alice Roberts, philosopher AC Grayling, politician Caroline Lucas MP, and writers and podcasters Giles Paley-Phillips and Julia Bradbury.

Susie, who was chosen as one of the FT’s ‘Leading Lights in Kindness’ last year, says,“It is essential to explore new ways of working together right now. We need to spread kindness and support people who are struggling - be they our children, loved ones, colleagues or strangers. Kindfest2020 is a chance to come together, recharge our batteries and stock up our kindness reserves”.

Kindness is a key part of the Halpin manifesto which guides our consultancy work.

Tickets are on sale now.

As part of our support for the event, Halpin has agreed to buy a free ticket for all staff, Fellows, Advisors, clients and past clients – if you fall into one of these categories watch this space for your invite!

Halpin & Collab Group Sector Report: Further Education

Oct 08, 2020

Halpin partners with Collab Group to release the State of the sector report.

Download the report here

Halpin and Collab Group today launched a brand-new report on the “state of the further education sector.” The report presents our findings following analysis of focus interviews conducted with 25 Principals and Chief Executives across UK Further Education colleges, and an accompanying survey.

In the report, we examine some of the key opportunities and challenges including facing FE leaders, including how colleges have responded to the coronavirus pandemic, the anticipated FE White Paper and the relationship between FE and HE.

Some of the key findings include:

• 81% of leaders surveyed agreed that further education colleges will be critical to economic recovery efforts

• Just 19% of leaders are very confident about the financial position of their college over the next 12 months

• 67% of leaders are concerned about the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on learner progression

• 80% of leaders agree that their governance arrangements are appropriate to respond to current and emerging challenges.

Ian Pretty, Chief Executive of Collab Group said:

“This report is the first of its kind for Collab Group and represents a really valuable encapsulation of the views of further education leaders at this challenging and unprecedented time. I want to thank Halpin for all their great work in conducting the research and analysis that went into this report."

Susie Hills, CEO of Halpin Partnership said:

“It has been a pleasure to partner with Collab Group on this report. The report tells a story of a sector which has risen to the immense challenges of Covid and which will be vital to our recovery.”

Find out more about Halpin's Further Education services here.

Is the new revised CUC Code of Governance enough?

Sep 17, 2020

The CUC has just published its revised Higher Education Code of Governance.

The Code recognises institutional autonomy and the diversity of the HE sector, and therefore asks institutions to “apply the Code or explain”.

This means that institutions can apply certain elements and explain why other elements are not appropriate. The Code notes that Governing Bodies will need to consider “how best to communicate to stakeholders the extent of their compliance with the Code”, probably through their Financial Statements.

Often a regular external governance review helps to consider compliance, but given a new focus on developing good governance and stakeholder engagement, institutions may want to also consider whether an ongoing governance improvement plan for their institution would assist.

The Code identifies six primary elements that“embody the core values, assist in delivering the objectives and provide the basis of good governance”. It is interesting that after a decade or so when many universities struggled with their Courts and often disbanded them, that the Code concurs with the Camm report in Wales and highlights as one of its six primary elements:“Engagement – Governing Bodies understand the various stakeholders (especially staff and students) of the institution globally, nationally and locally and are assured that appropriate and meaningful engagement takes place to allow stakeholder views to be considered and reflected in relevant decision-making processes”.

Given the diversity of the HE Sector, the new sub-principles below the primary elements are, perhaps inevitably, a mix of the low bar, general and more demanding requirements. The principle of “Effectiveness” includes:

  • the low bar - cover for the absence of a Chair and fit and proper person checks,
  • general -“The governing body will also need to consider having a sub-committee structure which supports its effective operation, with specific consideration being given to Audit, Finance, and Nominations committees”,
  • more demanding - “the governing body needs to focus on strategic risks and emerging opportunities for the institution”. “An effective governing body has a culture where all members can question intelligently, debate constructively, challenge rigorously, decide dispassionately and be sensitive to the views of others both inside and outside governing bodies meetings” and the Governing Body“also receives assurance that the prevalent behaviours in the institution are consistent with its articulated values”.

