Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

My First Year as Lay Chair


Following the GuildHE Council meeting on January 20th on Governance, Monisha Shah, Chair of Governors at Rose Bruford and a panelist discussing governance on the day, expands on her first year in the post in this blog piece below.

My First Year as Lay Chair of Governors

When I became Chair of Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in July 2015, I had plenty of governance experience, but absolutely none of it in the higher education sector.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned in the past year, with many thanks to the patient and brilliant team at Rose Bruford College, led by Prof Michael Earley.

In England, higher education institutions are independent, self-regulating bodies. Most receive public funds. The core purpose of governance for a higher education institution, therefore, is the same as for any similar body outside the Higher Education sector. So far, so good!

A proliferation of regulation

For governors who are new to the sector, the homework is overwhelming. It is hard to find, absorb and properly navigate the frameworks governing HEIs, across funding, teaching, learning and quality assurance. There is a lot of good information on what all the regulations and compliance agencies are, and indeed on the many codes, but not necessarily on how they relate to each other, or indeed if they do, which insiders tell me is not always the case.

Who’s got the biggest Board?

Then there is the sheer size of the Board. Having been told all my working life that a Board any larger than 14 is too big to be properly effective, I expressed some surprise at the size of our Board, only to be told that we are amongst the smallest amongst our peers with 18 governors!

The lovely executive assistants at the College gamely indulge me in arranging and re-arranging the Board room tables so we can squeeze into as close a group as possible, but I am still not completely satisfied. I maintain that it’s a big ask to build a cohesive Board culture if you are yelling at each other across the table to be heard!

Of course, this is a sector that sets high standards of itself and of others, so I learnt that we have not one but two Boards – a Governing Board and an Academic Board. In the same breath that I am told by the sector that we need Academic Boards in order to safeguard academic standards and academic freedom, I am also reminded of the ‘increasing need’ and potentially ‘greater expectations’ for governing body oversight of the Academic Board. And in classic HE language, this is a ‘live’ issue (i.e. thorny) and see various codes for guidance (i.e. everybody is working this one out themselves, and good luck!)

The Clerk/Registrar combination

The position of the Clerk/Registrar still puzzles me. I can completely see the financial case for combining two roles, especially in smaller institutions, and the depth of information and knowledge that this dual role enables for both the governing body and the senior executive team. But I can’t help worrying about the sanity of those in this role, bang in the centre of a triumvirate of principal, chair and registrar. In times of plain sailing, it must be a difficult balance, in times of crisis it must take nerves of steel. I am full of admiration for those who, like at Rose Bruford, do it well.

Staff and students aBoard too

For me, one of the joys of serving on Rose Bruford’s board has to be the explicit inclusion of staff and students as full members on the Board. Of course, induction and support is incredibly important, as for any governor, but these members make the quality of our conversation far richer. This is definitely one for other sectors to emulate.

A passion for acronyms

I can’t possibly end this without mentioning what is for external governors truly a language barrier – although I accept that perhaps this is the point. My all-time favourite sentence/s has got to be, ‘The QCA, the DCELLS, Wales, and the CCEA, Northern Ireland, have established the QCF to replace, in time, the NQF; the QCF is also incorporated into the CQFW; there is also a close association between the levels of FHEQ and the NQF…’

Of course, acronyms are now banned at Board meetings at Rose Bruford (although even we do allow Hefce), and meetings are longer and more frequent. As they say, you win some….!

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