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Governance Under Pressure: Academic Governance

by Susie Hills, Professor Wyn Morgan | May 17, 2021 | Governance & Policy

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.

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