The most important question is how helpful the Code is for institutions. While it is right that the Code is brief and principles-based, it would be helpful if it were be supported by a small number of well-judged, high profile best practice materials. The Code helpfully notes that “the CUC will collaborate with other organisations to provide more detailed advice on implementation in due course”.

Some ideas as to what Institutions might find useful include: • help in defining an Institutional Governance Maturity Framework so that in terms of best practice an institution can plot where it sits currently and what it might then target as improvement priorities. It should be possible to sensibly plot in such a framework the behaviours and evidence of where an institution might be a failing institution, where it would be high-performing and the intermediate stages. • defining for each of the 6 principles what might constitute the bar, what would be good practice and what would be excellent.

There is a higher-level question as to whether the Code helps restore confidence in HE Governance. A HEPI blog from John Rushforth, the executive secretary of CUC, sets out reasons for publishing the Code including “to protect the reputation of the sector”. My view is that it helps do this, but it alone is not enough.

Although the Government has been very reliant on universities during the pandemic for research, testing and helping it recover from its examinations embarrassment, it still seems to have very little to positive to say about universities. Also, the press has, in recent years, inevitably focused on a range of negative issues including Vice-Chancellor and senior officer remuneration. Given previous university governance failures it is clear that more needs to be done.

In my last blog, I noted the excellent initiative in Wales with the publication of a Governance Charter for Universities in Wales agreed by all the Chairs and Vice-Chancellors. This is not a Code of Governance; Universities in Wales will continue to adhere to the CUC Code of Governance. “It is a series of commitments to take steps to improve governance and to adopt best practice both from within and outside the sector; it also commits the institutions to report on progress made”.

There is also an accompanying document Commitment to Action which sets out the agreed actions and lead players following on from the Charter. Each university will report on progress on implementation in their annual reports and HEFCW will report on sector progress.

Finally, the timing of publication of the Code comes at a difficult time for Governing Bodies. The pandemic has moved them from a world of ‘normal’, where this Code obviously fits, to a world of crisis requiring regular virtual operational Governing Body meetings. This looks set to continue for some time and it will be interesting to see if and how institutions will react to the new Code. The Welsh Funding Council (HEFCW) has recognised that implementation of its initiative will have to be delayed.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education governance.

GUEST POST Part 1: NSS is not fit for purpose - where did it go wrong?

Aug 27, 2020

Rethinking student experience

Part One – Where did it go so wrong?

The National Student Survey (NSS), launched 15 years ago, endeavoured to give the higher education sector insight into students’ satisfaction with their student experience. Its website states that NSS’s purpose is to gather “opinions from students about their time in higher education, asking them to provide honest feedback on what it has been like to study on their course at their university/college”. Since its inception, NSS has become one of the key benchmarks on which to judge universities, also playing a significant role as a metric in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) metrics and sector league tables.

It won’t be news to anybody that the NSS has had a controversial reception over the years, most notably so when TEF ratings became linked to the ability for an institution to charge higher fees, resulting in a national NSS boycott policy by Student Unions. Despite this, universities have continued to give it credence, largely because of the financial risk of poor scores in a competitive market.

And yet, as the sector becomes more reliant on the NSS results, the questions and concerns about the legitimacy or reliability of the NSS haven’t disappeared. Not least because the 2020 results suspiciously showed no impact of two major events; significant industrial action over a prolonged period and a global pandemic. Which raises the question - if the complete absence of physical lectures doesn’t shift the scores, what will? And what else might the NSS be failing to highlight?

There are three key reasons why the NSS is not fit for purpose:

Firstly, the NSS takes an extremely narrow view of the student experience. All of the 26 core questions are directly related to the academic on-course experience. But student satisfaction with academic provision does not equal satisfaction with a broad and holistic student experience. You might strongly agree that “the course is well-organised and running smoothly” (Q15) but be unable to access mental health provision due to long wait times, struggle to pay your expensive rent or are priced out of extra-curricular activities that were sold to you on the open day. The key student issues aren’t whether “staff are good at explaining things” (Q1), but the mental health crisis, quality and price of accommodation, or sexual assault incidents on campus. As such, the data that NSS produces gives a superficial snapshot of a narrow element of the student experience. The danger for individual institutions is that this view can prevent their senior leadership and governing body from digging deeper into what’s happening on the ground outside the lecture theatres.

