The COVID crisis has put tremendous pressure on every institution in the Higher Education sector, without exception. In this time of uncertainty, where the impact of the crisis is not yet quantifiable, it’s quite hard for Boards to determine what is the right way to govern.

Management teams, teachers, professional staff are doing extraordinary work, with virtually no advance notice, to re-invent their teaching and learning practice in order to continue to deliver value to students who are half-way through their academic year.

The scale and scope of this enterprise is breath-taking. The formal and moral contract with students is a very real thing. To attempt to maintain a standard of delivery that can approximate its original intention is a huge exercise which requires adaptation of virtually every business practice. Some of these are practical challenges: readiness and availability of technology for staff and students is the obvious one; others include delivering to a time-table, ensuring that the full diversity of the student body is catered for while also being extra mindful of staff and student health and well-being issues, and the list goes on. Some challenges are far more fundamental:  how do you transition practice-based training to virtual learning at specialist institutions?

There are no easy answers. And yet, colleges like Rose Bruford College soldier on, drawing heavily on the depth of their experience and expertise, their tradition of collaboration and partnership and their extraordinary work ethic.

None of this is ideal for Governors. One or two changes in business practice may be considered risky; so many practices changing at the same time – without adequate planning – is off the scale of risk. Independent governors often don’t have a background in Higher Education. It takes time and commitment to learn about the institutions we govern. When delivery, practice, location, outcomes are all being adapted, with nothing to benchmark them against, in real time – how do Governors govern? How do Boards fulfil their role as a crucial source of reliable advice, guidance and constructive challenge to leaders and managers? What is the right balance between the focus on the immediate crisis and the wider, more long-term strategic considerations? What are the tools that Governors and Boards can use to ensure that standards are being considered and maintained?

Registered providers already sign up to the Public Interest Governance Principles, which clearly identify the regulatory expectation of all institutions and their governing bodies. I strongly believe that to step up to our responsibilities in Covid times, Governors should also think about ethical standards as useful tools to help them fulfil their responsibilities while plans are still evolving, practices still emerging and the future is as yet unknown.

The Nolan Principles offer one such ethical framework to sense-check a Board’s collective decision-making process and approach. Here are some examples of how the Principles work in practice for a small, specialist institution like Rose Bruford College:

1. Selflessness:  Are we satisfied that our decisions are not influenced by personal or intellectual priorities or prejudice? An example of this discussion at Bruford would be to make an informed decision about the prioritisation of teaching or research, if resources become so scarce that choices have to made.

2. Integrity: Are we certain that our decisions are in the best interest of the institution, its students and its stakeholders. The questions that follow are: what compromises we are making, and what or who is influencing our decision. If we know what these influences are, are we sure that they are legitimate. For example: should the College adopt a no-detriment policy for exam assessments?

3. Objectivity: At a time when data may not be immediately available, what other evidence are we using to ensure that our decisions are as objective as possible? Are our decisions based on fact, principles and evidence? Do we ensure that we take due account of expert, professional advice while also ensuring that we do not ignore inconvenient facts? At Bruford we discussed whether we could/should cancel rental contracts for halls of residence for the remainder of the year, mindful of the significant ensuing impact on our finances.

4. Accountability: Does our decision-making process continue to be accountable? Are we being as open and transparent as possible to our stakeholders? Are we satisfied that our decisions are deliberative, justifiable and will stand up to external scrutiny after Covid? For example, should decision-making during COVID be delegated to just VC and Chair, or should it, in all cases, require a minimum number of independent Governors to ensure that decisions continue to be fair, deliberative and mitigate against bias or impropriety. Another example, with regard to internal accountability:  does the whistle-blowing process work effectively in an online scenario, and can we be assured that complaints and appeals are being dealt with fairly.

5. Openness: Do we have a strategy for communication during the COVID period, including and beyond, our legal and regulatory obligations? Have we established a clear, consistent method of communication with our stakeholders, starting with our students? Do our staff and students know what to expect? Are our decisions properly explained and fully understood?

6. Honesty: Are we being truthful to ourselves and about our responsibilities? Are our decisions based on honest conversations? Do we have the courage to speak and act honestly, even in adverse circumstances? For example, how far can we truly mitigate against the risks on our risk register? What is our preparedness for institutional failure?

7. Leadership: Are we showing leadership as a Board in these difficult times? Are we making good decisions in a timely way and offering information, support and guidance to a high standard? Are we acting ethically in a way that builds trust with our stakeholders? Do our decisions comply with our values, our priorities and our purpose? For example: how can we ensure that staff contracted to us by third party suppliers are adequately supported?

Boards are fundamental to good decision-making in a crisis. With so many moving parts, all Boards have to find ways to ensure that the decisions they make, and support, have the right foundations. Ethical frameworks, like the Nolan Principles, can help Boards and Governors fulfil their purpose in a way that adds value when all else seems uncertain.

Monisha Shah
Chair, Rose Bruford College

Member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

First published in WonkHE on 20 May 2020.