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Research report 2017: The impact of payment of Governors in Northern Ireland colleges on board effectiveness with implications for England

Context
Governor remuneration has been an issue in further education in England for some time.  It is a topic that attracts a wide range of strongly held views that draw on practice in other public sectors, the nature of ‘commitment’ for board members as volunteers, being the trustee of a charity, and the impact of austerity in the further education sector specifically and the publicly funded education service generally.  Little research has been undertaken in this area and the Education and Training Foundation’s funded research was very timely in exploring the emerging issues from the recent implementation of a remuneration policy for governors of colleges in Northern Ireland. In taking the findings into a second phase it is proposed to build on these findings to explore the dynamic in Scottish Colleges where the chairs of regional boards and designated colleges are remunerated. 

Phase 1 
The six Northern Ireland colleges became Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) in 2010 and from 2012 began to implement full NDPB accountability processes, particularly in relation to college budgets. The ‘remuneration of governors’ policy was established in Northern Ireland to improve the range and diversity of governing body membership and governor attendance and retention rates. From January 2016 governors (apart from the staff governor and the college principal/director) could be remunerated. The governing body chairs are eligible for a payment of £20,000 per annum and other eligible governing body members are remunerated at the rate of £250 for a governing body meeting and £150 for a committee meeting or event sanctioned by the Chair producing an annual remuneration of circa £3,000 per governor.
The first phase of the Education and Training Foundation funded research concluded in March 2017 and was based on interviews with the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy officials, interviews with two college secretaries (roles analogous to clerks and/or company secretaries in other settings). 32 governors and one chair also responded to an online survey.  Four of the survey respondents took part in follow up interviews. The participants were assured of confidentially in all aspects of the evidence gathering process. 
At the time of the research 39% of participants noted a slight or significant increase in the ‘quality of governance’ since the remuneration policy had been introduced. This was reflected in, for example, greater responsiveness to college secretaries’ requests for time and tasks and some flexibility in arranging meetings during the day time.  There were also indications that attendance at meetings in scope for payment had improved. 13% of the respondents who were eligible for payment opted out, citing, for example, ’total disagreement with Governors being paid, especially at a time of budget pressures’.
In the instance where a chair was new in post, attracted by the remuneration, a significant impact on the quality of governance and governor engagement was reported. This view was based on the assumption of higher calibre of applicant and perception of a more professional chair in post.
There was also considerable support for the policy largely expressed through recognition for the time commitment expected from board members. This commitment was seen to be heightened through the reporting expectations of the Department.  
Any impacts on board diversity will become apparent over the next three to four years linked to the recruitment cycle for board members. The research findings also revealed that governor performance management processes and the expectation of increased accountability for remunerated members were underdeveloped compared to the possibility of linking remuneration to increased expectations for governors e.g. minimum annual governor development threshold.
 

Phase 2
It is proposed to revisit the Northern Ireland setting. The priorities will be to: gain an insight into the views of Principals/Chief Executives, undertake further impact assessment as boards move into the second appraisal cycle following the introduction of the remuneration policy, and seeking the views of N.I. Department officials six months on from the original evidenced gathering.
The research team is also proposing exploring the situation in Scottish colleges using a similar research framework to phase 1. Here regional college boards and designated colleges have been established where the chair is appointed by the Scottish Minister and remunerated at a daily rate between £200-£330. Key research arenas will also be Colleges Scotland (established in 2014) whose board includes the regional chairs; the College Development Network; and the ‘Good Governance Task Group’. 
In England the AoC has devoted resources to support college boards in seeking permission from the Charity Commission for remuneration of chairs and board members. It is anticipated that the findings from phase 2 will inform the development of such initiatives as well as providing evidence for the Education and Training Foundation’s governance development programme. 
  
 

Colin Forrest