The rapidity with which the Office for Students (OfS) went from consultation phase to fully fledged regulatory framework was expected, but nonetheless faintly disconcerting. The launch of the sixteen regulatory documents, swiftly followed – during the Easter break – by a suite of documents relating to transition and T&Cs takes some assimilation. AHUA folk are adept at absorbing vast swathes of detailed reports, but this challenge raised the bar. Rather like picking up a new book with complex and inter-related characters, I found myself flicking back and forth to earlier pages to remind myself who the characters were, and how they fitted into the landscape being drawn by the OfS.
And therein lies a critical governance challenge. The governing body – Council or Board – of the institution is ultimately responsible, through the accountable officer, to the OfS for compliance with the new regulatory framework. Members of the governing body are lay volunteers – highly capable individuals but not immersed in the world of higher education. Distilling the essence of the new arrangements and ensuring that governors ‘get’ their new responsibilities is vital.
Linked to this is the willingness of governing body members to ask the ‘daft’ questions and to probe and challenge, even when this becomes uncomfortable. The OfS rightly asks higher education institutions to verify that they are governed and managed by ‘fit and proper’ individuals in order to submit for registration. But being ‘fit and proper’ alone cannot assure regulators of the capabilities of governing body members and senior staff.
The additional requirements – describing arrangements for governing body structures, reporting and adherence to relevant governance codes and so on – set out a series of constructs designed to ensure that governance is adequate appropriate and effective. The reality is that any governance structure is only as good as the individuals that populate it and the culture that they collectively create.
And those individuals and their contribution to decisions can be constrained by:
- Limited expert knowledge of the sector. Some will question until they have sufficient knowledge, others may feel inhibited in so doing for various reasons such as not wishing to appear ill-informed, time constraints during meetings;
- Limited time (and intellectual energy) to commit to the role;
- Detachment from the organisation. Independence is a valued trait but not having ‘skin in the game’ can lead to sub-optimal debate and decision making;
- Not wishing to rock the boat or disagree with ‘the majority’. Paul Rulkens argues that ‘the majority is always wrong’ and that people ‘readily accept prevailing wisdom’. This natural human tendency can be a barrier to effective governance.
This final point links to Margaret Heffernan’s exploration of the concept of ‘wilful blindness’ in her eponymous book. She explains that ‘neurobiology and cultural comforts’ mean that human beings have an unerring tendency to ignore the obvious, to edit out information that doesn’t affirm a shared set of beliefs and to avoid conflict. She also identifies how we can counter this tendency – by avoiding homogeneity and ensuring diversity, by appointing ‘Devil’s Advocates’ who have a licence to speak up and challenge and by actively protecting dissent and encouraging argument and disagreeable questions.
I’m loath to suggest that we add a further template to the OfS suite, but Heffernan’s list could be a valuable addition to the good governance toolkit!