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Fundraising Under Pressure: Are big gifts getting riskier?

Jul 15, 2021

I must have read the Sunday Times Rich List every year for the past 15-20 years, and this year I noticed something quite different. The editorial tone has changed. The opening paragraph tells of an “unsettling” wealth boom for the super-rich: “Over the past year, tens of thousands of us have buried loved ones, and millions of us have feared for our livelihoods. But at the very same time, more people have become billionaires than at any point in British history.”

The Sunday Times reports that there are a record number of billionaires - the biggest jump in the 33 years it has been tracking the wealthiest in our country. They question both the ethics and the sustainability and reality of this wealth ‘boom’:“It is not just the timing of this gilded epoch for the super-rich that feels disturbing. This is also a boom that often appears detached from the laws of economic gravity. How can businesses set up less than two years ago, that have never turned a profit, be worth more than $1bn?”.

This leads me to wonder, is big gift fundraising getting riskier?

Clearly, there is an opportunity to seek big gifts from the names on the pages of the Rich List, and many institutions have done so. For example, Sheffield University secured the largest gift in its history from Andrew Law, an alumnus who appears at number 10 on the Sunday Times Giving List. 182 Rich Listers have given £1m plus - more than ever before - and the total given by Rich Listers is up 34% to £4.3bn. For those institutions with a connection to one of the names on the list, careful consideration should be being given as to how to build that relationship and seek a big gift.

However as you plan your approach you should also should be carefully considering the financial and reputational risks of big gifts – both the ones you have already received, as well as the ones you may ask for.

Never before has there been the same scrutiny in terms of the ethics of donors. Whether it’s the ethical track record of the company/ies from which they get their wealth (think Sackler family) or their track record in paying (or not paying) their taxes, you can be sure that if you don’t do your due diligence and research fully the sources of their wealth, someone else will do it for you.

Being clear as to what types of money your institution will and will not accept is a governance decision that must be explored at board level. As a fundraising leader it is vital that you know whether your leadership are comfortable taking different types of money and have a clear stance on the obvious areas of risk. Are you clear as to whether it it ok to accept money from mining companies, tobacco companies, alcohol makers, gambling companies? Does the good the money do ‘wash it clean’, or is the ethical cost too high for your institution?

And as all fundraising leaders know, the ethical due diligence doesn’t stop when you accept the gift - it must continue thereafter and you will need the resources to regularly review and risk assess your donor list. The reputation of your donor may change and you may need to reconsider their name on your building (or anything else). You need to know that there is a process in place to regularly review and bring issues of concern to the Board.

And it’s not just the ethical and reputational risks that come with big gifts from the super-rich - there are financial risks too. Most multimillion-pound gifts are not given in total upfront. Most are phased payments, sometimes over several years. It's important that you consider the sustainability of the donor's wealth. What if their particular bubble bursts and they do not fulfil their pledged payments?

Now is the time for fundraising leaders to revisit their gift acceptance policy and due diligence process and to ensure that the Board has had appropriate oversight and ownership of it. Halpin can provide expert services to review policies, assess risks and facilitate Board discussions. We can also provide research services if your team does not have in-house capacity.

Halpin is the home of experts in higher education governance, fundraising and strategy.

Fundraising Under Pressure: Who is the Case for Support for?

Jul 15, 2021

Who is the Case for Support really for? It’s not your donors….

The putting together of Cases for Support has long been seen as an essential piece of work for the Development Office. And it’s always painful in a University setting in particular – how do you reduce so many opportunities and possibilities down to a few things that the University really says it wants to do? How do you keep parts of the University on Board that don’t feature in the Case?

So who is the Case really for?

Well, for many Campaigns, the biggest gifts that they receive throughout the Campaign are very often for things that weren’t in the Case at all. They are given for projects that evolve from discussions with donors, and by examining where those motivations align with what the University wants to do in the longer term. The really exciting ones are where a gift allows for a possibility that wasn’t even imagined before the conversation began.

So if that is true, and feedback from Development Offices suggests that is common in their own fundraising, and particularly in Campaigns, then why do we spend so long constructing them? I think there are two key things that a Case can achieve.

Firstly, it is really an internal document. It is about the Development office working with the University to be clear on what the University really wants to do. What areas does it want to prioritise yes – but more importantly how does it want to talk about itself, its history and its ambitions? And does it really believe in this Campaign thing – is the leadership really willing to work with Development and the rest of the University to undertake a really comprehensive push to move Development up to new levels? It allows Development to undertake crucial internal PR on what fundraising and stakeholder engagement really is, and that is its key function in my view.

A strong Case also gives everyone internally, from your fundraisers right through to your executive team, a script from which to work. Over time it will help them become fluent in the 'language' of the campaign - from the elevator pitch right down to the detail around projects.

Secondly, it’s a conversation starter with donors. It shows donors that the University has thought about its priorities and what it wants to do, and it signals ambition. That is often where it ends – that initial conversation that sparks a line of enquiry with a donor that may (and often does) shoot down a completely different pathway. In other words, when your plan meets reality, reality often looks completely different.

The thing it really should never be used for, is an excuse not to go out and start speaking to donors. In a University setting, it doesn’t matter if the University is not yet clear on its case for support. You can go out and speak to donors and listen, listen, listen for most of the conversation – what motivates them, what else do they give to, what priority to they give to your institution? Far too often fundraisers feel that they can’t have this conversation until they are clear on what the Case is. If the Case is often irrelevant other than a place to kick off a conversation, then why wait?

So, if you are holding up your fundraising because the Case isn’t clear, you are holding your institution (and yourself) back. I’m not suggesting “going rogue” with this by the way – it is a vital part of the role to align what the donor is interested in with what the University genuinely wants to do. If those things don’t align it will end in very large tears.

Construct a Case for Support to allow Development to speak to the University (or any other institution), and get clarity on what the Leadership really wants you to do. But be clear with them that the real gifts won’t look like what you’ve just put down on paper.

And that is the real beauty and opportunity of fundraising for HE. You never know where any single conversation will go. What an exciting way to start every interaction.

Shaun Horan is Joint CEO at Halpin, the home of experts in higher education fundraising.

Fundraising Under Pressure: Small Teams Q&A

Jul 15, 2021

Joint CEO Susie Hills recently had a chat with Consulting Fellow Penny Hubbard about the challenges of fundraising with a small team. Here's how their conversation went:

Susie: The last 12 months have created tremendous pressures for fundraising teams. Many have seen budgets cut or frozen, staff furloughed and, of course, all the challenges of working from home and juggling caring that we have all faced. What do you think its harder for small teams to respond to these challenges?

Penny: Whilst it is entirely understandable that the immediate reaction of some organisations was to cut costs, those which chose to furlough staff or make staff redundant from small teams created huge pressure on those remaining in post. It is well established that it is much harder to recover pre-crisis levels of fundraising where there has been a drop or cessation of activity in times of crisis.

If your organisation reduced contact with your donors you can be reasonably sure that many other charities, particularly those addressing specific pandemic issues, will have been approaching them for support. Experienced fundraisers know the importance of maintaining contact, of ensuring the mission of your organisation is at the forefront of the minds of donors in times of crisis. It was critical that financial supporters were kept up to date with how the institution they support was coping with the pandemic and ensuring long term sustainability as well as continuing its important work and impact. As a result the fundraisers who remained in post within small teams found themselves trying to maintain a reasonable level of activity without, in many cases, the right levels of staff.

