Revisiting our hot topic sessions | Part two

In this series, our Trustees share their reflections and summaries of the hot topic sessions they attended at the AUA Annual Conference earlier this year. In this instalment, AUA Trustee Thea Gibbs reflects on ‘Governance in times of change’, whilst AUA Trustee Mark Crittenden discusses his key takeaways from Melanie Gottlieb’s presentation on ‘Defining the ‘New Normal’.


Governance in times of change: the push towards insight driven decision making

Sarah Litchfield | University Secretary and General Counsel, University of Surrey
Mat Cooling | Director of Risk and Assurance, University of Surrey

Governance, auditing and risk management may not light everyone’s fire, but this session was illuminating, bringing the topic to life with practical advice and professional insights.  The speakers from the University of Surrey were highly engaging and well-qualified to deliver this session, having significant experience in the field:  Sarah Litchfield has a legal background and is University Secretary and General Counsel, while Mat Cooling’s expertise in finance, internal auditing and risk management stands him in good stead as Director of Risk and Assurance.  In combination, Mat and Sarah explored how effective decision-making by a University’s Council can help the institution to navigate the complex internal and external challenges and risks in line with strategic priorities.  The governance work of Councils is facilitated by access to robust management information together with the ability and confidence of members to challenge assumptions.

To be effective, management information (MI) should go beyond the presentation of raw data to provide insights – that is, analysis that shows what is going on and why, so that the reader can follow a narrative and develop appropriate options for action.  Good MI relies on data integrity (e.g. data that is accurate, complete and up to date), and clear presentation that is not overly complicated.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced meetings where discussions got side-tracked by colleagues trying to understand the data on the page or critiquing the presentation of a graph, instead of being able to interpret it and decide a response.  Mat’s clear presentation reminded us that if data is used poorly without thought as to what insights we are trying to achieve and for what audience, MI is going to be a case of ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’.  Fans of whizzy graphics and powerpoint presentations were also reminded that ‘more isn’t always more’ if the reader is too distracted by the visuals or overwhelmed by the volume of data to be able to identify potential insights contained there.

The ability of University Council to provide robust challenge to the University Executive relies on members being able to access appropriate sources of MI, and on their skills in interpreting and understanding what the data is showing.  They need critical analysis skills and confidence to embrace insight-driven decision-making, as well as an ability to ask the awkward questions that may challenge accepted wisdoms and the status quo.  In addition to member competence, Councils also make better decisions the more diverse their membership is, as diversity helps to avoid confirmation bias and ‘group-think’ by including a wider range of perspectives.

Insight-driven decision-making in governance and leadership, as described by Mat and Sarah, is clearly the ideal we should strive for, but can staff further down the organisational hierarchy contribute to the insights used by senior leaders?  Rather than viewing the production of organisational insights as the preserve and prerogative of specialist governance staff, Mat and Sarah consider that staff across the university can play a part in its development by feeding in their experiences ‘at the coalface’.  After all, it is here that institutional strategies are stress-tested, where innovation can emerge from necessity, and where organisational values and principles are lived day to day.

Thea Gibbs, AUA Trustee


Defining the ‘New Normal’

Melanie Gottlieb | Deputy Director, AACRAO

On the second day of the conference, I was able to help facilitate one of the hot topic sessions, “defining the new normal”.  The session was delivered by Melanie Gottleib (Deputy Director of AACRAO) all the way from her office in the States.  Like other sessions the impact of the pandemic was unavoidable, however the session focused on the theme and idea of not letting a serious crisis go to waste and explored the opportunities we could all explore in the future.  Melanie shared her reflections on how the pandemic has impacted some of her HE colleagues in the States and attendees were able to draw parallels with what they experienced here in the UK, and see that the issues and potential solutions can be shared and understood (even across the Atlantic). 

One message that came through from Melanie’s session was the capability for the HE-sector to change.  Pre-pandemic, colleagues might have commented on the inability for their institutions to change or when they do, it does so at a slow (huge container ship turning in a canal) pace.  However what 2020 showed many of us, is that change is possible, and we can do so at rapid pace.  We can even change multiple times a week or month to fit in with the next news bulletin or government guidelines.  Although it is possible to change at pace, doing so in the same way that the last year needed us to be, is not sustainable, but now we are starting to get more space to think, can take all these painful lessons and keep applying them in the future. 

Melanie also covered elements of this in her presentation, showing her thoughts on where efforts are needed to redeploy capital and collaborate to work on innovations, something organisations such as AUA and AACRAO can definitely support. 

Mark Crittenden, AUA Trustee

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