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Higher Education governance in a time of crisis

by Rachel Killian | May 29, 2020 | Governance & Policy

Our universities are making critical decisions within an uncertain and changing environment. And just at the very moment when things got tough, the normal ways of working were taken away.

Like all of us, governing bodies had to adapt to remote working at short notice. Yet their role to hold the University’s senior leadership team to account is not diminished; if anything, it is just the opposite. So how are they coping? What have they had to change?

To help the sector understand the impact of Covid-19 on governance practice and to give reassurance to universities that they were not alone in overcoming these new challenges, we captured feedback from 39 institutions via a short online survey.

Our findings are summarised as follows:

• Almost one-third of the universities that responded did not have contingency plans in place to manage governance in a crisis. In contrast, just over 50% had some back-up plans prepared and 15% had everything in place.

• There are three key activities that governing bodies have used to manage the crisis. These include an increase in the time working together in meetings (either additional committee or Board meetings), pausing some activities to focus on essential business, and the delegation of work elsewhere, such as through Task and Finish groups.

• The crisis has highlighted areas for improvement in governance practice. After all, when responsiveness and focus is needed, it can quickly become apparent if the fundamentals of good practice are not already in place. Over 80% of universities that responded believed that shorter agendas would help them to be more effective, and 42% said they would welcome shorter meeting papers. Furthermore, effectiveness is impacted by culture and behaviours too; 26% admitted that having stronger existing relationships between the governing body and senior leadership team would bring improved outcomes.

• The crisis has also forced changes to governance instruments. In some cases, this includes changing the Standing Orders to allow for virtual meetings and remote voting. For 25% of responding universities, it included changes to the delegation schedule, which can help to increase scrutiny and agility in decision-making.

• Overall, we found the sector is being highly resilient in managing its governance work, with most core activities such as board recruitment, training, effectiveness reviews and strategy development going ahead as usual. Most likely to be delayed for the longest period is board training. Strategy development is the second most likely to be paused, but not for long; the majority who have delayed on this are planning to start again within 3 months. Managing this balance of short-term focus and the longer-term governance needs is not easy, but most recognised that delaying this type of activity for significant periods is likely to cause additional challenges in the future.

• Finally, it looks like online governance meetings are here to stay. Not surprisingly, almost all the universities that responded are using video-conferencing for committee meetings and 87% are using it for Board meetings. More interesting is that 42% of them now plan to build in virtual meetings into their governance calendar, of which 16% will have full governing body meetings held online. Whilst 55% expect to still run most meetings in person, they will now be more open to members joining remotely.

Rachel Killian is a Senior Consultant for Halpin, the home of experts