I have seen numerous Development Directors having to turn their hand not only to continuing to maintain good communications and relations with existing donors, but to running online events, writing communications as well as spending a great deal more management time on supporting their team members who might have been working remotely. I am seeing real signs of burnout amongst some senior colleagues who have worked harder than ever during the pandemic with no real break.

Susie: Are there any advantages to being a small team during challenging times?

Penny: Members of smaller teams are often more used to having to pivot and help out with activities which are not the prime responsibility under their job specification. This established flexibility and willingness to support colleagues has proved to be an advantage in times of fast change and transition. I have also seen very strong support between team members as a result of the fact they already all know each other very well and do not sit in silos or stand on ceremony. Where there has been pressure on team members through having to home school or struggle to cope with new technology and intermittent broadband, the strong relationships already formed as a result of having been part of a small flexible team have made a big difference.

Susie: How can small teams build their resilience and boost their energy?

Penny: Good leadership is critical in times of crisis. Managers who have held regular (weekly) team meetings online backed up by one-to-one sessions have helped support team members and strengthened their resilience. Kindness and empathy have proved critical qualities and managers who have taken the time to actively listen to their staff have reaped the dividends.

Treating the team members in a holistic way – regarding them as entire people and recognising the challenges they have faced has resulted in increased loyalty and commitment. Sharing successes with all of the team has been even more crucial than it is normally as a result of everyone working remotely, feeling more isolated sitting in their homes. Celebration of achievements – whether big or small – builds energy and good managers have given credit to each and every contribution that has played a part. Making sure that all the staff keep the mission of the organisation in the forefront of their minds helps maintain their positivity and resilience: for example, sharing personal stories of students who were helped at a desperate moment when they didn’t have a lap top yet were sent home for the rest of term or the international graduates wo found the cost of flights home had shot through the roof created a feel good factor and a sense of achievement and positivity.

It has been important to have some fun too – in the first lockdown I saw regular informal social events (such as ‘bring a cup of coffee and have a fifteen minute social chat’) work very well – by replacing the conversation around the water-cooler.

Susie: Prioritising must be particularly important for small teams. What do you think small teams should focus on over the next 12 months as, hopefully, we see some return to “normal”?

Penny: I would first focus on ensuring that existing donor relations are strengthened and would conduct a review to pick up any who have ‘lapsed’, perhaps because the team had not been able to keep as connected as you would like, due to furlough or other cuts. These donors should be contacted as soon as possible to start to re-build relations. Communicating how the institution has adapted during the pandemic will be important in conveying the message that the organisation is resilient and able to continue its great work, even during something as transformational as a global pandemic. Donors want to be reassured that the mission will continue and to be shown how their personal gift can and has made a difference in challenging times. The old advice of ‘never talk to strangers’ will be particularly pertinent to re-building a strong foundation for your organisation as you go forward and I would focus first on that area, whilst starting to build back capacity for engaging new donors through great stories and case studies. Once the existing relations are cemented and strong communications on what the organisation has achieved during the pandemic established, then attention can be turned by Major Gift Officers and Development Directors to new support.

Susie: Any tips you would offer to leaders of small teams?

Penny: Visible leadership of the organisation is key in establishing the trust and belief which are critical factors for good fundraising. I would advise leaders of small fundraising teams to enlist the help of the leaders of their organisation to get out strong messaging from the very top as you start to rebuild and/or expand. Looking at how to run your small team there is a great deal of discussion in the media about how working practices may change but I do not think we are yet at a position where we can be certain on how flexible people will want to be going forward. In this period of crisis we have all worked from home and for many this has shown a glimpse of longer term flexibility that may be attractive. In many cases working remotely has improved productivity – but equally in some cases it has not. Whilst good leaders have ensured team members each have a voice at online meetings (I am a great fan of Nancy Kline and her approach to allowing everyone round the table to speak) it has been harder to ensure this happens with the rather more stilted structure of online meetings compared to having team meetings in person.

With a small team, the face to face relations and ‘water cooler’ talk is particularly important to establishing strong working relations and commitment both to each other and to the mission of the organisation. Seeing students physically present in their higher educational institution is part of the magic that makes working in fundraising for higher education so motivating. Whilst leaders of small teams need to show empathy and understanding to their staff in yet a new period of transition as we move back to a ‘new normal’ they also need to encourage a return to the office for at least some of the working week to help strengthen the team bond.

Penny Hubbard is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin - the home of experts in higher education fundraising. If you'd like to discuss your particular fundraising challenges with us, get in touch

Governance Under Pressure: Strategic Plans

Jul 13, 2021

Halpin Consulting Fellow Ewart Wooldridge CBE was the founding Chief Executive from 2003 to 2013 of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, set up to play a key role in developing UK and international HE leaders and their institutions. He has a well-established portfolio of consultancy, advisory and governance roles in the HE sector. He has strong experience in governance development, having devised the Leadership Foundation Governor Development Programme jointly with the CUC, and designed and run the highly successful VC/Chair retreats for the LF. He has been Deputy Chair of Council at the Institute of Education, London, a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and is now on the Council of St Georges University of London and Chair of their Remuneration Committee.

Ewart spoke to Joint CEO Susie Hills to discuss how boards should approach university strategy, post-pandemic.

Susie: Ewart, you undertook research on Covid-19 and leadership in higher education. How do you think Covid-19 will change universities’ strategic plans?

Ewart: Every university will have to rethink or amend their strategic plans following the Covid experience. How the student experience is delivered will change fundamentally. There will be a major shift in the balance between online and face-to-face learning. The balance for staff between working on campus and at home will have to be kept under review, but it will certainly not go back to pre-Covid arrangements. Campuses will be used in different ways. And lurking behind all of this is the issue of value for money. Universities have got to demonstrate that the £9,500 a year deal for the student experience still delivers, but in a different way. Students have got to be able to see how that deal - or psychological contract - still holds good, and that means tangible strategic changes.

How can Boards and Executive teams best work together to develop strategic plans?

They have to start by engaging differently with staff and students. They have to create a strategy in which staff and students recognise their impact and can influence straight away. The strategy should start with a clear vision and set of values that they can identify with. It should be distinctive and innovative, and not shy away from the difficult choices that may have to be made.

This may mean opening up more the relationship between the Board and the staff and students, and the Board and the Executive. Particularly in the next year or so, Boards will need to try and offload some of their assurance and monitoring responsibilities onto Committees, so that they can focus on the core strategic dialogue. The door into the Boardroom needs to be opened more widely so that more staff and students actually understand what goes on behind it. Very few really understand it at present.

Do you think strategic planning should be externally facilitated? Why? What are the pros and cons of it?

Yes, I do, but not to the point that the Board and Executive lose ownership of it.

At the beginning of the process, an initial objective assessment with the help of a skilful facilitator is hugely beneficial. It will bring a freshness of perspective to those whose thinking may be trapped in outdated places. They will be challenged to envisage many different scenarios. Once that process has been completed, many institutions should simply revert to handling it themselves. Others may find it helpful to take back their partly formed strategy to the same facilitator a second time to test it out - if only to check that it is challenging enough and achievable.

How can Boards ensure they are getting the appropriate stakeholder input into strategic planning – staff, students and wider stakeholders?

By undertaking full and intensive stakeholder assessments - certainly by survey and then also through intense engagement with different groups.

