news & articles

Will Spinks joins Halpin’s Consulting Fellows

Jul 11, 2019

Halpin is pleased to announce the addition of Will Spinks to its team of Consulting Fellows.

A senior-level leader in higher education, Will joined the University of Manchester as Registrar, Secretary and Chief Operating Officer in June 2011. After retiring from his full-time post in September 2017, he was appointed as an Associate Vice President acting as an advisor to the Senior Leadership Team.

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Will Spinks

Prior to joining Manchester, Will was the first Chief Operating Officer of Loughborough University. Here he was responsible for all the service functions and the commercial activities of the University. In addition, he chaired and served on the Board of wholly owned subsidiary companies and the Manufacturing Technology Centre.

Will said, "I am delighted to be joining the team of highly experienced Consulting Fellows at Halpin and look forward to working with colleagues in the sector to help them meet the challenges they face."

Joint CEO Susie Hills commented, “Attracting someone of Will’s calibre is exciting news for Halpin. Will’s addition to our team of Fellows will bring great benefit to our clients, and we are looking forward to working with him.”

Read Will’s full biography here.

University governance: Some interesting questions from America

Jun 25, 2019

In a recent Wonkhe article, Peter Eckel of the University of Pennsylvania raises some interesting questions from American experience. He argues that, “like boards in England, American boards too often have been focused on oversight. It’s the essential stewardship role of governance. Yet, such a narrow focus that reviews reports, signs off on proposals, ensures compliance and ticks boxes is a lost opportunity. Too many boards in America… are mired in mediocrity driven by such a focus.”

He poses a quick quiz – “Which of the following apply to your governing board?

  • Much, if not most, board meetings are taken up by presentations.
  • Meetings tend to follow the same, expected agenda.
  • The board is polite with each other, prizing congeniality over collegiality.
  • The same few board members dominate most discussions; and when they stop talking, discussions tend to end.
  • The most consequential of institutional issues are addressed outside the board meetings, rather than inside it”.

I suspect that too many colleagues will recognise some of these behaviours in their Councils. He goes on to argue that board time is limited and precious and to be a well-performing board it is essential to plan agendas and ensure that time is spent appropriately on the separable aspects of oversight, problem-solving and strategy.

To my mind this emphasises the increasing need for regular governance effectiveness reviews which go well beyond compliance and challenge how the board is spending its time. This is particularly important when the sector is facing unprecedented challenge and the press and Parliament are questioning how much confidence the public can have in their Universities. It does not look good to read last week from UCU research that there are still 9 universities who have not removed their Vice-Chancellor from their Remuneration Committee.

The CUC Governance Code states “Governing bodies need to adopt an approach of continuous improvement to governance in order to enhance their own effectiveness.” The CUC recommends a review every 4 years and often reviews happen because one is due under the Code. I would argue that the culture needs to change to where Councils proactively see the benefits of regularly considering their performance and seeking ways of improving their effectiveness. External review with the benefit of examining best practice in the sector and outside the sector is useful, but ensuring there is a culture of continuous improvement between these reviews is even more important. This requires adequate resourcing of the governance function and an open-minded willingness on the part of Councils but especially the Chair, Vice-Chancellor and Secretary to be self-critical and to experiment.

Peter Eckel asks some basic but useful questions to start this process:

  • “What does the board do frequently that adds tremendous value to the institution?
  • What does the board do frequently that adds little value to the institution?
  • What does the board do infrequently that adds tremendous value? (And how can you do more of this and less of point two?)
  • How much agreement exists among board members as to the answers above?

He concludes: “Boards that work well can add value. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true: poor performing boards can become institutional distractions, which few can afford”.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – experts in higher education governance.

Questions governors should be exploring - a digest.

Jun 14, 2019

Many university governing bodies and their committees will be meeting over the coming weeks for the final governance meetings of the 2018/19 academic year. The Augar review and Brexit will be key features of these meetings. For lay governors digesting the sheer volume of information available, understanding the implications for their particular institution and knowing what questions to ask will be key.

Here is a digest of some of the key questions governors should be asking and links to great sources of information on those topics.

What are the main implications of Augar?

Are we financially sustainable? Are we in too much debt?

Are our UK student number targets realistic?

Are our International student number targets realistic?

