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The OfS challenges for University Governance

by Frank Toop MBE | Jul 23, 2019 | Governance & Policy

A blog has just been published from the Director of Competition & Registration at OfS on “Getting to grips on grade inflation”. The key statistic in this debate, is that the proportion of first-class honours degrees awarded has increased from 16% to 29% between 2010-11 and 2017-18.

In regard to the latest increase, the Director says OfS wants “to understand, for example, whether a provider has made recent changes to the way it calculates degree calculations, or whether it can point to other evidence – such as investment in staffing, teaching, services or facilities – that would credibly account for the “unexplained” increases.

The blog then interestingly goes on, “We are also interested in the steps that governing bodies have taken to ensure that academic governance arrangements are adequate and effective”.

This follows the OfS publishing in June 2019, “Effective practice advice for governing bodies”, in respect of Access & Participation noting that, “under the Higher Education & Research Act 2017, governing bodies are responsible for overseeing the development of a provider’s access and participation plan and monitoring its performance.” This states, “It is .. essential that governing bodies are familiar with the OfS approach and guidance on access and participation and that they ensure that the provider’s plan meets expectations set out in that guidance”.

The OfS has been very active on Access & Participation and it is understandable that they would wish governing bodies to exercise direction, pressure and commitment to achieve OfS aims. However, this is not the only government strategic priority. Supplementary guidance to the OfS this year from the Secretary of State on quality included eliminating grade inflation, essay mills and unconditional offers – especially conditional unconditional offers. The Strategic Priorities for the OfS for 2019/20 already included: senior pay, freedom of expression, health & wellbeing, student protection plans, consumer rights and financial sustainability.

The challenge for HE Governing Bodies of this approach is at least twofold:

  • How to stay focused on the Institutional strategy, values, culture and general oversight while giving appropriate weight to Government priorities?
  • How governing bodies adapt to the role they are now expected to fulfil in respect of academic quality issues?

The potential risks in the OfS approach are that Councils could become more managerial and that more paperwork flows to Councils which ticks the compliance boxes but does not necessarily help the debate or address the OfS needs. In these circumstances, Councils could become diverted from exercising their overall role and focus.

Actions to address the challenge from the OfS that might be considered include:

Rethinking the paper overload at Council meetings.

This is not easy as it involves a major cultural change – we like paper as incoming lay members often note. Council members need to know enough to fulfil their role but not everything. It takes effort to write papers with an eye on the Council members reading them, but the papers could be shorter, focused on the key issues/risks/decisions but supplemented by awareness briefing sessions. Perhaps a paper addressing the University’s response to key government priorities would be valuable rather than covering each separately in detail.

Getting the balance right between management and governance.

The management team needs to be of the right quality to be trusted to manage the implementation of the University Strategy, Council decisions and the detailed operations of the University. Council needs to let them do so. However, the Executive also needs to be properly accountable for their performance to Council justifying and maintaining Council’s confidence.

Considering whether there are enough external members with academic quality experience on the Council.

Making sure there is good induction, focused briefing documentation and regular briefings/discussions for all Council members on academic quality and other issues. It is helpful that there are internal members with this experience, but external challenge is helpful. Too often Council members do not feel competent or simply feel they should stay outside these issues.

Is it time to consider the role of Senate or Academic Board?

It manages the key reputational asset of the University – the ability to award degrees? How well is it performing that function and what is Council’s evidence for that opinion? Senates are a historic construct – marginally reformed – but sit oddly in governance terms as they do not usually have external members providing insight and challenge and are usually chaired by the management – Vice-Chancellor or his/her Deputy. As such, they are often more akin to managerial committees, but it could be argued that they may neither be serving the needs of the Vice-Chancellor or giving Council the assurance it needs.

Ensuring that there is good professional support for governance and Council members.

Maintaining the continuing engagement and focus of good quality Council members requires this support. It is an investment that can be repaid, as a well-performing Council can add considerable value to a University. Is it time for more Universities to consider a governance team led by a senior professional solely tasked with this role reporting directly to the Chair of Council?

The need to respond to Government priorities and the OfS is real but the risks in so doing need to be considered and mitigated.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in governance.