And get them enthused by the process - by the style of engagement, preferably face to face again at last. Use lively and creative ways of depicting the future scenarios. And make it fun - there is too much grim news around!

Remember all the positive lessons of Covid. A lot of those were about innovative methods of engagement with students and staff. And in so many ways, universities came into their own about how they found new ways of Civic and stakeholder engagement. They were often the crucial link in the local and regional delivery.

It has been said that many universities’ strategies look alike – how can Boards better understand how their institution is truly distinctive?

In a word, keep it simple. Root it as far as possible in the specific set of circumstances that surround the institution - its place, its people, its past, as well as its unique future. Keep the destination as simple as possible, underpinned by clear ambitions. Avoid overcomplexity.

A sense of place is vital. All the features that uniquely create the quintessence of a particular university and its surrounding population need to be brought together in some bold statements. Of course, there also has to be the case made post-Covid for the global, virtual institution by almost every university, but in most cases this is unlikely to be the starting point in the search for uniqueness.

Any final words of advice?

Yes, although it’s probably an overused word, the strategy has to be agile. It has to have an inbuilt capacity to flex in the event of significant change. Its starting assumption is that for the foreseeable future, uncertainty is the norm. The universities that will thrive are the ones who have strategies that can almost reinvent themselves as they go. But the overriding vision for the university needs to stretch forward to at least 2030.

Ewart Wooldridge CBE is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education governance. To discuss your particular needs or challenges, get in touch.

Fundraising Under Pressure: Strategy Q&A

Jul 12, 2021

Consulting Fellow Richard Sved recently had a chat with Joint CEO Susie Hills on all things fundraising strategy.

Richard is an experienced professional with a strong track record of strategic and operational excellence in the voluntary sector stretching well over two decades. His key strengths lie in charity strategic planning, fundraising, governance and communications – and the parts where all of these intersect.

Richard has led the fundraising function for nine national charities, has worked with a wide range of organisations as a consultant and trainer, and has direct experience and success in most areas of fundraising, including from individuals, trusts, HLF, Big Lottery Fund and companies. He has advised a wide range of organisations on their fundraising strategy, case for support development, and business planning in recent years, including Cancer Research UK, Tommy’s, Epilepsy Society and Girlguiding.

He also has experience of policy, communications, mentoring and governance development. Richard is Founding Director of 3rd Sector Mission Control, is a Trustee of St Albans Museums & Galleries Trust, and in his spare time established The Funding Network in Hertfordshire, which has so far raised nearly £40,000 for 11 small local organisations. He has worked and volunteered for charities for over 25 years.

Richard has co-authored a book on Fundraising Strategy with Claire Routley and it's available to preorder here.

Susie: Most of your work has been in the charity sector – what do you think higher education fundraising teams can learn from the charity sector? And vice versa?

Richard: Yes, I’ve worked more in the “broader” charity sector, certainly and have worked with such a range of causes over the last 25 or more years! It’s been great so far, and every new step is an opportunity for me to learn from what I see being done well, as well as to help the organisations I’m currently working with, synthesising some of the best bits from along the way. I think higher education fundraisers do so much very well, but I’d say there is scope to learn from the best that the broader sector has to offer, particularly around embracing and trialling innovative ideas. I worry that if all institutions fundraise in the same way from the same old sources, they are likely to look too similar to each other, and be vulnerable in the medium to longer term. Conversely, I think higher education fundraisers can teach my broader sectoral colleagues a lot! Particularly around major donor and individual giving fundraising particularly from alumni, where the relationship building that I have seen is often exemplary.

You have recently led a conference on fundraising strategy… what does a good fundraising strategy look like? Are there some key ingredients?

Yes, a whole day filled with experts (both consultants and practitioners) from around the world talking about fundraising strategy development and implementation. It was such fun and a bit of a dream to curate. I decided early on that I didn’t want to speak this time, but just wanted to learn from others because there are so many people doing great things at all levels of organisations who often don’t get a platform. You can see it all here.

I’m often asked this key ingredients question, and people are disappointed when I refuse to hand them a set structure with headings and sections for them to fill in! But the truth of the matter for me is that if it’s to work, each fundraising strategy needs to be tailored for the organisation in question, and not plucked from a template. Essentially, though, if that answer is too annoying, I would certainly want to see an explanation of where the organisation wants to get to, and how they are going to get there, with a clear explanation of what analysis led them to that conclusion, and what resources they need to make it happen.

Given the change the last 18 months has brought should everyone be reviewing their fundraising strategies now?

Being a fundraising strategy geek, I would say that even if there hadn’t been a pandemic, everyone should be returning to their strategy on a regular basis, to ensure it doesn’t stay on the shelf and is a live document. But yes, so much will have changed internally and externally, and so all our strategies will need to be reviewed, even if we don’t have all the answers. We have to think strategically and not spend our time lurching from activity to activity, event to event, crisis to crisis without thinking about the broader picture. There was so much talk from March to June 2020 of fundraisers needing to “pivot” their strategies that I became quite sick of the word! But yes, definitely dust whatever you have off, analyse what has gone well, what hasn’t, what is different, what your opportunities are, get planning and get implementing!

If you don’t have a fundraising strategy, is now a good or bad time to set about drafting a new fundraising strategy or should they wait until things have settled down (if they ever will!)?

There’s an old saying that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time is now. Start it now. Devote just a bit of time to it at first. You won’t regret it. It doesn’t mean that you’ll stop fundraising while you think more strategically. And in any case, if you wait for things to settle down, you could be waiting forever!

What do you think senior leadership and boards will be expecting to see in a fundraising strategy?

I think the key questions for me are around responsibility and accountability and differentiating between them. As a senior leader and as a trustee, I would want an answer to the questions “what do you need from me?” and “where do I fit in?”. And from a fundraiser's perspective, be ready to think hard about who you need to buy into your fundraising strategy, and how you can get them involved and with you for the ride. From a trustee perspective, board members should be thinking about answers to the questions set out helpfully in the Charity Commission’s CC20 paper (Charity fundraising: a guide to trustee duties). How would you address the six principles that are laid out in that paper from your perspective?

  • Planning effectively
  • Supervising your fundraisers
  • Protecting your charity’s reputation, money and other assets
  • Identifying and ensuring compliance with the laws or regulations that apply specifically to your charity’s fundraising
  • Identifying and following any recognised standards that apply to your charity’s fundraising
  • Being open and accountable

Many fundraising teams are under enormous pressure and strategic planning may feel impossible. How can they best approach strategic planning so it’s helpful but not disruptive?

This is such a good question, and I do appreciate the great pressure fundraising teams are facing right now. The important thing to realise is that you can’t come up with a fundraising strategy on your own, or at least not a good one anyway! You need to involve as wide a group as possible, though in the right way. How can you align your fundraising and non-fundraising colleagues most effectively? My guess would be that your most congruent points would be around understanding and defining your organisational mission, vision and values and being clear about why you as an organisation are worthy of support. That’s what you’re all there for in the end. Make sure that when you involve colleagues that they can see they’re being listened to, valued and their contributions addressed. It’s the best way to get buy in, but to get to that point you need to make sure you value their time and think really carefully about the open questions you’re going to ask them.

Are there ways to include the voice of donors and beneficiaries in your fundraising strategy?