Is our marketing strategy right?

What is our position on unconditional offers?

Are we managing the expectations of our students?

Should we review our course offering?

Are we geared up for when student numbers rise?

Can we raise more money through fundraising?

Should we be doing more on alumni relations?

Are we doing enough on sustainability? Should we be declaring a climate emergency?

Is there more we can do with our local FE providers?

Are we doing enough to protect the wellbeing of our students?

Are we doing enough to retain our staff?

Are we offering value for money?

What are the implications of a no-deal Brexit?

What would the implications of a labour government be?

Are we doing enough to address equality and diversity issues?

Are we doing enough for our BAME students?

Do we need to review our governance?

What does our league table performance tell us about our institution?

How can we think longer term? How can we identify opportunities and risks?

Do we have a culture of review?

Are our remuneration policies robust?

Are we tackling pay gaps?

We hope this digest is helpful. The Halpin team is available to explore these questions and many more. We are known for our work with governing bodies and senior leadership to review areas of university activity and offer practical recommendations to step change performance and put in place best practice. This includes:

  • Governance
  • Strategy and performance
  • Staffing and structures
  • Equality and diversity
  • Marketing
  • Admissions
  • Fundraising
  • Alumni relations

Susie Hills is Joint CEO of Halpin.

WONKHE 360 Perspectives Report – a sector cry for a new culture of leadership and governance.

May 21, 2019

Well done to WONKHE; their 360 perspectives report is a fascinating read. The message that came out loud and clear for me was the need for the sector to urgently refresh its culture of leadership and governance. A need to be much more open, engaged, transparent and inclusive.

My favourite quotes…

“Strategies that do not acknowledge challenges of simply business as usual are unlikely to be perceived as credible”

“The diversity of students is not reflected in the mainstream policy narrative.”

“Change is required, and that nostalgia for a golden age is not an adequate response to the external policy environment.”

“Where lacklustre leadership may be tolerated when funding and students are plentiful, the demands on leaders is to be bold, inspiring and engaging increase in times of organisational challenge.”

“Governors were perceived as lacking relevant experience, constrained by the information presented to them by the university executive and vulnerable to group-think.”

“Nobody believes that a ‘steady as she goes’ or ‘business as usual’ strategy will lead to success in these uncertain times”

“The current model of policy making is much more public, more aggressive and inevitably less nuanced but it opens up a space for deeper and wider engagement in shaping policy among those working at the front line of higher education.”

“There is little confidence that strategies are sufficiently creative or distinctive to drive investment decisions attract disproportional numbers of students and give the institution enough financial headroom to handle Brexit, pensions, Augar or other external factors”

“Leaders need to show empathy and identify with their staff and students to show that changes are not needlessly or simply commercially driven. Hence the male pale and stale change is such a warning sign. In the coming years, all universities will be developing their leadership strategies to build diverse, inclusive and high-performing leadership teams”

“Many governance arrangements were designed for a different age. They have old fashioned and cumbersome processes and rules.”

It feels like the time has come for those of us in leadership and governance roles to think afresh about how we develop institutional strategy and develop an inclusive culture. We don’t need to be heroic leaders, we need to be collegiate leaders.

Susie Hills is Joint CEO at Halpin Partnership, a management consultancy specialising in governance for higher education.

OfS views on potential threats & opportunities to the HE Sector

May 20, 2019

Skimming the latest OfS Board papers for March, I came across a report from their Horizon Scanning Panel discussion of potential threats and opportunities to the Sector.

My recent blog talked about Councils striking the right balance between time spent on strategy including horizon planning, and time spent on compliance/regulation. The OfS Board report may be useful for Council members but as they are unlikely to see the report, it may worth drawing attention to it here.

The aim of the Panel is “to look to the future over the 5-10-year horizon and anticipate and consider trends that will affect students, the sector and the OfS, with a view to recommending practical action wherever possible”.

The report states that the “introduction and implementation of our regulatory framework is expected to have a profound effect on the sector over time”. Possible implications include:

  • an increase in new smaller entrants;
  • challenges to the more traditional widely practiced methods of teaching;
  • the creation of more diverse routes to higher education where fair access and success thrives; and
  • potentially (in conjunction with the Post-18 Review) increased provision through further education along with greater consistency in regulation.

