Effective leadership by Academic Board Chairs in higher education providers and what to avoid

Same but different

Higher education providers have diverse educational approaches, delivery modes and course offerings, and are more adaptable and agile than universities in responding to Australian government policy changes and market demand (Shah & Lewis, 2010). Higher education providers are frequently successful in growing student numbers through personalised and responsive marketing, including recruiting students from diverse backgrounds. Some providers have a far longer history than universities (many universities were established as recently as the 1980s and 1990s). Although higher education providers are frequently referred to as private providers, some are not for profit. Higher education providers are smaller in scale than universities and are frequently niche, specialist providers of course offerings in one or two fields of education (Norton & Cherastidtham, 2018).

Higher education providers frequently report dissatisfaction with the expertise and output of their Academic Board. This article outlines some approaches taken by Academic Board Chairs to their academic leadership role, ranging from useful and productive to not useful and harmful, and provides advice for Governance Boards which oversight the operations of Academic Boards.

Academic Board Chair role in private providers

The Academic Board Chair is an important academic leadership role in higher education providers, with responsibility for oversighting academic quality assurance, ensuring students achieve course outcomes, and influencing and developing a scholarly academic culture (Tomlinson, 2018). However, chairs are frequently selected from the senior ranks of universities without prior experience of leadership in higher education providers. They may also be influenced by the negative view of ‘private’ higher education portrayed in the media.

New Academic Board Chairs need to reflect on the following questions: Am I able to commit to the goals and aims of this institution? Is there a lack of cultural fit and working alliance which will hinder my effectiveness? What will I be able to contribute in this role?

When senior academics accept an Academic Board Chair role, they need information on the provider’s history, development, culture and strategic goals. The formal culture can be studied through governance and delegation policies, strategic, business and risk management plans and academic policy frameworks. The informal culture takes time to understand and yet is equally important to grasp for the Chair to exercise fruitful academic leadership.

Effective leadership and what to avoid

Academic Board Chairs need to develop an informed approach to academic quality assurance proportionate to the size of the institution, and its staff and student cohorts. The formal culture and meeting procedures of large university Academic Boards that oversee multiple faculties, courses and large student numbers are out of place in a small provider, although standards are the same regardless of the scale of institution.

Academic Board Chairs can exercise leadership by:

·       Encouraging a mindful, whole of institution approach

·       Ensuring quality assurance processes outlined in academic policies are being implemented by the institution

·       Eliciting and taking account of the views of internal and external members in decisions

·       Encouraging academic debate that results in concrete actions and outcomes

·       Acknowledging the expertise of the staff and institution within their discipline(s)

·       Facilitating opportunities for students and alumni to contribute to academic governance.

Academic Board Chairs need to avoid:

·      Negative leadership styles 

·     The Regulator: Chairs who sees their role as acting on behalf of TEQSA

·      The Persecutor: Instilling fear of TEQSA’s ‘forensic’ scrutiny in order to drive change

·       The Pretender: Regarding records of meetings, not the meeting itself, as the desired outcome Internal review of the Academic Board that excludes internal members

 ·       Dominating or restricting discussions in meetings

·       Taking a management role

 Professional development to increase the effectiveness of an Academic Board Chair could include:

  •  Governance training
  • Attending conferences and professional seminars in the discipline of courses offered by the institution
  • Alternative leadership models that are ethical, facilitative and minimise power imbalances

Relationship between the Governance Board and Academic Board

Governance Boards are responsible for ensuring that the Academic Board is:

  • Acting according to its delegation
  • Proportionate for the institution
  • Doing good (beneficence) in its academic leadership
  • Doing no harm for the institution (nonmaleficence).

Best practice for Governance Boards

  • Build a six-month review into the contract with the Academic Board Chair and ensure the contract sets out the role and expectations clearly
  • Set time limits on the Chair appointment, for example two terms of three years. After 10 years, Board members are no longer regarded as independent
  • Ensure the Quality Assurance policy framework includes regular external reviews of the Academic Board, with a focus on:

o  The contribution made by the Chair

o  Decisions and outcomes of Academic Board meetings

o  Senior staff views of the effectiveness of the Academic Board for their institution

o  Recommendations to the Governance Board for improvement in the Academic Board

Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex moral relationship between people based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good (Ciulla, 1998).


Ciulla, J. B. (1998). Ethics: The heart of leadership. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Norton, A., & Cherastidtham, I. (2018). Mapping Australian higher education 2018.Grattan Institute. Retrieved from https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/907-Mapping-Australian-higher-education-2018.pdf

Shah, M., & Lewis, I. (2010). The rise of higher education in Australia: Growth, quality and standards. Journal of Institutional Research South East Asia, 8(2), 80-95.

TEQSA. (2017). Guidance Note: Academic Governance. Australian Government. Retrieved from https://www.teqsa.gov.au/latest-news/publications/guidance-note-academic-governance

Tomlinson, M. (2018). With respect it’s clear governance is the key. The Australian: Higher Education. 4 December.


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