You are:

Research & Innovation Banner

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,


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. 


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


Main Menu

  1. Home
  2. Consultancy
    1. Sector Wide Change
      1. Sector Wide Change Case Studies
        1. Evidence gathering
        2. Shared Services Review
    2. Institutional Transformation
      1. Governor Development and Governance Reviews
      2. Collaborations, Alliances and Mergers
      3. Working with Top Management Teams
      4. Evaluation and Impact
      5. In-house Change Academies
        1. Change Academy Case Studies
        2. Change Academy FAQs
      6. Institutional Transformation Case Studies
        1. New Model for Student Administration Services Review
        2. Supporting a student systems options review
        3. Strategic planning support
        4. Strategy Stocktake
    3. Teams and Individuals
      1. Teams and Individuals Case Studies
        1. Senior Leaders Succession Programme
        2. Academic Leaders Programme
        3. Leadership Development for Research Team Leaders
        4. Leading From the Front
      2. Coaching
        1. Executive Coaching
        2. Team Coaching
        3. Career Coaching Options
        4. Coaching Programmes
        5. Coaching Case Studies
      3. Unconscious Bias Workshops
    4. International Consultancy
      1. Bespoke (In-Country) Programmes
      2. International Partnership and Network Programmes
    5. Frequently Asked Questions
  3. Research
    1. Research Hub
      1. Current Tenders
        1. SDP Call for Proposals 2019
        2. SDP Call for Proposals Development and Support for Women 2018
      2. Research in Progress
      3. 2018 Research
        1. Exploring the Impact of Coaching in Higher Education
        2. Onwards and Upwards? Tracking women's work experiences in higher education Year 3 report
        3. Onwards and Upwards? Tracking women's work experiences in higher education Year 3 summary
      4. 2017 Research
        1. The impact of mergers, acquisitions and collaborations in Higher Education and other knowledge based sectors
        2. Talent Management: Learning Across Sectors
        3. Big data – disruptive, distracting or adding value?
        4. Encouraging disabled leaders in higher education: recognising hidden talents
        5. Increasing the Diversity of Senior Leaders in Higher Education: The Role of Executive Search Firms
      5. 2016 Research
        1. Onwards and Upwards? Tracking women's work experiences in higher education summary
        2. Onwards and Upwards? Tracking women's work experiences in higher education report
        3. The purpose of professors: professionalism, pressures and performance
        4. Leading Technology-Enhanced Learning in Higher Education: Summary
        5. Leading Technology-Enhanced Learning in Higher Education: Full Report
        6. Making the road while walking: Co-creation, teaching excellence and university leadership
        7. The Role of Prestige in UK Universities: Vice-Chancellors' Perspectives
        8. The Impact of Leadership and Leadership Development in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature and Evidence
        9. The Impact of Higher Education Leadership, Governance and Management Research - Full Report
        10. The Impact of Higher Education Leadership, Governance and Management Research - Summary
        11. Exploring the Impact of Coaching in Higher Education: a Provocation
      6. 2015 Research
        1. In the wings and backstage: exploring the micropolitics of leadership in higher education
        2. Developing and Sustaining Shared Leadership in Higher Education
        3. How can we make not break black and minority ethnic leaders in higher education?
        4. Religion in Britain: Challenges to Higher Education
        5. The Case for Growing STEMM Research Capacity in Wales
      7. 2014 Research
        1. Leading interdisciplinary Research transforming the academic landscape
        2. Exploring Student Leadership
        3. Gender and Higher Education Leadership
        4. Towards the family friendly university?
        5. The experience of BME academics in higher education: aspirations in the face of inequality
        6. Challenges for the leadership of transnational education in higher education: balancing risk and innovation
        7. The employability agenda and beyond: what are universities for?
        8. Governance in a changing environment: literature review
        9. Governance in a changing environment: thought piece
        10. The governance of private higher education providers in the UK
        11. Leading academic talent to a successful future: an international perspective
        12. Leading academic talent to a successful future: interviews with leaders, managers and academics
        13. Out in Orbit: strategies and trajectories for higher education satellite campuses
        14. Neo-collegiality: restoring academic engagement in the managerial university
        15. Trends in Governance: Universities in the Southern, African Development, Community
        16. Action Learning as a Tool for Change and Development: The Experience of Registrars and Senior Administrative Officers in Southern Africa
        17. Registrars and Senior Administrative Officers as Change Leaders in Southern African Universities
        18. The Changing Role of the University Registrar: Challenges and Prospects in Southern African Higher Education Institutions
        19. Report from the: Programme for University Leaders in the Southern African Region (PULSAR)
