Australia’s university councils largely operate as corporations, yet they lack the same degree of accountability. Many actions and proceedings happening during council meetings are kept confidential. However, this shouldn’t be the case since university councils answer to their many stakeholders who should also be rightfully included in the deliberation and decision-making. Now the question is, how can university councils address this and improve their governance practices at the same time?
The Current State of Accountability in University Councils in Australia
A lot of what’s going on behind closed doors during university council meetings in many universities in Australia is kept away from the eyes of the public.
Unlike city council minutes, which are public information, university council minutes are unavailable for scrutiny by other university members or stakeholders that don’t belong to the council.
This lack of transparency is a catalyst to a lack of trust. For example, during meetings where decisions involving significant funds are made, denying the university community’s access to the arguments on which these decisions were based further deepens mistrust toward the council.
Moreover, many university committees have no overseeing body that would independently evaluate their performance.
And while accountability and transparency issues need legislative changes to be resolved, university councils can still improve these two critical aspects of governance.
Here are the best practices that universities can embrace to increase accountability and transparency and improve the overall quality of governance.
Transparency is the foundation of every well-performing university council. It increases trust and engagement, helping stakeholders know how the university council operates.
To ensure greater transparency, university councils should keep information in an easily accessible manner for the stakeholders. For example, on an online platform.
An online platform such as a board portal improves communication between stakeholders and council members and lets all parties work together toward a mutual goal.
Board portals help university councils store, organize, and collaborate on important documentation, e.g., financial reports, meeting minutes, resolutions.
Board portals also let council members run performance surveys that help evaluate council performance on a regular basis. Action items keep the information on who is responsible for which tasks transparent to all.
Just like corporate boards, university councils depend on well-organized meetings to further their objectives and goals. Poorly structured and conducted meetings can impede making critical decisions that ensure the well-being of a university.
To maximize the efficiency of university council meetings, consider following this advice:
For a meeting to meet its objectives, council members and meeting participants need to be equipped with all the background information necessary to make decisions and cast votes. Preparing and distributing board packs well ahead of the meeting lets the participants familiarize themselves with the documents.
Taking the time to prepare the agenda goes a long way in keeping meetings efficient and productive. A good agenda helps meeting attendees prepare adequately for the meeting, sets the expectations and clear objectives for the meeting proper, and ensures the best allocation of time where key objectives are addressed without unnecessary, off-topic discussion.
Formal Rules of Conduct
Adopting and requesting formal rules of conduct helps keep the meeting in order and ensure every speaker can talk uninterrupted.
Rules of conduct should describe how processing questions looks like, including time limits for responses. Rules of conduct should also promote fairness to ensure all stakeholders who ask questions receive answers.
Non-Council Stakeholder Participation
For a more effective meeting and overall governance, university councils should invite non-council speakers that can provide valuable insight. Inviting non-council participants also increases trust and transparency.
Protecting all university council documents, especially confidential material, should be one of the top priorities of each institution.
With Australia’s recent rise in cybercrime against government organizations — including higher education institutions — security should be of paramount importance for university councils.
Absolute must-have security features for any platform used for storing documentation:
- Role-based access control. Will help control who can access, view, edit, or only comment on specific documentation.
- Encryption. Encryption ensures that in case of a data breach, confidential documentation is unreadable for attackers.
Best practices to propagate among stakeholders to keep security on a high level:
- Regular security training and workshops. Human error is one of the biggest security threats across industries. Opening hacker-engineered emails or sharing access information are just two examples where human error can have disastrous consequences. Regular security training and awareness-raising workshops help decrease the likelihood of data breaches. The training should also include how to securely use software for storing documentation.
- Documents are organized and stored in one place. Universities typically use various different platforms to store their files and critical data. Not only does this make it hard to organize important documents, but it also makes it virtually impossible to control and track who has access to them. It is recommended to use one platform for all documentation. Encrypting confidential documents and opting to store data in-house (can’t be accessed from outside the university network) will also help secure critical university assets.
Board Portals Help University Councils Improve Accountability and Governance
Having one secure platform for storing and collaborating on university council documents helps increase transparency, security, and governance among university councils. Board portals support document management and remote meetings to deliver convenient and meaningful experiences for board members and other stakeholders.