Other threats and opportunities discussed included:

Social Trends:

  • a risk that censorship undermines freedom of speech and thought;
  • expectations of higher education providers being the main way of breaking the social mould to improve individuals’ prospects without due regard to other factors;
  • (lack of) awareness of the breadth and depth of what providers do and their impact;
  • changing perceptions of the value of a higher education qualification;
  • high living costs impacting on affordability of studying away from immediate locality.

Global mega trends:

  • demographic changes including falling birth rates, increased longevity, and increasing inequality.

The changing world of work:

  • the nature of work and attitudes towards it continue to change, as do the skill demands of the labour market.

Artificial Intelligence (AI):

  • “If implemented correctly there is the possibility of providers utilising AI to contribute to making high quality education available to all through technological innovations and machine learning”.

There is a section entitled “A brilliant sector” which states,“UK providers have a strong track record and continue to foster innovative provision, and this translates to a powerful international brand. It will be important to consolidate this and maintain the standards of education that have been reached”.

It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall during this discussion, as maintaining that position must be on every Council’s agenda given the multiple threats being experienced - often as a result of government actions e.g., student visas, EU research funding and Brexit generally. .

The other element I found interesting was the use of the language of risk – threats and opportunities - and it may be worth considering how horizon scanning better connects to the University risk processes. A topic for another day. Meanwhile the OfS list should be a useful one for Councils to consider alongside their own.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – a management consultancy specialising in governance for the higher education sector.

Governance Effectiveness 2020

Apr 09, 2019

During a recent governance effectiveness review, I was asked, “How one measured governance effectiveness”? This got me thinking. Every year, the press brings to our attention where the governance in Universities has encountered problems. This year, we have Swansea University, University of Reading, De Montfort University and there will be others which escape press attention. Last year, the University of Bath and Bath Spa University. So, it is useful to consider what can go wrong but also what constitutes good governance practice and what changes might be needed in the future.

Good governance

In a governance effectiveness review, we consider questions such as:

  • Are the right people around the table and was the meeting well chaired?
  • Were the members actively involved in decisions?
  • Could they say what they really thought?
  • Was there good challenge and was the debate constructive and supportive?

These issues will continue to be extremely important and will need continual review – governance is primarily about people and the way they interact, and the key people, officers, members and the executive, change frequently. Many governance failures arise because basic good practice principles fail. However, if these governance practices are good, in what areas will governing bodies have to improve their effectiveness in the future?

From Compliance to Culture

The Financial Reporting Council report on “Corporate Culture and the Role of Boards” stated that establishing and monitoring the culture, values and ethics of the company was a key role of the Board and the importance of this increased further when the value of the company was vested primarily in the quality of its people. In Higher Education, the governance focus has tended to be on compliance rather than culture. In the private sector and the NHS, Board and organisational culture is increasingly the focus, since compliance has not proved enough to prevent damaging crises. The report noted that “cultural failures damage reputation and have a substantial impact on shareholder value”. A recent headline in the Times reads, “We betrayed our values says Oxfam Chief”. For Board members – “spending time in the business is critical for getting a sense of the prevailing culture in different parts of the business.” In Universities, engagement by Council with staff and students is essential, so that they feel able to voice their ideas and concerns and Council members can understand the prevailing culture and challenge it constructively.

Focus on Strategy & Risk

The pressure on Universities is increasing with risks multiplying in areas such as Brexit, reputational management, (e.g., VC pay, grade inflation, unconditional offers), wafer-thin financial margins, value for money, staff and student well-being, and Regulation with the arrival of the OfS. Councils and the Executive will need to consider how much time they spend in the future on reviewing and discussing strategy and risk, as against compliance and regulation. Universities now have systems in place to manage risk and are able to tick the compliance box that they are “risk managed” but how useful is this really? How can risk management move to a more proactive position where it informs strategy and supports decisions? Universities will also want to consider how they do horizon scanning and how that feeds into strategy and how best to manage their discussions about strategy.

The Governance role in Universities has never been more difficult and ensuring Councils are well-equipped for the ride ahead has never been more important.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin Partnership, the home of experts in governance, marketing, strategy and fundraising in higher education.

Why can we ‘plan and do’ but not review?