Absolutely, yes. And the best fundraising teams are really doing this well, which takes me back to the first question on what higher education fundraisers can learn from other fundraisers. Listen to your donors, whether it’s through “real life” conversations or more formalised focus groups. Either way, their voices should be heard throughout your strategy. I would argue that it’s even more important, however, that the voices of the people for whom your charity exists are centrally included in your fundraising strategy. Does your fundraising represent them well? Is it authentic? Will it benefit them in the longer term? While respecting donors and building relationships with them, does your fundraising model put the community you serve at the heart? I would recommend the 10 principles set out by the Community-centric Fundraising movement for further reading on this. And I would say the principle of involvement is the same – provide opportunities to ensure meaningful involvement at every stage of your fundraising strategy development and implementation.

Richard Sved has written a book on fundraising strategy, which is coming out in November but available to preorder at the following outlets:

Governance Under Pressure: When Things Go Wrong

Jun 08, 2021

In the latest of our Governance Under Pressure series, Halpin CEO Susie Hills caught up with Consulting Fellow Will Spinks to discuss when things go wrong in university governance.

Susie: We have seen several high-profile stories relating to governance failures in the charity and education sectors. Are there any common themes emerging which governors should take note of?

Will: Yes - some of the reports recently have been very uncomfortable if, for some of us, fascinating reading. You do find yourself sometimes both thanking your lucky stars you haven’t been in the centre of the storm and wondering, if you were, how might your own decision making have weathered it.

At a high level, I think there are some general themes, some of them, well-proven over time in different contexts:

  • When there is a problem, you need to act consistently with both your own organisation’s values and in keeping with what rational stakeholders might subsequently expect.
  • Helpful in this, is imagining all that you are saying and doing will subsequently be open to public scrutiny. How will you feel if this is the case?
  • If struggling, seek wise counsel and act upon it.
  • Remember, dealing with a difficult issue well can enhance reputation.

In political circles, the phrase often quoted is, “it’s the cover-up that gets you”, with the example usually being linked to President Nixon who famously was recorded saying, “it’s going to be forgotten”, three days after the Watergate break-in. Whilst Nixon was clearly complicit, the more recent examples we have seen have been more about an unwillingness to contemplate that mistakes have been made and investigate issues thoroughly. They have been more cultural in nature but the subsequent impact when opened up to scrutiny has still been deeply uncomfortable for those involved.

Things go wrong in all institutions. How can governors be confident that they will see the warning lights in time?

I’m not sure that, in a governance role, you can always be entirely confident that things won’t go wrong. I’ve worked in very large organisations all my career – in both executive and governance capacities – in commercial, public sector and charitable settings – and stuff inevitably happens.

What you can do is ensure the culture is right in both diligently managing risk and seeking assurances about key processes before things happen and then, particularly, in ensuring there are good processes for dealing with issues once they, inevitably, arise.

Is there a danger that the fear of things going wrong stops an institution from seizing new opportunities?

This is I think, a slightly different theme from the most recent cases but I would hope not. My experience suggests that well-governed and managed institutions manage risk well by setting risk appetite and being prepared to manage different levels of risk in different settings. Earlier in my career, I found the concept of risk appetite somewhat theoretical but as I’ve had more experience, I’ve come to believe it is one of the most important areas for governors / NEDs/ Trustees to focus upon and specify. Done well, this allows institutions to knowingly establish, take on and manage risk.

How can you make sure the lines between non-exec and exec team are respected when things go wrong? Is it inevitable that boards end up taking on some executive powers when there is a crisis?

It is probably inevitable that there will be a tendency to do so but I’m not sure that it is inevitable that it has to happen. Context will also be important - in some cases it may be appropriate to do so in some cases it certainly won’t be. On the temptation to get more involved, I think the nature of the crisis and the nature of the relationship the governors have with the executive team - and their confidence in them - directly impacts upon this.

During the pandemic, I’ve observed first-hand a number of institutions consciously delegating more to their executive team than would normally be the case balancing this with more frequent, often informal, communication updates as to how things are going.

In other types of crises at other times, I can think of examples where a demonstrable independence from the executive team has been vital in managing an organisation’s response to a particular challenge. I’ve heard it said that whilst “stepping in” can be uncomfortable, “stepping aside” is rarely an option. Stepping in may be through a governor exercising leadership or it could be through appointing independent wise counsel. Wise counsel can sometimes be important in a more public setting as well as in a more personal capacity.

What is the role of a board in a crisis? What support can/should they seek?

I think the Board should focus on three areas:

  • Ensuring the organisation is proactive in managing interest in the issue externally. Seeking to both be open about the content of the issue and how it is being managed. Establishing confidence in the process is key.
  • Ensuring that it is recognised that the issue may impact upon internal stakeholders too. The confidence of colleagues in how the issue is being managed will shape future relationships. This too needs to be managed.
  • Being certain that any regulatory obligations associated with the issue are being properly addressed in a timely manner.

Whilst executive teams will often practice in dealing with issues during crisis management training, it is rarer, in my experience, for Boards/governing bodies to be actively involved (other than checking you have contact details and testing how quickly you can get hold of key players). Boards need to practice too.

Q: What is the role of a secretary in a crisis? Who are they reporting to?

In some organisations, the Secretary may have a single “hat” they are wearing and in others they may have more than one. Certainly, I’ve had roles where I was both the “Secretary” and the “Chief Operating Officer” with distinctive crisis management accountabilities for each role.

In my view, a Secretary has an obligation to ensure the Board, and Chair specifically, are well-sighted on key issues as soon as is appropriate and practical, supporting a culture of “no surprises”. The Secretary may not necessarily do this personally but would, I suggest, ensure it is done, for example, through the Chief Executive. Once done, the Secretary should ensure that the Board focuses on the three areas I outlined earlier; managing external interest, ensuring internal impacts are considered and being certain that regulatory obligations are honoured.

With the Secretary hat on, the reporting obligation is, very clearly in my view, to the governing body or Board, with a specific obligation to the Chair. With the COO hat on, it is very clearly to the Chief Executive.

Will Spinks is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in higher education governance.

Governance Under Pressure: Boards and The Rich List

Jun 01, 2021

I must have read the Sunday Times Rich List every year for the past 15-20 years, and this year I noticed something quite different. The editorial tone has changed. The opening paragraph tells of an “unsettling” wealth boom for the super-rich: “Over the past year, tens of thousands of us have buried loved ones, and millions of us have feared for our livelihoods. But at the very same time, more people have become billionaires than at any point in British history.”

The Sunday Times reports that there are a record number of billionaires - the biggest jump in the 33 years it has been tracking the wealthiest in our country. They question both the ethics and the sustainability and reality of this wealth ‘boom’: “It is not just the timing of this guilded epoch for the super-rich that feels disturbing. This is also a boom that often appears detached from the laws of economic gravity. How can businesses set up less than two years ago, that have never turned a profit, be worth more than $1bn?”.

So, what lessons can governing bodies of institutions which fundraise take from this Rich List?

Firstly, there is an opportunity to seek big gifts from the names on the pages of the Rich List, and many have done so. For example, Sheffield University secured the largest gift in its history from Andrew Law, an alumnus who appears at number 10 on the Sunday Times Giving List. 182 Rich Listers have given £1m plus - more than ever before - and the total given by Rich Listers is up 34% to £4.3bn. If your institution is connected to one of the names on the list, you should be carefully considering how to build that relationship and seek a big gift.