        20. Leading the Student Experience: Academic and Professional Services in Partnership
        21. A Complexity Approach to Leadership Development: Developing Practical Judgement
        22. Performance Management in UK Higher Education Institutions: The need for a hybrid approach
      8. 2013 Research
        1. Humanities Research Leadership in Europe
        2. Credit Risk? Reviving credit accumulation and transfer in UK higher education
        3. What do we know about: Collaborations and Partnerships in Higher Education
        4. Leadership of Practice Disciplines in Universities: The case of nurses and teachers
        5. Devolution and Higher Education: What next?
        6. Leadership for a better student experience: What do senior executives need to know?
        7. Horizon Scanning: what will higher education look like in 2020
        8. Leading interdisciplinarity: creating environments for success
        9. Using International Recruitment Agents: Risks and Regulation?
        10. Staffing Models and Institutional Flexibility
        11. Leading change in assessment and feedback
        12. Women and Higher Education Leadership: Absences and Aspirations
        13. Internationalising the curriculum: Design, delivery and depth
        14. Losing our Chains?
      9. 2012 Research
        1. What do we know about leadership in higher education?
        2. Leadership development within the UK higher education: its impact on organisational performance, and the role of evaluation
        3. The Future of English Higher Education: two scenarios on the changing landscape
        4. Disruptive Innovation and the higher education ecosystem post-2012
        5. Academic Leadership: Changing Conceptions, Identities and Experiences in UK Higher Education
        6. Leading the Student Experience: Super-Convergence of Organisation, Structure and Business Processes
        7. Leadership for Improved Academic Enterprise
        8. Leadership and Innovation Lessons from Professional Services Firms
        9. Leading Culturally Diverse Communities in Higher Education: A Self Assessment and Improvement Tool to Support Equality and Diversity Strategies Toolkit and Toolkit as Form
        10. Inequality and higher education: marketplace or social justice?
        11. Collaborations and Mergers in HE: Lessons Learned and Future Prospects
      10. 2011 Research
        1. Developing the whole student: leading higher education initiatives that integrate mind and heart
        2. A Review of Higher Education Collaborations Across Wales
        3. Higher Education Collaborations: Implications for Leadership, Management and Governance
        4. Enabling equality: furthering disability equality for staff in higher education
        5. A guide to offshore staffing strategies for UK universities
        6. Leadership and Management of International Partnerships
        7. A Framework for Identifying Governing Body Effectiveness in Higher Education
      11. 2010 Research
        1. Higher Education Futures: Key Themes and Implications for Leadership and Management
        2. Understanding Career Motivation in Higher Education, Analysis of Agregated Results from 2009 Benchmarking Study
        3. Conversations and Collaborations: The Leadership of Collaborative Projects between Higher Education and the Arts and Cultural Sector
        4. A Guide to Scenario Planning in Higher Education
      12. 2009 Research
        1. Baseline Study of Leadership Development in Higher Education 2009
        2. Diversity In Higher Education: Leadership Responsibilities and Challenges
        3. Mapping Leadership Development in Higher Education: A Global Study
        4. Departmental Leadership of Teaching in Research-Intensive Environments
        5. The Management of Academic Workloads: Improving Practice in the Sector
        6. The Role and Influence of the Secretary in UK Higher Education Governing Bodies
        7. Effective Leadership in Higher Education
        8. Governing bodies, equality and diversity A handbook for governors of higher education institutions
        9. What is an Effective and High Performing Governing Body in UK Higher Education?
      13. 2008 Research
        1. Professional Managers in UK Higher Education: Preparing for Complex Futures
        2. The Composition, Challenges and Changes in the Top Team Structures of UK Higher Education Institutions
        3. The Characteristics, Roles and Selection of Vice-Chancellors
        4. Developing Collective Leadership in Higher Education
      14. 2007 Research
        1. Human Resource Management and University Performance
        2. UK Universities and Executive Officers: The Changing Role of Pro-Vice-Chancellors
        3. Effective Leadership in Higher Education
        4. The Management of Academic Workloads
        5. Higher Education Leadership of Regional and Local Regeneration Partnerships: Learning from good practice
      15. Research Order Form
      16. Small Development Projects
        1. Small Development Projects 2019
        2. Small Development Projects 2018
        3. Small Development Projects 2017
        4. Small Development Projects 2016
        5. Small Development Projects 2015
        6. Small Development Projects 2014
        7. Small Development Projects 2013
        8. Small Development Projects 2012
        9. Small Development Projects 2011
        10. Small Development Projects 2010
        11. Small Development Projects 2008-09
        12. Advice from Previous SDP Leaders
      17. ITF Projects