Secondly, the NSS results do not show active dissatisfaction. The percentages that you see are the proportion of students who either agreed or strongly agreed with the statements, running the risk of us only seeing the results of a homogenous majority. The higher education experience is often brilliant for those with enough money, time and social capital to navigate all it has to offer. But we also know that underrepresented student groups have a disproportionately less satisfactory or enjoyable experience at university. In many cases, the system is just not built to support them. Perhaps then, good NSS scores are more reflective of the type of students an institution attracts, rather than an accurate portrayal of the student experience. If a university is relying only on their NSS scores, then they will be glossing over any active dissatisfaction and won’t be focusing on those students who are falling through the gaps.

Finally, like most blunt measurement tools, the NSS can bring unintended consequences. In this case, some universities might mistakenly focus their time and attention on improving their NSS scores, rather than working to improve the student experience in itself. The NSS has been put on a sector pedestal, influencing league table places, TEF ratings and subsequent student recruitment performance. It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on external perception rather than internal experience. By creating so-called “measurables” in the academic experience, we begin to overvalue what we can measure, and undervalue what we can’t.

The NSS’s narrow view of the student experience, its lack of interest in active dissatisfaction and the culture of prioritising metrics over experiences make it clearer than ever that the NSS is not fit for purpose, especially when the next academic year will look so vastly different from all that we know about student experience in the past. So what do we do next?

See: Part Two - How should we put it right?

Eve Alcock is Former President of The University of Bath’s Students’ Union and a HE policy enthusiast.

GUEST POST Part 2: NSS is not fit for purpose - how should we put it right?

Aug 27, 2020

Rethinking student experience

Part Two – How should we put it right?

In my previous guest post, I shared three major ways in which the NSS has gone wrong. Its narrow view of the student experience, its lack of interest in active dissatisfaction and the consequence of prioritising metrics over experiences make it clear that the NSS is not fit for purpose. So what do we do next?

To start with, we need to get back to the real purpose of NSS. That is, what it should have been - an exercise that highlights how universities can improve the student experience. This starts with establishing a common understanding across the sector that student experience includes a wider range of factors; academic experience, affordability, mental health provision, a sense of belonging, extra-curricular activities and more.

Secondly, to get a rich view of ‘experience’ at a University we have to listen to just that; students’ experiences, not students’ relative agreement to stock statements. This is why the open comments section of the NSS is so important. It can be overwhelming to work through volumes of qualitative insight, but it’s never been more important if we want to understand what drives our students and what worries them. Universities have bright, articulate students on their campus who can share what it’s like to be studying at their institution, but the institution has to have the resource and time to be able to listen. It might help to use quantitative data to identify areas for investigation, but the value will always lie in the qualitative.

Next, for this to be meaningful, we have to instil a tailored approach to both the data gathering and the proposed solutions to problems. It’s not enough that a white, middle class, cis-gendered, able-bodied student reports a fantastic experience. We also need to know black students’ experiences of mental health provision, whether care leavers are able to access extra-curricular activities and what stops disabled students from navigating the local transport provision? When the focus shifts from an external perception of a singular student experience to an internal one, it means concentrating on students’ experiences – plural.

Working in this way gives the opportunity for the solution-finding process to be collaborative. This means involving the affected students in developing the solutions. By sharing the challenges and limitations around implementation, it allows for a united approach that brings pragmatic, innovative and progressive resolutions. Collective intelligence helps solves complex problems.

Finally, this process has to be a continuous partnership, carried out visibly in real time. NSS data gives insight into an experience of the past 3 years, but more immediacy is needed to affect real change. Students need to be heard and their concerns addressed whilst they’re still at the institution. This culture of continual feedback means candid conversations with students and being challenged to find solutions to difficult issues would be the norm.

So, if your institution has become stuck on a singular view of student experience that is concentrated only on NSS and you are keen to create real positive change for your students, then talk to Halpin. We can help you to find an approach that is purposeful, qualitative, tailored, collaborative and carried out in real time. It’s too easy to become preoccupied with the NSS, but it doesn’t need to be a barrier to also finding an approach that actually makes meaningful improvements to the student experience.

Eve Alcock is Former President of The University of Bath’s Students’ Union and a HE policy enthusiast.

