Is there a crisis in higher education governance?

Changing governance models in universities can benefit from the support of technology in their adaptation process, says CEO of eshare Alister Esam

Governance in higher education used to be relatively straight-forward. Essentially the way in which a university is formally organised and managed, governance models have undergone a significant change over the past few decades, with more of a focus on marketisation and revenues than there has been previously.

The fact that many universities are struggling to come to terms with modern governance requirements is reflected in recent eShare research with higher education professionals. 53% of those surveyed said there was insufficient transparency into their board-level decision-making, while more than half felt that their university has not adapted to changing governance models in higher education.

What is behind the increased pressure of governance in higher education, and can smarter use of technology address some of these issues?

The rise of the HE league table system

One of the key triggers for change in terms of Higher Education (HE) governance, was the introduction of league tables for universities. This heightened competition for research funding, and ensured that those lower down the league table sought to imitate the universities that were positioned higher.

Not only did this mean many universities were categorised as substandard – in England they are divided into gold, silver and bronze categories – but it helped stifle innovation, risk-taking and alternative approaches. This league table culture has informed a radical change in governance and decision-making in a number of universities in the UK, with a much greater focus now on the bottom line and climbing the league table. Vice-chancellor-led teams now have control over much of the decision-making and the academics are mostly excluded from discussion around strategy and policy.

League tables are certainly here to stay, and of course, funding for research is an important consideration for universities. But perhaps there are ways in which universities can better adapt to changing governance models, demonstrating that while some decisions have to be commercially-driven, there is still room for differentiation at the same time.

Changing models of governance

Much HE governance takes place behind closed doors. But the necessary confidentiality has now gone too far, and people working within the sector feel that transparency is only at the bare minimum. Technology can play a major part in addressing this.

Senior management meetings are the main forum for the people who hold a university accountable, which is why their operation is so important. Yet the format of such meetings has barely changed in decades and is ripe for a more digital approach. Online board portals can be the vehicle that deliver better HE governance, shining a light on decision making and demonstrating transparency.  

Paper forms and paper records are not accessible and mean that it is hard to see where decisions came from and how they were formed. The use of online board portals to replace paper or PDF-based board packs for senior meetings will make it much easier to demonstrate clearly who said what in the meeting and provide insight into how certain decisions were reached.

Digitising the meeting process

When the leadership team makes a decision about their university, knowing how that decision was reached and the thinking behind it can reassure stakeholders that the university’s best interests were at the heart of that.

But digitising the meeting process via online board portals can have further benefits too. No one wants reams of paper to carry and read through, so any meeting materials can all be accessible via a tablet or smartphone, meaning meeting attendees can read through in advance more easily. Almost everyone uses such a device and it is a straightforward process to add an application that will facilitate such an approach.  

Online board portals also allow attendees to collaborate and annotate documents during the meeting itself. Furthermore, actions can be easily agreed and captured so you don’t have to rely on an attendee’s faulty memory to refer to what was discussed.

Senior-level meetings in HE are in urgent need of transformation. By adopting a more digital approach, universities can bring their board meetings into the 21st century, providing much more transparency into their governance in the process and helping to ward off criticism that decision-making has been driven purely by a commercial agenda.