Secondly, you also should be carefully considering the financial and reputational risks of big gifts – the ones you have already received, as well as the ones you may ask for.

Never before has there been the same scrutiny in terms of the ethics of donors. Whether it’s the ethical track record of the company/ies from which they get their wealth (think Sackler family) or their track record in paying (or not paying) their taxes, you can be sure that if you don’t do your due diligence and research fully the sources of their wealth, someone else will do it for you.

Being clear as to what types of money you will and will not accept is a governance decision that must be explored at board level. Is it ok to accept money from mining companies, tobacco companies, alcohol makers, gambling companies? Does the good the money do ‘wash it clean’, or is the ethical cost too high?

This ethical due diligence doesn’t stop when you accept the gift - it must continue thereafter. The reputation of your donor may change and you may need to reconsider their name on your building. You need to be clear that there is a process in place to regularly review and bring issues of concern to the Board.

And it’s not just the ethical and reputational risks that come with big gifts from the super-rich there are financial risks too. Most multimillion-pound gifts are not given in total upfront. Most are phased payments, sometimes over several years. How sustainable is the wealth of your donor? What if their bubble bursts and the donor does not fulfil their pledged payments? Do you have a plan B, or would your project be at risk?

Now is the time for boards to revisit their gift acceptance policy and due diligence process. Halpin can provide expert services to review policies, assess risks and facilitate Board discussions.

Halpin is the home of experts in higher education governance, fundraising and strategy.

Governance Under Pressure: Lessons from Further Education

May 20, 2021

Halpin CEO Susie Hills recently caught up with Halpin Consulting Fellow David Allen OBE on all things Covid, governance and further education. Here’s their conversation:

Susie: Covid has put governance under pressure – governing bodies in all sectors having to respond quickly to changes in government policy and to urgent needs. How well do you think FE governance has held up under this immense pressure? And what have FE colleges governors and leaders learnt?

David: I think FE governance has stood up pretty well under testing circumstances. There are fewer colleges in intervention than before the pandemic and colleges have had the advantage of continuing to be funded throughout the crisis. The zeitgeist has also shifted in favour of the 50% who don’t go to university with the publication of the Skills for Jobs White Paper and the report of the Colleges for the Future Commission. I have seen plenty of evidence of governors going above and beyond to support their staff and learners. One advantage of virtual meetings has been that they can be convened informally and flexibly in order to ensure governors are consulted and kept informed. I think governors and leaders have gained confidence from their ability to deal with everything that has been thrown at them over the past year. There has been a forensic focus on learners and their needs, with a real push to ensure as far as possible that disadvantaged students are not left behind.

In FE colleges staff have been under enormous strain and wellbeing has been affected. What do you think governing bodies should be doing now to look after their workforce?

It is important that staff feel their governors are listening to them and connecting with them. As a Chair of governors, I have written to all staff on occasion just to thank them for their efforts and let them know their governing body is acutely aware of the pressures on them. We have prioritised communication with staff even more than ever and listened carefully to staff concerns on a “you said we did” basis. We have carefully analysed and responded to the staff satisfaction survey and have ensured, notwithstanding financial pressures that staff have received a bonus and a significant pay increase. We have had occasional “flip weeks” with no teaching in order to give staff a break and take the opportunity to thoroughly check covid compliance. As we come out of the pandemic it will be important to pay attention to staff overstretch and exhaustion and to continue to provide support for mental health and wellness.

Do you think governance practice in the FE was well equipped to enable agile and effective responses?

I think this will vary across and between colleges. In general though I think the answer is yes. The Association of Colleges has been very supportive throughout and their regional meetings are very helpful (and good therapy!). We have all been keen to learn from and look after each other. The atmosphere has become less competitive and more collaborative. Colleges have been superb in supporting their learners and the amount of work that has gone into this is truly inspirational.

Most of our work is with universities. What lessons do you think University governing bodies can learn from how FE has been able to respond? And vice versa?

A key feature of the pandemic has been the way in which strong partnerships have been forged locally to support communities. Colleges are exceptionally good at this since they are rooted in their local communities in a way not all universities are. In some ways the pandemic has been more challenging for universities since they tend to recruit nationally and internationally and have many students in residence. Certainly in Exeter the university and college have worked cheek by jowl and shared each other’s facilities. I think the lesson for universities (if they are not doing so already) is to be embedded and enmeshed in their local communities and be willing to provide services pro bono to local people even if they are not funded to do so. The collateral benefits of so doing are huge.

Are there new opportunities for partnerships between universities and FE and what can governors do to facilitate this?

The combination of the pandemic and the shift in public policy towards the 50% who do not go to university is a powerful motivation for change. In Exeter, the university and the college have signed a MoU to work collaboratively together. For example, the College is contracted to provide nursery facilities for the University, we are part of the South West Institute of Technology, work together on the Ted Wragg Trust of local schools and have developed pathways to enable College learners to progress to the University. It is important that university and college governors get to know each other and have a presumption to work in partnerships together.

Halpin is the home of experts in higher education governance. For more information or an informal chat get in touch.

Governance Under Pressure: Academic Governance

May 17, 2021

Article originally published on AHUA's website on 14th May 2021.

University governance is under pressure. In this new series of posts, Susie Hills, Halpin Joint CEO, speaks with Professor Wyn Morgan, Halpin Consulting Fellow and Professor of Economics at the University of Sheffield. They discuss the pressure that COVID has put on academic governance.

Halpin recently hosted a well-attended discussion at the AHUA Spring Conference 2021. The session was titled ‘Governance under pressure – an exploration of how the pressures affecting HE institutions have impacted on governance.’

This discussion has inspired our new series of blog posts, ‘Governance Under Pressure,’ which will be published over the coming months.

In this first post, Susie Hills, Halpin Joint CEO, speaks with Professor Wyn Morgan, Halpin Consulting Fellow and Professor of Economics at the University of Sheffield.

Wyn shares his thoughts on the pressure that COVID has put on academic governance.

Susie: Covid-19 has put university governance under pressure. Universities have had to respond quickly. The impact on staff and students has been huge. Decisions have been made under pressure and faster than ever before. What are the governance risks in this?

Wyn: The change in the regulatory environment in UK higher education, as embodied in the shift from HEFCE to the Office for Students, had already precipitated a sector-wide reflection on the nature and operation of governance.

The evolution of a new model, though, has been interrupted by the short-term demands of pandemic response. The extent of the pandemic’s impact, and the speed at which the environment changed, did significantly affect the way universities operated on a day-to-day basis. This adds to the sense of disequilibrium in governance.

The forces shaping the response to COVID-19 were varied and many. This provided a challenge for governance, not in their breadth, but in the way they all struck at once. Government, university staff, students, local authorities, local communities, and society as a whole all had views and concerns, and they voiced these. Executive boards needed to listen and respond, often very quickly, but proportionately, and with safety paramount.

At the heart of the response was a focus on doing the best thing for staff and students. However, this was a highly contested area of debate. As rules changed, as understanding of the virus changed, and as Government measures changed, decision-making needed to be agile and responsive, with tight timescales to meet. That is not to say institutions were not fleet of foot before the pandemic, but the sheer scale of the problem, and the speed at which change was happening, engendered an entirely different operating environment.

Governing bodies and Executive boards are used to operating in a regulated and pressured environment. Yet, this last year has been extraordinarily difficult in nature. As such, it has put pressure on governance more broadly as a result.