        1. ITF-2016 Phase 3
        2. ITF 2014 Phase 2
        3. ITF 2012 Phase 1
        4. Case Studies
        5. What they say about the Innovation and Transformation Fund
    2. Publications Hub
      1. Research Leader's Impact Toolkit Publications
      2. Getting to Grips
      3. Let's Talk Value
      4. HELMs
        1. Leading higher education
        2. Motivating and developing leaders
        3. Leadership and work-life balance
        4. Governors' views of their institutions, leadership and governance
      5. Leadership Insights
      6. Management Development Resources
      7. Reports and Reviews
        1. Researching and Scoping a Higher Education and Civic Leadership Development Programme
      8. ENGAGE Past Editions
        1. ENGAGE 38 - summer 2015
        2. ENGAGE 37 - spring 2015
        3. ENGAGE 36 - autumn 2014
        4. ENGAGE 35 - summer 2014
        5. ENGAGE 34 - spring 2014
        6. ENGAGE 33 - autumn 2013
        7. ENGAGE 32 - summer 2013
        8. Engage Unlimited
        9. Engage 2 Book Review
    3. Resource Hub
      1. Integrated Thinking & Reporting
        1. Information and resources
        2. Relevant Factors and Characteristics
        3. Let's talk value
      2. Diversity
        1. Strategy
        2. Key Leadership and Diversity Projects
        3. Equality Legislation
        4. Diversity Advisory Group
        5. Diversity talks
      3. Research Outcomes
        1. Research Leader's Impact Toolkit
        2. The Self Assessment Toolkit
      4. Changing the Learning Landscape
        1. Impact
        2. Partners
        3. Interactive Toolkit
      5. Organisational Development
        1. OD Mapping Project
      6. Case Studies
      7. LGM Fund Outcomes
      8. Succession Management
        1. What is it?
        2. Why do it?
        3. How it's done
        4. Tools
  4. Governance
    1. Resource bank
      1. Features
      2. Governance News
      3. Previous news alerts
        1. Alternative providers and student debt in the US: could it happen in the UK?
        2. Is institutional autonomy under threat?
        3. Managing the board
        4. OECD Report suggests some higher education students lack basic skills
        5. Five issues for HEI governing bodies
        6. Whistleblowing and gagging clauses
        7. The failure of HBOS
        8. Financial forecasts for English HEIs
        9. Governance changes proposed in the HE Green paper
        10. FEHE SORP 2015 Donations & Endowments
        11. Board diversity - the Davis Review
        12. Information systems and cyber security
        13. Does a change in leadership lead to a change in strategy?
        14. FIFA and corporate governance
        15. Volkswagen
        16. Sustainability
        17. Review of governance at Plymouth University
        18. Equality and diversity and governing bodies
        19. A Changing Agenda
        20. Role and effectiveness of audit committees
        21. Governance of Scottish Higher Education Institutions: Consulative Paper on HE Bill
        22. Governance issues at Tesco
        23. Student visas
        24. Governance at the Co-op
        25. HE funding - IFS report
        26. Removal of student number control
        27. Governance issues in the private sector
        28. Governance at the BBC
        29. Reforms to how higher education in England is regulated
        30. HBOS & London Met: case studies in governance
        31. New IPPR report on HE
        32. Moocs are coming
        33. Increasing diversity
        34. Kids Company
      4. Getting to grips
      5. Governance publications
      6. Useful websites
      7. Research on governance in higher education
      8. Book reviews
      9. HE facts
      10. Illustrative Practice Notes
      11. Roundtable notes
        1. Governance events notes
    2. Governance Briefing Notes
      1. 27. Governing bodies and culture
      2. 26. The new regulatory approach to HE in England
      3. 25. The factors that influence whether governance is effective?
      4. 24. Benefits and impact
      5. 23. Competitive pressures
      6. 22. Corporate ethics and values
      7. 21. Personal ethics and values
      8. 20. Legal requirements and regulation
      9. 19. Estates
      10. 18. Finance
      11. 17. Employment
      12. 16. Remuneration
      13. 15. Nominations committee
      14. 14. Audit committee
      15. 13. The governance system and assessing effectiveness
      16. 12. Size, composition and skills available to the governing body
      17. 11. Monitoring performance
      18. 10. Strategic plan
      19. 09. Students
      20. 08. Risk management
      21. 07. International students and collaborations
      22. 06. Commercial operations
      23. 05. Regulations and compliance
      24. 04. Academic governance and quality
      25. 03. The workings of a governing body
      26. 02. Governance and management
      27. 01. Becoming a governor
    3. Self-Assessment Tool
    4. Governor Dialogues
  5. International
    1. International Engagement
    2. International Reference Group
    3. International Case Studies
  6. The Prevent Agenda
    1. Prevent training materials e-learning module
  7. Bespoke Programmes
    1. Programmes for Head of Department
      1. Leading Departments
      2. Head of Department
      3. Introduction to Head of Department
    2. Leading Teaching Teams
    3. Essentials of Leading Change
    4. Building Strategic Capability
    5. Unlocking Potential Through Performance Management
    6. Cultural Intelligence
    7. Working with Others
      1. Case Study: University College Cork

