By Kelly Rowe and Zac Ashkanasy
The past decades have marked a significant change in higher education in Canada. Funding arrangements with governments have shifted, tuition fees have changed, students have more information on comparative rankings, and international student enrolment has increased significantly, while local enrolment in jurisdictions such as Ontario has stagnated.
Internally, particularly due to COVID, universities have had to adapt to digital change and student preferences in the way they receive university services and experience learning.
As they continue to adapt to new contexts, universities will need to think carefully about their governance structures to ensure they can tackle new and emerging challenges.
Research has found that many stakeholders are dissatisfied with aspects of the governance model of universities across Canada. Many governance terms were set in individual university acts established in the 1950s and 1960s, when the higher education environment was different.
The consequences of governance structures that are not fit for purpose can be great, from exposure to legal risk to financial challenges and the inability to achieve the mission. On the other hand, a high-performing board and senate can help steer the university to achieve the mission and mitigate financial and other risks.
Recently we witnessed governance challenges up close. We were fortunate to work with Laurentian University on its Governance Review and Operational Review after it encountered severe financial difficulties. This experience demonstrated the impact of suboptimal governance, among other factors.
In this article we want to explore the changing environment in Canadian higher education, and the ways this is impacting governance requirements.
Changes in the university environment are having an impact on governance
To understand the challenges for university governance, we first need to understand the major trends that are impacting higher education. There are five forces that we think are most significant in shaping higher education over the next few years, and each of these forces have significant impacts on university governance
Governance encompasses a variety of obligations
When we talk about governance, we are talking about the functions of a university to guide key decisions and provide oversight.
It is useful to think of governance as being a combination of obligations around conformance and performance, with each of these then be split between internal and external focus:
- Performance (future-orientated): The governing body’s leadership role in policy-setting, rule approval and developing and monitoring the delivery of strategy.
- Conformance (present-orientated): The governing body’s role in ensuring accountability through activities like monitoring finances and compliance with policies and codes.
- Internal focus: Ensure that the university is aligned and managing risk effectively.
- External focus: Prepare for the future and maintain accountability to stakeholders.
This framework, first developed by Robert Tricker, is valuable for universities:
Universities need to play a leadership role
There is no sign that the environmental trends will abate any time soon, so universities need to be proactive on this issue.
A useful first step is for presidents and provosts to initiate an audit of current governance arrangements, in order to understand best practice and to work out the steps needed to get there. There are many examples of good practice from Canada and abroad that can spark discussion in institutions and offer some guidance on a path forward.
Universities ignore the need for robust governance at their peril.
Get in touch to explore how we can support you to rethink your university’s governance arrangements.
Connect with Kelly Rowe and Zac Ashkanasy on LinkedIn.
 Skolnik, M.L., & Jones, G.A. (1997). Governing Boards in Canadian Universities. The Review of Higher Education 20(3), 277-295;
Jones, G.A., Shanahan, T. & Goyan, P. (2001) University governance in Canadian higher education, Tertiary Education and Management, 7:2, 135-148;
Jones, G.A., Shanahan, T., & Goyan, P. (2004). The Academic Senate and University Governance in Canada. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 34(2), 35-68.
 Tricker, B. (2015). Corporate governance: Principles, policies, and practices. Oxford University Press, USA.