Specifically, it has meant that the extent of consultation has often been limited, if indeed it can happen at all. Recent events put pressure on individuals where consensus had previously been the norm.

More importantly, though, is a clear acceptance of what the Executive can and should do in its role, and the extent to which this is accepted by the other arms of the governance processes. This includes the academic body (for which we will shorthand to Senate) and the governing body (either Council or Governors).

The potential for greater risk arising from this is significant. It challenges institutions both in the short term, when decisions have to be made, and in the longer term, when they reflect back on what happened and how.

The risks centre on several areas:

1. Poor Communication

The most important aspect of governance is clear, well-directed, and timely communication amongst the various stakeholders. This is quite a challenge in normal circumstances, but it is even more problematic in the pandemic world.

Consultation might be nearly impossible for many of the decisions taken. Yet, there still needs to be a clear articulation of what has been decided so all are aware – most importantly staff and students – and can act accordingly.

Given the public health nature of the crisis, it becomes even more important to extend this consultation to external agencies, such as local authorities, and communities in which the university sits. Messages can often be misconstrued, or never received, when sensitivities are heightened.

2. Reputation Damage

It is quite possible that decisions made in good faith can lead to outcomes that are potentially damaging to an institution’s reputation. In making speedy decisions, the subsequent steps are not always fully thought through. The impact on reputation that might follow can be substantial.

Lack of Trust – normal governance channels might need to be bypassed for reasons of agility. However, there needs to be a strong sense of trust in the institution that those making the decisions will be transparent in what they do – or have done – and will be operating in the best interests of stakeholders. The problem here is conflicting interests. For instance, a government agency might call for a change that runs counter to staff or student interests.

3. Poor Memory

In the debrief after the pandemic passes, there will need to be clear and accurate records of what happened, how decisions were made, and an understanding of the consequences. If decision-making processes and discussions have not been well documented and noted, then defences against challenge from those affected negatively by the decisions taken will be weakened.

4. Limited Challenge

In the midst of the pandemic, the focus was on “getting through” and stabilising where possible to minimise the very worst of the disruptive elements. As such, the normal critical friend aspects of Council work could be viewed or perceived by members as being unhelpful.

However, that should not mean decisions go unchallenged or untested. John Rushforth (CUC Executive Secretary) talks of stripped-down agendas for Council meetings. This could have diminished the challenge aspects of governance, or lead to a point where routine but mandatory items could be missed.

5. Confusion of Roles

It is possible to imagine the remits of the two major governance bodies – Council and Senate – becoming blurred during the crisis. The major bone of contention could be the student experience.

For instance, Council has oversight of what it is like for the students. However, Senate makes the academic decision of shifting to online delivery, and how it is done. Where does Council’s concern bleed into direction for the Executive to override Senate?

It is possible to imagine lines being overstepped in a febrile environment. This might undermine longer-term relationships between the different arms of the university and leave the Executive exposed.

Ultimately, these outcomes can create tensions between the Executive, the Council, and the staff and student body. This is a major risk to the ongoing health of governance in the institution. It could take a long time to unwind, especially if “fingers are pointed” in the post-pandemic review of what happened, and the impact that decisions had on the institution.

Mitigation against this can be sought through clear communication and explanation to the university, even when consultation might not be possible, and crucially a good link to the governing body’s key officers.

There needs to be clear documentation of the ways in which decisions were taken, and the extent to which challenge has been appropriately sought and dealt with, especially from the governing body.

How well do you think university governance has held up under these pressures?

It has to be recognised that the sector responded very well to many of the challenges it faced, most notably the threat to operations and core activities. The shift to online delivery was very rapid and at scale. Despite incorrect media reports of universities being “closed,” they never actually stopped offering teaching and support for research.

The physical estate was subject to closures as lockdowns bit. However, much of the normal business of universities continued, albeit in different ways: teaching was delivered, assessments undertaken and graded, graduations were held, research bids were submitted, and so forth.

This is testament to the ways that statutes, rules, policies, and procedures were already designed. They maximised permissiveness to allow for such flexibility. It also implies good decision-making outside the regular channels of governance too.

In terms of governance, many institutions established groups that lay outside the normal governance structures. These were often inclusive groups, sometimes including students, and were led by key individuals reporting to the Executive. The ordinary calendar of meetings was continued, but in many cases special meetings of Council were held.

Central to all the work was the quality of the communication.

Unsurprisingly, in the early months of the pandemic, lots of people sought answers, and a degree of certainty that it simply was not possible to provide.

A tension then arose as to what was the best strategy: frequent communication to keep people aware of what was happening, against a fear that the essence of the messages would be lost as people didn’t get the certainty they sought.

Another challenge lay around the layers of communication, and who was saying what and when. There were University-wide messages, Faculty or Department messages, and external agency messages too. Making sure there was consistency was a significant challenge.

As the pandemic eased after the first lockdown, there was significant discussion about how best to open up campuses. On this occasion, there was more time for decision-making. There was far wider consultation and discussion about what should open up, and how, particularly in research laboratories.

The interesting aspect here was the between-institution discussions. Members of Executives drew on wider networks for support to help ensure the wider research and teaching communities were best served by decisions taken. This external input proved invaluable to Executive teams and often gave governing bodies confidence too.

However, it should be noted that it is not a uniform story of success. There have been notable exceptions whereby the reputation of some institutions has been damaged as a result of decisions made at key points.

Often, these decisions have centred on students and their life beyond learning, and had impacts on local communities, police involvement, demonstrations, and so forth. The reporting of such incidents in the media helped to amplify the pressure.

The legal challenges from students around refunds, fee reductions, and the diminution in the student experience more broadly will continue. They will test the extent to which individual institutional decision-making and governance has been appropriate.

What do you see as being the impacts on the relationship between Council, the Executive team, and Senate?

Clearly, there will need to be a great deal of reflection on what the pandemic has meant for institutions, and in particular a review of how things were done.

Central to this will be the manner in which decisions were taken and how they were communicated. The crisis has sharpened the focus on who can do what, the delegation of authority from Council to the Executive, and the way in which the Executive can work on behalf of Senate.

The relationship between Council and the Executive has almost certainly become closer in this period with more regular and focussed communication.

The difficulty might lie in unpicking some of the more Executive and operational aspects. As Councils continue to forge their new role in the OfS world, there might be an overstepping of the line into more operational activities. This will need to be negotiated carefully between the Executive and the Council.

The relationship between the academic body through Senate, and both the Executive and Council, is perhaps more difficult to predict.

Senates are still in many ways bruised from the increased role of Councils. They might feel even more by-passed as a result of the work in the pandemic. The response will depend on the feeling of how well communication and engagement happened between the Executive and the Senate.

This might be viewed differently from the two parties. Often, meetings with large groups, such as heads of department or school, could embrace a major proportion of the Senate. They could be argued to act as a reasonable proxy. However, this is not strictly how Senate is constituted. As such, it could be challenged.

Does the traditional role of Senate still work? How might Senates need to adapt?

Senates are the ultimate academic decision-making bodies. They are representative of the voice of the wider academic body.

The recent changes in the regulatory landscape have in some respects put Senates onto the back foot, as the role of Councils in ultimately having oversight of quality and outcomes is strengthened. Thus, there is a great deal of upheaval in the framing of the work of Senate already, let alone how it views its role post-pandemic.

