IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Room to improve university governance through understanding governor’s perceptions of their duties

10 November 2022

Understanding how university governors in England perceive their roles can help universities identify crucial opportunities to enable better governance in the sector, finds IOE alumna Dr Alison Wheaton’s PhD research.

A closeup of a person in a suit holding papers at a desk sitting opposite a person out of focus in a white sweater. (Photo by Phil Meech for UCL Institute of Education)

Dr Wheaton’s doctoral research, carried out at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society, considers how English university governing body members perceive their roles and why. It highlights a need to support governors more as their roles change in the evolving higher education environment.

The findings were published in a report released today by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). It offers ten recommendations which universities and sector bodies can implement at institutional and sector levels. 

This includes a major need to bring more clarity to governor’s roles. While governors typically agreed they have a responsibility to shape and approve university strategy, and have oversight of performance, compliance, and identification of risks, how they understood the scope of these functions varied significantly. Furthermore, governors often regarded themselves as having a cluster of internally facing support roles, in contrast with growing expectations that they should take on more externally facing roles. 

The biggest gap between sector expectations and governors’ assessment of actual activity was seen in academic governance and performance monitoring. When compared to other areas of responsibility, governors expressed the least confidence in understanding the exact scope of these roles, and some voiced concern over the time and expertise available to consider relevant issues. 

Newer governors bring different expectations of their roles, and tend to include younger, often active executives including more women and from more diverse ethnic backgrounds. Such personal characteristics and the overall composition of the governing body was consistently considered as influential. Commenting on more homogenous characteristics of previous governing bodies, one member said “there wasn’t diversity, and there weren’t different perspectives.” 

The research identifies a shift towards more interactive governance in universities where governors can maintain clear distinctions between management and governance capacities when supporting their executive teams. These governors were also more likely to contribute to the context, content and conduct of strategy. 

Based on the governor feedback in Alison’s study, the report concludes that “it takes time and dedication for even the most experienced governors to fully appreciate governance in an academic setting. The question for even highly experienced governors is whether they are ‘HE Board / Council ready’.” 

Dr Wheaton said: “There is much guidance regarding what university governing body roles should be, but little empirical evidence regarding how actual governing body members understand their roles. The regulatory regime puts even greater onus on universities themselves to enhance their governance arrangements, with the help of sector bodies.  

Alison’s Principle Supervisor Professor Tatiana Fumasoli, said: “Alison’s thesis shows that there are still challenges for lay members of university boards to make a meaningful and comprehensive contribution to institutional long-term sustainability and strategy.  

Her findings point to an increasingly complex legislative framework, to the need for additional training to build capacity, and to the demanding relationships between oversight bodies and senior management teams.”

Dr Wheaton presented her findings in a webinar at IOE's Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) on 28 April 2022.