Mar 20, 2019

It intrigues me that most organisations have formal systematic processes in place for planning and building budgets, but fewer have similarly systematic processes which enable them to review their plans, assess the impact of their work and re-shape budgets accordingly.

It appears that we all find it easier to plan and put new things in place than we do to review how our plans have turned out and, if required, consider how we can dismantle and re-build things. Perhaps most leaders are by nature innovators – delivering new plans and ideas – and less likely to be focused on assessment and review. I certainly fall into this trap and can be magpie-like – distracted by shiny new toys. Yet I have learnt over time that sometimes you have to radically review your approach and re-shape your teams. Even if you are the one that built them up and your plans were sound, unless you are open to changing them you will have less impact.

Often departments build up over time incrementally. A post here, a post there, each one individually justified. The postholders work hard and justify their keep. They deliver results and they plan how they can grow their work. Reviews of these departments and their work tend to only happen when something has gone wrong, results are disappointing, a Director leaves or budget constraints are so severe there is no other way.

And yet the power of effective review shouldn’t just be used when things have gone wrong or when external forces align against us. We should constantly review our plans and consider how we can redeploy our resources in response to the needs of our institution and changes in the market. Locking resources into areas which were a priority and are no longer a priority is wasteful and distracting. It’s a luxury we can’t afford anymore, and ultimately it’s frustrating to those working in that area too – most people are fully aware of the impact they are having and whether their work is seen as a priority by their institution.

The Halpin team have become known for our work on Reviews. Our team approach reviews in a systematic way. We establish the scope and agree objectives. We listen, learn and understand the context. We explore institutional strategy and priorities. We assess the data and evidence – quantitative, qualitative and comparative. We offer observations, recommendations and options. And we peer-review our work to ensure we are drawing in the right insight from a variety of experience bases. Our work aims to take our clients towards best practice in their sector and form an actionable plan to bring about the desired change. This kind of review should be empowering to the client, enabling them to achieve their goals more quickly.

Bringing in an external review team can enable you to consider how you tackle change objectively, dispassionately. It can open up honest, productive discussion on areas which felt impossible to change. It can empower your team to bring about the changes they have been pushing for but unable to secure. It can help you to bring about a culture of regular review by modelling how it can be done in any part of your institution.

The Halpin team are not career consultants; we are people who have delivered change at senior levels in a variety of institutions. We have walked in your shoes and know what it took to bring about change. We work with care and discretion. We value the work you do and want to enable you to do it better.

Whether you work with Halpin to undertake a review or drive the review process yourself internally, building a systematic review process will be essential if you are to be able to respond to the changing marketplace. The key steps are simple:

  • Establish the scope
  • Agree objectives
  • Understand the context
  • Focus on institutional strategy and priorities
  • Assess the data and evidence – quantitative, qualitative and comparative
  • Make clear observations and recommendations
  • Test findings through peer review
  • Define options
  • Establish action plan

Halpin delivers reviews across the higher education sector. Two recently completed projects include a Review of Council Effectiveness at University of Bath, and a Race Equality Review at Central School of Speech and Drama. To discuss the particular needs of your institution, get in touch.

Case Study - University of Bath, Governance Review

Aug 13, 2018

Our flagship Governance Review at the University of Bath was commissioned following the high-profile coverage that the University was receiving regarding its remuneration policies and Vice-Chancellor pay.

This coverage developed into a brief to review of the effectiveness of Council and its sub-committees, which Halpin was selected to lead based on our breadth of experience both inside and outside of the higher education sector. Best practice across HE and beyond was a key aspect of the brief, as well as identifying areas for improvement in the current governance model and communicating these to the University community.

Our work found an institution already making improvements to its governance effectiveness, strengthening the way in which it consults and communicates with University stakeholders. Our final report was essential in guiding the University from governance compliance to governance best practice.

Download the full Halpin Governance Review for the University of Bath here.


  • Consultation with a large base of stakeholders: 1,392 survey responses, 49 individual interviews and 52 individuals in groups sessions,
  • A comparison of higher education sector best practice,
  • 15 Primary Recommendation and 55 Supporting Recommendations towards effectiveness and becoming an exemplar of good practice in the higher education sector, and also learning from other sectors.

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