The big lesson for most institutions is that they have found that they can operate in a more rapid and agile way. They can deal with matters that potentially could have taken several months, if not years, to go through existing governance channels.

However, the key is to ensure that the benefits of this approach are not lost in a rush to return to the “normal” academic governance processes, or indeed are viewed as somehow steam-rolling through policies and approaches to go around Senate. This is a balance that needs to be sought whilst Senate and the Executive reflect on the new world order.

Many institutions were in the process of reviewing the role and operation of their Senate. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic has shaped that thinking.

It could be that the size of Senates are reduced, with more frequent but more tightly-focussed meetings happening too. This could bring the Executive and Senate more closely together. Alongside the new role for Councils, this could lead to a more robust, yet agile, governance process for institutions. It could meet the ongoing needs in a rapidly evolving regulatory and market environment.

The outlook is that through upheaval will come a better model for future governance.

Halpin is the home of experts in higher education governance. For more information or an informal chat, get in touch.

Living Black at University

May 13, 2021

Project Background and Information

The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 had a profound effect on the understanding of institutional racism in the global north. Within Unite Students it empowered Black employees to speak about their experiences, which in turn challenged Unite Students to accelerate their diversity and inclusion work and improve their understanding of how to lead such change at a senior level.

Both the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector and university accommodation teams are predominantly led by white people, as evidenced by the lack of diversity in senior leadership teams and in professional bodies. This has led Unite Students to question how well this sector, serves the needs of Black students.

Ultimately this report will generate practical recommendations for private PBSA providers and universities to help them to understand the experiences of Black students in accommodation, address any areas of institutional racism and equip them to provide an equitable and inclusive experience.

Why is the research taking place?

Unite Students commissioned this research to draw together the data that they have already collected about the experiences of ethnic minority students, and to make sense of it through in-depth qualitative work that will highlight the experiences of Black students within student accommodation (university halls and private PBSA). The research aims to allow Black student voices to be heard, and to capture the experiences and reflections of Black employees.

What is the definition of ‘Black’ in this research?

The experiences of students are not homogenous. An example of homogenisation would be the term BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) or BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) which groups together those who are non-white. Further, in much research, such as that by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU, which has now merged with other organisations to make up AdvanceHE), the terms BME or BAME are used exclusively to refer to Home/EU students and exclude international students. The experiences of Black students differ from those of Asian students, mixed-race students and others not racialised as white. Further, the experiences of international students are important to this research.

Self-identification is not particularly helpful when dealing with social constructs as we are asking individuals to use classifications they had no part in developing and may not ascribe to. Further, self-identification imposes a responsibility on those from already marginalised groups to work out where they fit within a social construct. It is society, rather than the individual that racialises people, and for those defined as ‘Black’ it is a term that identifies a group of people who have been racialised as Black, not those who self-identify as such. The rapper Akala, for example, discusses his mixed Scottish and Jamaican ancestry but holds that from an early age it was his blackness that meant he was also racialised by others - be they school teachers, peers, or the police - as ‘Black’. This is reminiscent of the ‘one drop’ rule in Jim Crow legislation. In this report the term Black is therefore used to include all those who are racialised as Black, and the participants were asked to identify their racial identity not as a marker of self-identification but as a reporting of how they are identified by others.

Why are other people from different ethnicities being consulted in this research?

For the survey, it is important that we have something to compare Black students’ experiences against and a baseline of all student experiences. Therefore the survey needs to go to as many students from as many backgrounds as possible and then the Black student voice will be isolated in the analysis, whilst being able to compare it with the full data set. Comparing the data from all students with the data from the Black students will highlight the differences in student experience more clearly.

Who will be undertaking the review?

Halpin Partnership (Halpin) is a specialist higher education consultancy, drawing on a team of Consulting Fellows who have a breadth of experience and expertise across diverse fields in the education, public and corporate sectors. For this project we have a skilled Black-led research team.

Halpin was appointed by Unite Students in March 2021 to conduct an independent review of Black students' experience of accommodation, following an open and competitive tendering process. Biographies of the review team are available below.

Following a period of open consultation, the review team will present its findings and recommendations to Unite Students later in the year.

Halpin’s response to frequently asked questions about the review can be found below.

External support from partners

If you are an organisation or institution and would like to express your interest in supporting this research by promoting this website to students and staff so they can fill out the survey and take part in focus groups and interviews, please contact [email protected]

For more information about this project please read this document.

Review Timeline


  • Introductory Meeting with Steering Group
  • Information Request
  • Literature Review


  • Surveys Disseminated


  • Surveys Close
  • Discussion Groups with Students
  • Interviews with Students and Staff
  • Analysis of Findings and Development of Recommendations


  • Research Peer-Reviewed
  • Findings and recommendations to be presented to Steering Group

August onwards

  • Final Report Dissemination
  • Implementation of recommendations

Review Consultation

The review consultation period will remain open from May to June.

Virtual Discussion Group sessions for students will be held in June via Microsoft Teams. Dates are to be confirmed and we will update this page in due course.

Should you wish to attend a session, please send your name and preferred session to [email protected] Spaces will be limited so we please ask that you only book a space on a session if you intend to attend. We also request that you only attend one session.

Share your comments

A survey has been set up for staff and students to complete, which anyone is welcome to take part in.

  • STUDENTS: Please fill in the survey here.
  • STAFF: Please fill in the survey here.

Students who fill in the survey can enter a prize draw to win a £500 gift voucher.

For the student focus groups we are offering £25 gift cards to participants.

Halpin is keen to gather as much information as possible. If you are unable to attend a virtual focus group session or you would prefer to send comments regarding this topic with the Halpin Review team via email, please do so via [email protected] or use the comment box below.

Please note, all comments are confidential to the Halpin Review team. We will record the names of interviewees and focus group attendees for the purposes of scheduling. Any comments included in our final reports will not be attributed to any individuals.

Review Team

There are several members of the Halpin team working on the research project. Each team member will have a specific focus or area that they will be covering and more details on their remit and biographies are below.

‘Teleola Cartwright, Consulting Fellow (Lead)

Olorunteleola (‘Teleola) Cartwright has worked in race equality since graduating with her LLB in law in 2013. In 2015, she began focusing on race and education, working first supporting those affected by school exclusions before moving into the higher education sector. ‘Teleola has experience auditing public sector and educational institutions, leading multi-agency projects on inclusive education and designing and delivering CPD on inclusive teaching, learning and assessment practice. She is respected as an expert on race inclusion in higher education and this has led to her giving conference presentations, including as an invited keynote; providing evidence to the Parliamentary Education Sub-committee; and co-authoring a journal article on decolonising the curriculum. ‘Teleola was BAME Attainment Project Lead at the Faculty of Business and Law, University of Northampton, and prior to that a Project Coordinator at Wellingborough Black Consortium.

Osaro Otobo, Consulting Fellow (Project Manager)

Experienced in leading changes in student democracy and governance and also in student equality, diversity and inclusion. Osaro studied at the University of Hull for her undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science and a master’s degree in Cancer Imaging. She was elected for 3 successive years to work in the best interest of students at Hull; she was a postgraduate student trustee and a two-term President at Hull University Students’ Union. From lived experiences, she created the Make Diversity Count campaign which is calling for all UK organisations to have a robust discrimination policy which sets out how they deal with complaints of discrimination more effectively and transparently. She believes in ensuring all students, especially those from liberation and widening participation groups, are supported effectively throughout their education journey. She also believes that student voices should be at the heart of an evidence-based approach to implementing change and getting meaningful long-lasting results in the higher education sector. Osaro recently conducted a research project for Halpin on the impact of Black Lives Matter on universities in the UK with a report released and a webinar on the findings taking place earlier in November 2020.