Upping the governance game in Wales

Aug 03, 2020

In 2019, Chairs and Vice-Chancellors in Wales commissioned Gillian Camm to do a review of HE governance in Wales. The report was published in December 2019 and set out a proposed way forward on governance that was clustered around a series of governance values.

I think it is relevant to all UK HE institutions and I would encourage you to review it if you haven't already.

The Camm report is a substantive piece of work and a good read. Its main objective was “to enable governors to operate at the leading edge of good corporate governance in terms of compliance and crucially boardroom culture”. It noted that “there is growing impatience with the sector at UK level and recent governance issues have fuelled the desire to see change”. Crucially, it recommended that the sector acknowledged past governance failings and developed a public document – a Charter for Change – which made commitments whose delivery would be audited and reported on.

The overall thrust of the report is on enabling governing bodies to fulfil their stewardship role but also offer effective leadership in partnership with the management team and develop a strong accountability to the University’s stakeholders. She notes that consideration of stakeholders and the institution’s contribution to society is becoming important in governance.

Stakeholders such as students, staff, communities and partners should be equipped to understand and challenge the governance of a University. In our reviews at Halpin we find that this is often a neglected area of governance which is ripe for development and innovation.

Camm uses the work of Bob Garratt “Stop the Rot: Reframing Governance for Directors and Politicians” and others to explore governance issues. Camm’s 21 recommendations are built around Garratt’s cornerstone values of accountability, probity and transparency to which she adds competence, challenge, trust and engagement. “Governing bodies need to be able to articulate for their institutions: its purpose (with precision), its vision and values that guide its actions, its culture and demonstrate how everything from its strategies to the senior staff remuneration policies align with these”.

The Camm report has led to the publication of a Governance Charter for Universities in Wales agreed by all the Chairs and Vice-Chancellors. This is not a Code of Governance, Universities in Wales will continue to adhere to the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) Code of Governance. “It is a series of commitments to take steps to improve governance and to adopt best practice both from within and outside the sector; it also commits the institutions to report on progress made”. There is also an accompanying document "Commitment to Action" which sets out the agreed actions and lead players following on from the Charter. Each University will report on progress on implementation in their annual reports and HEFCW will report on sector progress.

The Charter acknowledges past governance failings and has a number of key foci:

• Rebuilding trust with and accountability to stakeholders – Welsh Universities plan to develop good practice for stakeholder engagement and should report on their institution’s engagement in their annual reports. There should be clear mechanisms to ensure the voices of both students and staff are heard and ensure that stakeholders can engage with and contribute to the key strategies of the University.

• Probity – leaders must be seen to operate to the highest personal standards. Camm talks about conflicts of interest being not just reported but anticipated, tracked, managed and made transparent.

• Greater transparency – “Everyone in a modern University needs to have a clear understanding of the work of the governing body and in return that governing body must have a clear appreciation of the culture and climate within the rest of the organisation”. Each governing body should formally review quantitative and qualitative data relating to organisational culture. The Chair and VC in each institution will participate in a 360 feedback report designed around the institution’s values. Camm recommends that “governing bodies should consider how to establish a governance culture of openness, transparency and trust that is led by the Board”. She also commends annual reports such as Vodafone’s which give a comprehensive understanding of how governance actually works.

• Challenge – there must be robust and constructive challenge particularly from the independent members and the papers must be of a quality and style that enables this.

• Competence – Trustees and Senior staff must fully appreciate their responsibilities and be equipped to discharge them. Camm notes the onerous and complex nature of the trustee role and the substantial cost of governance failure for the individual and the institution and therefore the need to ensure governor competence is fit for purpose.

The Charter and Action Plan were developed prior to lockdown and it will be interesting to see what priority is now given to implementing them. There is a risk, given the demands that pandemic is making on the sector, that spending on governance improvements could be viewed as discretionary spending which can be cut as a luxury rather than being seen as essential for the future of the University.

Good governance must continue to be a priority for the sector and is even more important in a time of crisis. Given previous governance failures and the UK’s Government’s continuing negative views of HE Sector, an obvious question is whether a similar initiative to that in Wales would benefit other countries in the UK.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in governance.