Governance: An inward-looking culture misses risks and opportunities

College governance bears a heavy weight of responsibility and must lift its eyes to opportunities and threats on the horizon, writes Trudi Stevens

College governance bears a heavy weight of responsibility and must lift its eyes to opportunities and threats on the horizon, writes Trudi Stevens

10 Dec 2022, 5:00

Effective governance is not easy, and neither is it well understood. Governance, however, is fundamental to the viability of any organisation. It determines the effectiveness of the functions that underpin the very purpose of that organisation, covers how decisions are made and by whom, how those decision makers report the process and how they are held accountable. Governance requires that all stakeholders are considered and ultimately determines the very viability of a college.

The Covid pandemic tested colleges’ decision-making and makes for an interesting case study. Once it was upon us, colleges acquitted themselves well in crisis. But what about readiness?

When it comes to risk management, the government’s advice to the sector is clear about how a policy should be formulated, and adds that “maintaining an up-to-date business continuity plan is a funding requirement”.

Yet some basic research on 30 college websites chosen at random, looking at their governance and policies pages, returned not a single business continuity plan. I found one Covid emergency closure plan. If I cannot find it, as a parent, student or employee, then that decision making is fundamentally neither transparent nor accountable.

The focus of governing boards was primarily designed to be on the financial and educational requirements of legislative and regulatory frameworks set by government. They also address the wider safeguarding and welfare needs of their staff and students. But the dearth of a wider perspective is symptomatic of an inward-looking and reactionary governance culture.

The governance inertia identified in John Spindler’s recent article in these pages can be partly attributed to the scope of the board’s focus and make up. Notwithstanding the members who come from staff, students and local businesses, if the focus is on the immediate environment in which the college operates, then wider horizon scanning is unlikely to feature in the board’s analysis. This misses threats (including ones that would be obvious to a risk management professional) as well as opportunities and reduces the possibility of innovation, disruptive evolution and regeneration.

30 college websites returned not a single business continuity plan

Horizon scanning is a recognised function within commercial operations, embedded in marketing and strategy planning, and threat analysis is part of financial and safety decision-making processes. Innovation is integral to commercial survival.

Political turbulence like this year’s ins and outs at the department for education doesn’t help with either horizon scanning or threat analysis, but governance of risk management has been developing rapidly precisely because of the VUCAH (Volatile Uncertain Chaotic Ambiguous Hyperconnected) period we live in.

Corporate social responsibility is merging with the health and safety function and is evolving into enterprise risk management, which itself is becoming an integral aspect of strategy development. Frameworks and analytical tools to those ends are continuously becoming more sophisticated.

Management and leadership, culture and accountability are having to evolve to create the human behaviours necessary to function in this environment. ‘Agile leadership’ is maturing into an approach that accommodates devolved decision making while assuring stability and consistency of purpose. Executive education is reflecting this change.

A wider strategic perspective and the implementation of more comprehensive risk management should be an integral function of colleges’ governing boards. The wider benefits will be felt in the quality of planning, of curriculum design and delivery and, ultimately, by the students.

Here are six simple questions to start the process:

  • Which are the five most significant risks to the viability of your College?
  • Which three events in the last three years had the largest negative impact on the viability of your College?
  • Of those three, which of them had been foreseen 5 years ago?
  • Do you have a Business Continuity Plan that covers the impact of the risks in Boxes 1 and 2?
  • How would rate your College’s current Risk Management system?
  • Does the Board have a stated Risk Appetite?

The UK is relying on the FE sector to deliver its skilled workforce. Its governing boards must be effective, innovative and constantly aware.

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