By Cate Watson, University of Stirling, UK

Over the past three and half years a team of researchers from the Universities of Stirling, Cardiff and Birmingham has been investigating the work of governing boards in colleges of further education i.e. providers of technical, vocational education and training, across the UK in a major project funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. 

In the UK, the role of each college governing board is to provide strategic leadership of the college. The aim of our research was to examine how governing boards in further education colleges across the UK contribute to achieving the strategic aims of colleges in meeting the needs of learners, employers and labour markets.

We wanted to look at ‘boards in action’ – to see how boards go about their business and to come to some conclusions about the purpose of the governing board. Our research thus has relevance for policy-makers as well as colleges. Understanding the workings of governing bodies enables policy-makers to make decisions concerning the wider governance of colleges; for colleges, the research reveals the complexities of governing, and raises aspirations for governing boards.

We were granted unprecedented access to the governing boards of eight colleges across the four countries of the UK. We went into boardrooms with our video and/or audio equipment for a year (January to December, 2019). We observed and video/audio recorded over 90 hours of board meetings and 50 hours of committee meetings. We attended strategy days, read the supporting paperwork and interviewed key players within the college and in relevant, supporting agencies and organisations. 

Findings from our research are set out in a range of project briefings, academic journals and on the project website, fe-governing.stir.ac.uk. In this blog we give an overview of these findings.

As researchers we wanted to observe the processes through which the board meeting unfolded in real time, not rely on retrospective accounts of participants. As we carried out our research a number of important themes emerged. These were: the engagement of boards in developing strategic direction; the pre-eminence of risk management and determinants of risk culture; practices of accountability. And crucially, for educational institutions, how the board approaches issues of equality and diversity and how this relates to the way the learner is perceived. 

As well as these key tasks, we also looked at key roles on the board. We explored the role of the governance professional (the board clerk or secretary); we examined relationships between board and management; and we looked at the role of the student governor and how this relates to learner voice. No doubt there is much else we could have focused on and we will continue our analysis beyond the official end of the project at the end of September, 2021. 

In observing the complexity of governing, one key insight emerged. All of the tasks undertaken by boards and reported on here are suffused with tensions and ambiguities. We saw, for example, how engagement in strategising involves a tension between control and collaboration; how practices and technologies of risk management may themselves create risks; how accountabilities are multiple and at times conflicting; and how the twin missions of colleges in equalising chances and achieving economic goals may be in tension. 

We saw too how the roles played by particular board members are beset by ambiguity: the governance professional walks a tightrope between board and management; the student governor, if seen only as the mouthpiece for others, may have their own voice effectively silenced; and the chair must both sit alongside and stand apart from college management. 

Boards therefore have a contradictory remit and must manage the poles of these various paradoxes to function effectively. Crucially, in our research we show how this may be accomplished.  

We also saw how the work of the board contradicted normative assumptions about the role of boards. In particular, codes of good governance and other prescriptions, emphasise the importance of boards challenging management. Although we did see moments when boards subjected management to questioning, this was not the overwhelming impression of governing board meetings that we came away with, nor did this seem to be the most important function of the board. 

Instead, we saw a much more subtle manifestation of governing practices enacted through the relationships and interactions of board members. What we saw pointed us to the importance of understanding the sociomateriality of governing processes and practices. By this we mean the social, linguistic and material practices entered into by board and management which support the enactment of values as well as the more instrumental actions of governing.

Through sociomaterial practices board and management come together in effect making the organisation the kind that it is. The passion that drives colleges is the mission to meet the educational and social needs of its diverse student community in the service of wider society. The purpose of the governing body is to give rise to the ethos and culture through which the college meets this strategic aim. Our research revealed how this is achieved.