Processes and practices of governing in further education colleges in the UK:How do governing boards realise the strategic aims of the organisation?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Education


The further education (FE) sector is considered vital to the economic security of the UK and key to improving productivity and delivering employment-ready skills for labour markets. FE is also seen as playing a key role in enhancing social justice and promoting social mobility by providing 'second chances' for adult learners (BIS 2015a). Yet FE is widely seen to be underperforming and is currently undergoing extensive restructuring leading to fewer, larger colleges offering increased efficiency and resilience. While rationalisation/merger is a common theme across the UK, this is taking place within an increasingly divergent policy context with key differences in institutional autonomy and funding mechanisms in the 4 UK nations. Such processes can be expected to foster fundamental change which has considerable implications for leadership and governance of colleges. Recognition of the importance of effective governance is evident in the introduction of codes of good governance in England, Wales and Scotland. Yet governance has also been found wanting with many examples of mismanagement attributed to its failures (e.g BIS 2015c, Scottish Government 2016). Much of this can be put down to a lack of understanding by colleges and boards themselves of what governance is or the communicative practices by which it is enacted. Governance is undertheorised with research focusing on structures and procedures in terms of the formal constitution of entities providing accountability mechanisms while little is known about the processes and practices of governing, and relationships between governance, leadership and organisational aims/outcomes. If effective governance is seen as key to securing improvement in FE then better understanding of the processes and practices by which this occurs is imperative. This makes the proposal here both highly significant and timely.

The proposed research constitutes an in-depth empirical study of the processes and practices of governing boards in FE colleges in the 4 UK nations leading to knowledge about how boards function in realising the strategic aims of the organisation. This knowledge will be of benefit beyond FE, informing governance in both the private and not-for-profit sectors. We will do this through a highly innovative approach which synthesises two important theoretical strands. First, we draw on a prevalent trend in organisational theorising which views organisations as being constituted through communication ('Communicative Constitution of Organisation', Cooren et al 2011). While offering great utility, this approach has been criticised for its lack of attention to the power/political discourse dimension, in particular to a consideration of the external/policy contexts which serve to position organisations. We therefore augment CCO with social theory (Bourdieu) to examine boards in relation to these complex factors. FE in the UK operates in 4 distinct, though highly interdependent, policy contexts. Hence the UK constitutes a unique crucible for testing the influence of national/local policy contexts on governing. Through an in-depth study of boards in relation to these contexts we will gain insight into the complex processes by which boards are positioned within their respective fields of policy and practice. The research question is:

How do processes and practices of governing enable organisations to realise their strategic aims and outcomes?

We consider how local/national policy serves to position governing boards within the 4 UK nations; how this positioning influences the performance of boards and enactment of governance; ways in which boards negotiate the tensions and complexities within the FE/skills sector to arrive at 'coherent strategy'; the relationship between the board, leadership and management; and we consider what kind/s of organisation is/are constructed through processes and practices of governing in these different contexts.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of the research

Beneficiaries include 'linked actors' i.e. those involved directly in the research (leaders/managers of participating FE colleges, governors, Impact Group [a group of key stakeholders formed to operationalise pathways to impact], investigators/researchers); and key end-users (senior management of FE colleges, members of governing boards in FE colleges, policy-makers in skills/technical sector, those concerned with governance in other sectors). Ultimately (though beyond the purview of this research), creation of knowledge around processes and practices of governing will lead to improvements in learner experiences and support the aims of the sector in contributing to: individual advancement, reduction in social inequalities, and economic security (see Case for Support).

The following groups will benefit directly from the contribution/products of the research project:

Leadership/management and governing boards in FE colleges will derive instrumental and conceptual benefits from knowledge about the effective functioning of boards in meeting institutional strategic aims. Impact will also be capacity-building, contributing to the capacity of the sector and increasing capability through technical and personal skill development;

Policy-makers in government and regulatory organisations will derive instrumental and conceptual benefits from evidence which will contribute to policy and regulation around governance; the research will generate knowledge around the impact of Codes of Governance which will be of direct benefit to policy-makers;

All linked actors will derive benefits from enduring connectivity contributing to enhanced communication and understanding between policy/practice/academic communities.

Linked actors and key end-users will benefit in different ways and at different stages of the project. The Pathways to Impact considers impacts arising within a 3-stage process model: Stage 1 - Formulation of research objectives; Stage 2 - Knowledge production; and Stage 3 - Knowledge extension (stimulating utilisation at a distance) (Kok & Schuit 2012). Each Stage has its own impact objectives (see Pathways to Impact). All impact activities have been fully costed and included in the Justification of Resources.

In Stage 1 - Formulation of research objectives - linked actors will benefit from collaboration in operationalising the research, leading to greater understanding of the differing perspectives of academics, policy-makers and leaders/managers of colleges in relation to the nature and status of 'evidence based policy-making'. Identification of end users/stakeholders' needs will also increase the likelihood that the proposed research will lead to knowledge of benefit to the sector.

In Stage 2 - the knowledge production stage - linked actors will benefit from continued engagement in robustly assessing the utility of knowledge produced and in ensuring that knowledge is communicated to relevant stakeholders in appropriate formats.

In Stage 3 - the extension stage - activities aimed at ensuring the knowledge created is taken up and used by end-users will be undertaken. Instrumental impact will be achieved by providing professional learning opportunities for leaders/managers of colleges and board members which will increase capability and capacity within the sector. Conceptual impact will accrue from dissemination of findings in a range of formats meeting the needs of diverse stakeholder groups which will increase understanding of the role of governance in securing institutional improvement. This will be achieved by a range of knowledge exchange activities as outlined in the Pathways to Impact.


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Description Professor Ron Hill has been invited to join the DfE 'Strengthening College Governance Standing Group'
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Description Impact Group workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The Impact Group is formed of representatives of key policy bodies in FE across the UK and the governing boards of the colleges participating in the project. Our first initial workshop examined the role of the governing body; key current issues for college governing bodies;and mapping main beneficiaries of the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Invitation to address Association of Colleges Governors' Council 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Professors Cate Watson and Ron Hill were invited to make a presentation to the Governors' Council of the Association of Colleges about the project and to answer questions about it.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018