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Interview: Why HE governance has lessons to learn from the FE Sector

by Rachel Killian | May 7, 2020 | Governance & Policy

Craig Williams has two governance roles; he is Clerk to the Board of Governors and Company Secretary at Leeds Trinity University and Governance Adviser and Clerk to the Corporation at Leeds College of Building. He also sits on the Board of the White Rose Academy Trust. Having experience of both higher education and further education sectors gives him an intriguing perspective on practices in each. Our Senior Consultant Rachel Killian caught up with him to learn more:

What are the key similarities and differences between governance in the FE and HE sectors?

The principles of governance are very similar, though nuanced to the respective environments. For example, there is a fundamental difference in operations because of the clients that each serve and the purpose of each sector. FE has a wide spectrum of learners studying at many different levels and settings, from sub level 2 pre-16 students, apprenticeships at all levels, adults with a previously poor experience of education through those studying for a degree in an FE setting. The curriculum is usually more focused on vocational learning too. As a result, FE governors are often closer to the student experience and employer partnerships.

On the other hand, whilst HE governors share the FE focus on funding and quality, they also have more of a responsibility to oversee research in HE. Increasingly they too are more involved with the product of teaching and learning, student experience and associated issues such as widening participation.

How do each manage risk?

They are very similar in how they manage the risk register and monitor the strategic or high risks. They share the focus on the Prevent agenda, though FE has always had an additional agenda of safeguarding because of having under-18 learners. So FE governors are more likely to have an Enhanced DBS check, for example. FE has also had to sharpen its attention to fiscal risk, because it’s had to manage a material cut in funding over a number of years. Funding pressures is an issue that HE is going through and will continue to face.

To what extent do the two sectors take a different approach to student and staff stakeholder involvement?
It’s equally important in each to have staff and student reps on the Board. Not all FE colleges have a Student Union as a stand-alone business, so whereas HE use this as a route to identify student reps, some FE colleges have to do this through different routes. In both cases, new staff and student members need support. It can take up to 18 months for any governor to settle into the role and be effective, so using a mentor or buddy system is common in both sectors.

What do you think the FE sector does really well that the HE sector could usefully adopt?

It’s looking like the HE sector may be heading through a similar funding crisis that FE has already been through (see Jim Dickinson’s recent Wonkhe article on whether universities are ‘too big to fail’). So some of the focus of FE governance will be more relevant to HE now than ever, such as operating on very limited resources and managing the quality agenda and regulatory requirements.

Historically, FE has also been more proactive in bringing governance closer to the student experience. FE governors tend to do more ‘walking the floor’, meeting with a wide range of staff and students to make sure they have a full picture of the College and its services, and what the learning experience is really like. It means that decision making can be better informed.

And what about the other way around? What does HE do really well that the FE sector might learn from?

Universities seem to have greater expectations of their governors. The quality of reporting is arguably better and the scrutiny of executive reports or proposals is very good – and wholly appropriate. The ability of some HE governors to analyse masses of data and information and to pinpoint the core issue can be impressive.

HE also have regular governance effectiveness reviews. There’s a value in having an external view on governance systems and processes, but the FE sector hasn’t had the same requirement or finances to invest in this level of scrutiny. Instead, FE has a more established process of internal performance reviews for the Board, Chair and members.

Finally, what are the challenges that Clerks face?

No matter where you are, the role is about enabling effective and legitimate governance. The difference is how you go about it. In both FE and HE, the main issue is to develop good relationships with the Chair and the Vice-Chancellor/Principal, and to be available and responsive to them and the Board members. Of course there are differences between regulatory environments and ensuring best practice is delivered in both places, but those relationships are the key.