We are a membership organisation of and for a sector that has some of the brightest minds in the UK.


Our members are key to our strategy and form a community of higher education institutions with a clear commitment to and experience of developing leadership, governance and management capabilities at all levels. Academic and professional services staff from member institutions contribute to our programmes, projects and research and advise on benefits and services.


Find out more about Membership


  • Membership benefits

    • 25% discount on our open and in-house programmes and consultancy
    • a free consultancy day
    • exclusive access to research publications, development resources and funding opportunities
    • free regional events
    • funding for Staff Development Forum and MASHEIN activity
    • members’ mailing lists, newsletters and magazine
    • participation in our development networks


  • How to join

    • Membership is open to all higher education providers and related sector organisations on an annual or three-yearly subscription basis.
    • We have 154 members with around a third taking advantage of the 10% discount offered by three-year subscriptions.


  • Membership benefits

    • Research and innovation: Access to our latest, highly-valued research, Leadership Insights, Getting to Grips series and practical development project resources.
    • More…

    • Management Development Resources: Flexible workshop materials on key leadership and management development topics, for you to deliver in-house to suit your own contexts NEW: ‘Caught in the Middle’. 
    • More…

    • The Knowledge Bank: Save time with these extensive multi-media training resources for HR, staff development and OD professionals, covering key leadership and management theory and practice.
    • More…

  • Get in touch

    Meet the membership team, your national and regional contacts in the UK and Ireland, and LF networks.

Pages in this section

You are:

Text size: A A A Print page:

Advance HE
Leadership, Governance and Management

Peer House, 8-14 Verulam Street
London WC1X 8LZ

T: 020 3468 4810     F: 020 3468 4811

Text size: A A A
Use of Cookies

This website uses cookies. We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.  Find out more here.