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University of Southampton - Original Proposal

The Quality of Board Decision Making Processes in Higher Education Institutions: UK and European Experiences

Project team leader:

Dr Oliver Marnet, University of Southampton

Project team member:

Professor Teerooven Soobaroyen, University of Essex

Administrative home HEI:

University of Southampton

Project overview

This project examines the governance practices of governing boards in UK and EU HEIs with a focus on the impact of heuristics and bias on governing boards decision-making and a particular review of the processes adopted to mitigate bias. Research focusing on the quality of HEI leadership decision-making processes is virtually inexistent in the UK and internationally.  At the same time, the changing environment and increased societal demands have resulted in greater demands for accountability, value for efficiency and effective leadership at the strategic level of HEIs. The project will involve interviews with board members of selected HEIs to explore the processes and outcomes of governance practices.
 
The study will provide an understanding of the board’s role and contribution and will inform HEIs leaders, funding councils and other stakeholders (e.g., CUC), establishing a guide to best practice as a catalyst for change aimed at improving the quality of judgement and decision making in governing boards.  The intended outcomes/benefits will include the development of board practice aimed at mitigating bias and more generally to assist policy-makers and regulatory authorities in improving the existing framework relating to governance and leadership in HEIs.

Aims and Objectives:

The aim of this project is to investigate governance (CG) practices in Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) in the UK and in selected European countries. The focus of the investigation will be on the quality of decision-making processes at the level of governing boards with reference to the impact of heuristics and biases on decisions at board level, and particular emphasis on the processes adopted to mitigate bias.
 
CG places great importance on the clarity of roles and responsibilities, on institutional accountability and transparency, as emphasised in prior HEI-related work in the UK (e.g. Schofield, 2009, Copland, 2014, Greatbatch, 2014; Soobaroyen et al., 2014; Ntim et al., 2016). It has become increasingly clear however, that, while the development (and reform) of best practices are necessary for good governance (e.g. recently revised HE Code of Governance; CUC, 2014), they are not sufficient on their own. Boards need to reflect deeply about the way in which they carry out their role and the behaviours that they display during decision-making, and are encouraged to consider how the way in which decisions are taken might affect the quality of those decisions.  

Flawed decisions can be made with the best of intentions, with competent and honest individuals believing passionately that they are making a sound judgment, when they are not. Boards can minimise the risk of poor decisions by careful design of their decision‐making policies and processes, reflecting on the path that led to a particular decision, the impact of heuristics on the quality of judgements, and by actively adopting processes to mitigate bias (Marnet, 2007; FRC, 2011). The researchers note a workshop by the Leadership Foundation and the Equality Challenge Unit (‘Unconscious Bias workshops for governing bodies’, December 2015), which highlights raised awareness of the challenges and barriers to good decision-making presented by bias.  However, research focusing on the quality of strategic decision-making processes and the impact of bias thereupon is virtually inexistent in the UK HEI sector and internationally.   
 
Whilst there is an extensive reliance on independent non-executive members in formal governance processes, this is typically based on a widespread presumption that such individuals can make decisions without being affected by their own preferences, motivations, heuristics, and social ties, or that  members acting in good faith are capable of overcoming their biases (Marnet, 2008). In contrast, bias arising from social, psychological and situational factors can be shown to significantly weaken the quality of decision-making on governing boards, with negative consequences for accountability and stewardship (Marnet, 2011; 2014).  Bias inducing factors include the presence of dominant decision makers, insufficient attention to risk, complacent or intransigent attitudes, conflicts of interest, emotional attachments, inappropriate reliance on previous experience, responsibilities for prior decisions, and groupthink (Janis, 1989; Kahneman, Tversky and Slovic, 2000; Bazerman and Watkins, 2004; Bazerman and Malhotra, 2006). Some of these issues are highlighted by Greatbatch (2014) - e.g. a concern with not ‘rocking the boat’ – but we would contend that there has been an insufficient examination of the decision-making process in HEI boards.   
 
The Leadership Foundation’s 2015-2020 Strategy acknowledges that UK Higher Education is in the midst of challenging times both financially and in policy terms. These have arguably raised the level of uncertainty, complexity and accountability which implies greater attention to, and monitoring of, the quality of governance over the use of funds, key strategic decisions (e.g. mergers, international partnerships, private sector partnerships) and sustainable academic leadership. In this respect, reports (and guidance) by the Committee of University Chairs (e.g., CUC, 2014) and UK Funding Councils have highlighted the crucial role of governing boards in ensuring effective risk management, control, and value for money (VFM). The sustainability of these goals is dependent on sound decision-making at the strategic level and motivates this proposed study.  
 
To some extent, these issues have also emerged in other European countries, with some notable work examining the extent to which formal governance arrangements in the UK operate in comparison to Germany, Italy and Netherlands (Dobbins et al., 2011; Capano, 2011), but less so when it comes to the process of decision-making and the impact of heuristics and bias on the quality of judgement and decision-making. An understanding of governance processes in other countries, particularly in light of the increased internationalisation of the HE sector and harmonisation of practices in the EU context, may reveal new insights of use to the UK context,

Methodology:

The project will mainly involve the use of interviews in the collection of primary data to be analysed using qualitative tools. In-depth interviews with chairs of governing boards, board members and secretary/clerks to the boards from 4 UK HEIs (4 interviewees per HEI) and from a number of EU HEIs (Greece, Italy, France and Germany) to explore the board decision-making processes and outcomes by focusing on key events and strategies (up to a total of 8 HEIs). The focus of our attention will be on gathering insights on past decisions and how boards went through these, reflecting on concerns that arose from these decisions, with a centre of attention not only on the merit of the decision itself but on the decision-making process.
 
The selection of the HEI will be on the basis of mission groups, rankings, and size. The researchers have made preliminary arrangements with a number of HEIs to gain access to board members and governors in HEIs in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Greece and Portugal.  Additional contacts will be made to ensure adequate access to the relevant decision-makers at board level, subject to making a formal (research ethics-approved) request to institutions.

The research will also rely on secondary data sources (e.g. reports on governance matters; regulatory framework for HEIs in different EU countries). Based on prior research in the field, contacts will be made with relevant institutions to seek access on an anonymous and confidential basis. Where applicable, requests will be made to attend board meetings to complement the insights gathered from interviews.  

Outputs and outcomes:

The research outputs will be of benefit to the Leadership Foundation,  funding  councils, the CUC and university leaders in highlighting  decision-making processes of interest at HEIs. A notable impact of our study will be to enhance the Leadership Foundation’s governor development programme on the topic of Unconscious bias and  improving an understanding of HEI governance in European settings,  for the benefit of stakeholders (Committee of University Chairs) and  the development of CG guidance and codes. In addition, the research will assist the secretary/clerk to governing boards on identifying areas  of improvement in the decision-making practices and processes of boards. 

Milestones:

Months 1 -3

Review of published literature on boards and decision-making processes, including regulatory information on HEIs in selected EU countries.

Months 4-6

  • Initial analysis of Board decision-making practices by UK and EU HEIs using secondary sources and advice from LFHE advisers.
  • A sample of HEIs and individuals for the interview stage identified and contacted.
  • Start interviews with board members (UK)

Months 7-9

Continue interviews with board members (EU countries)

Months 10-12

  • Analysis of the interview data
  • Preparation of final report

 

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