Shakira Martin, Consulting Fellow (Advisory)

Head of Student Experience at Rose Bruford College, and founder of Founder of The Class of 2020 #DigiProm. Outgoing National President of the National Union of Students UK, representing 7 million students across Further and Higher Education, most recently successful leading on an organisational turnaround strategy. Shakira pioneered NUS's Poverty Commission, shining a light on the barriers still facing working-class people accessing FE and HE. She is one of only a handful of people to hold the post from an FE background, and the first black woman to have held the role in NUS's 96-year history. Shakira was undertaking a teaching qualification when she began her career in student politics. She was elected the Vice President Further Education at NUS in 2015 and represented FE students in this role for two years prior to Heflin President. Shakira's campaigning credentials are well established with major wins under her belt on student representation, funding, and access. She makes regular local and national media appearances and is passionate about equality in education in terms of access and outcomes.

Susie Hills, Joint CEO & Co-Project Director

Susie supports HEI leaders and teams, often during times of significant change. Susie has worked with a number of clients on customised and high-profile reviews with HE clients and sector bodies including UCL, the University of Bath, UUK and QAA. With a background in senior-level fundraising, she has since worked with universities, schools and educational institutes on assessments that have led to transformational campaigns. She is a champion of best practice governance and is responsible for developing Halpin’s cross-sector governance expertise. She has led high-profile, complex reviews of governance processes which have informed strategy and led to operational change. Known for her thought-leadership, Susie is in demand as a conference speaker and writes regular commentary for the higher education sector. Susie is a champion of best practice in governance and is responsible for developing Halpin’s cross-sector governance expertise. She has also worked with dozens of clients in the charity and education sectors in the UK, Ireland, Middle East and USA to achieve fundraising goals, develop fundraising operations and deliver leadership training. Susie was listed in 2019 as one of ‘50 Leading Lights’ by the FT in recognition of her work on kindness in leadership, and shortlisted as one of ‘40 Women to Watch’ in the 2021 Digital Women Awards.

Shaun Horan, Joint CEO & Co-Project Director

Shaun Horan has over 20 years of senior-level university management, reputation, income generation and external relations. He draws on a strong legal background, advising some of the leading names in higher education and nonprofits and overseeing complex projects and assessments at critical periods spanning fundraising, strategy, and governance. He has a wealth of leadership experience. Shaun has a deep knowledge of the UK higher education sector and in particular an understanding of the politics and sensitivities in the Irish HE sector. He is valued by his clients for his ability to listen, analyse, and find ways through multifaceted problems. Shaun has delivered governance and strategic projects with universities including Bath, Nottingham, Sussex, Manchester, Maynooth, Queen’s University Belfast and Dublin City University.

Dr Nick Cartwright, Consulting Fellow (Peer Review)

Dr Nick Cartwright (PhD, MPhil, PGCert, LLB, SFHEA) started lecturing in 2000 and is currently a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Northampton. Nick is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and researches education and inclusion from a critical race theory standpoint. Nick’s research argues that racism and patriarchy are endemic within HE and his recommendations on how to decolonise academia have led to articles in academic and policy-focused publications, as well as by-lines in WonkHE, HuffPost, The Guardian and The Independent. Outside of academia, Nick has worked with the United Nations in Panama, Austria and Croatia developing and promoting their Education 4 Justice (E4J) initiative which promotes a culture of lawfulness and justice through education. Nick advocates that whilst education does create and perpetuate oppression and inequality it can, and should, promote justice and equality.

Useful Information

As part of the review, Halpin will be drawing on some useful higher education sector specific resources and journal articles relating to the experiences of Black students:

Mental Health Support Information

If you are a student or member of staff in need of mental health support please reach out to your university and students’ union for guidance and resources.

Here is some information and resources you can access for free:

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How was Halpin Partnership selected?

A public tender process was undertaken.

2. What experience does Halpin have of research projects?

Information on the review team and their experience can be found above.

3. What should I do if I have questions about the review and/or would like to share my views?

The review consultation period will remain open until June. Consultations will include interviews and discussion groups. To ensure confidentiality throughout the process, a dedicated email address has been set up where you can send your comments and questions directly to Halpin: [email protected]

Virtual discussion groups with be held via Microsoft Teams. We will update the times and dates in due course. To attend a session please send your name and your preferred session time and date to [email protected]

4. Is the review independent?

The Halpin review team is entirely independent of Unite Students as well as other providers and universities that may take part in this research. The review team has no conflicts of interest in undertaking this work and the majority of the senior management team at Unite Students is not involved in the review in any capacity, other than as potential interviewees.

The review team’s points of contact at Unite Students are the Steering Group – [email protected] The review team has complete access to relevant documentation and information will be provided as requested.

The Halpin review team will provide our findings to the Steering Group in June 2021 and will undertake a process of fact-checking. This will be to ensure that we have not included factually incorrect information or missed any key points of information or evidence. Any changes that are made after that point will be made at the discretion of the Halpin review team, based on the information and evidence provided and after full and careful consideration.

5. Will the findings be published, and if so when?

Halpin’s findings and recommendations will be presented by Unite Students later in the year. Unite Students is anticipating publishing the report in full, as well as disseminating it in various forms for different audiences,

6. Will the review consider best practice from outside the sector?

The review team includes experts with experience both in and outside of the higher education sector. This wider experience and knowledge will help to inform the recommendations.

7. What is the process for the review?

The review process includes a wide variety of activity to ensure engagement with staff and students across the UK. The review activity started in April with the consultation phase starting in May and ending in June.

8. Will you share data and consultation findings with Unite Students during the review process?

Sharing consultation findings is not part of the review methodology. Halpin will provide analysis of findings and recommendations, but our notes will not be provided to the Unite Students.

All data will be destroyed at the end of the contract between Halpin and Unite Students, in line with our Data Protection policy as detailed here.

9. How will you ensure anonymity and confidentiality?

We will record the names of interviewees and discussion group attendees for the purposes of scheduling. All comments made are strictly in confidence and our reports will not attribute any comments to any names.

10. How can the Halpin review team be contacted?

The Halpin team can be contacted via [email protected]

Halpin Partnership has a trusted relationship with its clients and operates with sensitivity, discretion and confidentiality. We do not comment on client projects to third parties and will not be making any comments on the research undertaken for Unite Students.

For any media enquiries, please contact the Unite Students team via [email protected]

If you have questions regarding Halpin and the services we offer please visit our main website at www.halpinpartnership.com or contact [email protected]


If you have any questions, please contact a member of the research team:

Susie Hills, CEO and Co-founder (Project Director) [email protected]

Shaun Horan, CEO and co-Founder (Project Director, cover until May 2021) [email protected]

Osaro Otobo, Consulting Fellow (Project Manager) [email protected]

‘Teleola Cartwright, Consulting Fellow [email protected]

Editorial Note

Throughout our work, we have chosen to capitalise ‘Black’ but not ‘white’. This decision was based on advice sought, and further reading supports this.