As student and staff diversity across higher education increases, often driven by official policy, the need for representation at governance level has become even more important. A diverse range of governors with a variety of opinions, experiences and insights can help avoid group-think and better support the strategic decision-making of universities.
According to Advance HE’s second iteration of the Diversity of Governors in Higher Education 2022 Report, which for the first time includes data on intersectionality and compares board diversity with data about academic staff -- progress across the piece is slow.
Its analysis of HESA records for 2018-19 to 2020-21 shows a slowing down of the recruitment of women, for instance, with an increased of just 0.2 per cent to 42.4 per cent over the period. Of the 202 institutions in the 2020-21 HESA return, 38 per cent have parity across sex. Smaller governing bodies, typically at small and specialist institutions, were significantly less mixed, with women poorly represented on governing bodies despite making up the majority of academic staff.
Representation of Black, Asian or other minority ethnic groups has increased slightly over the past three years: governors from a White ethnic group fell from 90.9 per cent in 2018/19 to 87.8 per cent in 2020/21. However, a quarter of institutions had no governors from minority ethnic communities on their board despite, on average, 11.6 per cent of their academic staff coming from minority ethnic groups.
Conversely, nearly two-fifths (39 per cent) of institutions had a higher proportion of minority ethnic governors than amongst the body of academic staff. Interestingly, women from Black ethnic groups were twice as likely as men from Black ethnic groups to be governors.
The proportion of governors who disclosed a disability rose slightly from 5.4 per cent in 2018-19 to 5.8 per cent in 2020-21. Underrepresentation of international staff was apparent, with a third of boards having no members from this group.
The Advance HE analysis also found that age profiles are skewed. More than half of governors were aged 56 or over and this was the least diverse of the age brackets. Whilst governors aged 25 were most likely to be student governors, they constituted over a fifth of governors who disclosed a disability and 16.7 per cent of governors from two or more intersecting minority groups.
Improving diversity on governing bodies has become a recent priority at some universities. At one specialist institution in London, a change of chair has kick-started a proactive drive for a better mix.
“One of the first things she did was a skills audit of the board and then when we looked around the table we very quickly said ‘we need more diversity on our board,” explains a governor at the institution. “Our five year plan has made diversifying our student population a core objective and diversifying the board is a very important step in that direction. Prospective students have to look at the whole organisation and see themselves represented.”
The institution is working with a recruitment agency to improve representation in terms of sex, LGBTQ, Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic, disability and socio-economic demographics. Current governors have undertaken training on appointing and maintaining a diverse board and the university has reviewed how and where it presents board vacancies and how the job spec is written. It has also increased the size of the board.
“We are a small institution and staff are stretched thinly. As a result we are a very active board and everyone plays an active role in the institution,” said the governor. “We hoped increasing our number might strike a balance between bringing in those skills that are essential but also having members that can bring new voices and representation.”
Her comments sum up a common conundrum – that very specific, skills-oriented recruitment can exclude candidates from diverse backgrounds with value to add, particularly younger people who have less employment experience.
“It’s not just about skills it is about voices,” said one governor. “Even if they don’t fulfil a particular hole in our skills audit, that person might still be a very valuable voice on the board.”
Even institutions which are actively trying to recruit diverse governors can find that the pool of candidates is still quite narrow.
“We interviewed candidates who fit the brief we gave ourselves but they weren’t appointed because at the same time as we were looking for diversity, we were looking to fill the skills gaps and they didn’t meet those requirements,” said a governing board member. “It is very hard to marry those things and turn away somebody who has exactly the high level, scarce skills we need but is not diverse.”
For one governor, appointing to the board without that focus on skills can risk new members feeling redundant and tokenistic. Appointing in twos and threes can help new recruits feel more comfortable, she added.
At a new university in the Midlands, the introduction of online meetings during the pandemic has allowed the university to cast its net much wider in the search for governors.
A governor at the university said: “When I started in 2017, the board was all-white. I wasn’t that young but I was the youngest, bar the student representatives, and I was the only member based in London. But with the use of zoom meetings, we’ve been able to recruit from outside the area and from a more diverse pool. We are an inclusive university and always ensure we have disability represented on the board. Meetings on zoom can potentially help here too.”
For this governor, the use of social media in spreading the word about board vacancies has also had a big impact. When too few women were found to be applying, the university produced videos to post on social media of four women currently on the board promoting the role and talking about its benefits.
The governor of a new university in the South of England with about 16 people on its board, an equal gender split and about 25 per cent ethnic minority representation, said that while diversity was an aim, boards might want to consider what diversity is a proxy for. In this governor’s experience, issues of race, ethnicity and gender rarely impacted on the general work of the board.
“I can only remember one area of discussion where ethnicity, for instance, has come in to play and that was around the Prevent duty.”
He made the point that diversity of socio economic background was often lacking on boards and that the presence of non-white governors did not necessarily remedy this.
A similar point was made by another governor: “A white, working class male might not tick any diversity boxes in terms of protected characteristics but could bring an important voice to the table, particularly given the underrepresentation in higher education of this group and the challenges of the levelling up agenda,” she said.
Governors see student representation on boards as particularly important and are aware that the diversity of governing bodies is, to some extent, dependent on their presence within it.
The governor of a Russell Group university commented that student governors served a short time on boards because of the one-year tenure of students’ union officers and were just beginning to master governance issues when they moved on. The Education Act 1994 limits students’ union sabbatical officers to holding their post for a maximum of two years.
“If student governors could be signed up for, say, a three-year period, I think it would make a difference,” he said.
However the governor at a new university said each change of student governor brought a new energy.
“There seems to be a seamless handover when they change over, so perhaps there is preparation behind the scenes,” she said. “We have three student governors and they are fantastic. They are really engaged, don’t feel intimidated and are often the first to speak up. The board wouldn’t work without them.”
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