Our television screens are currently alight with the latest batch of business hopefuls fighting it out in the boardroom on The Apprentice.
For those who have never entered a board setting, the impression presented by reality television is that of a corporate battleground where (predominantly white, middle class) individuals speak over and desperately point the finger at one another.
Indeed, this may ring true with many individuals’ experience of serving on a board. In the world of higher education, there is however one particular perspective that is likely to differ from that of any other board member – the student governor.
The student governor(s) is typically (but not always) an elected representative of the SU, usually a recent graduate, several decades junior of the average age of the governing body.
Age does not, however, always equate to experience – and student engagement in governance is a central feature of higher education systems around the world including locally in the UK and Ireland.
That said, anecdotal evidence (including from my own experience as a student governor) indicates that student governors often face additional challenges in overcoming established power dynamics within the boardroom.
Discussions carried out for research that I have undertaken in this area covered a range of topics – including induction and training, moments of empowerment and disempowerment, and what most stood out from their time on governing body.
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the sample reflected those who participated in online meetings, those who participated in in-person meetings and some with experience of both to explore whether the meeting setting had any impact on student perceptions of power.
Do not pass go
One of the key themes that emerged from these conversations was a sense that students fared best in governing body once they had learned to “play the game”. Rarely are student governors taught exactly how to play this game or indeed what the rules are – but many described how, over time, they gradually learned who were most important people within the governing body and what techniques would help their contributions to be noticed and taken on board.
The experience described by many of the research participants suggested that the norms and behaviours expected of governors function like a “hidden curriculum”, which governors are expected to understand without having been taught.
Student governors are much less likely to have prior experience of formal governance settings and are generally less accustomed to the boardroom than their fellow governors. Best practice examples of induction and training cited by student governors helped them to understand the governance structures within their institution and provided useful resources such as glossaries of key terms to support them in adapting to their new role.
Approaches to training and induction, however, appear inconsistent and some student governors were provided only a basic training outlining their legal responsibilities as a trustee with little to no reference to the specific role of a student governor.
Most of the UK participants I interviewed had access to Advance HE’s student governor training programme which received positive feedback – but at an institutional level, there appears to be a gap in familiarising students with the governance structures of the institution.
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know
Student governors thrive when they are able to build strong relationships with their fellow governors. Unsurprisingly, the chair of the governing body was cited as a key relationship for many student governors. Where this relationship was positive, student governors gave examples of how their input was actively sought, was valued and they were offered time outside of meetings on a regular basis.
This was not the experience of all student governors and where this relationship was less established, or negative, students felt like outsiders within the governing body. In one extreme example, a student who accidentally sat in the chair’s seat at their first meeting was given an abrupt dressing down and referred to as “missy”.
Among the other governing body members, students are more likely to develop close relationships with the internal staff governors, many of whom they already work closely with on a day-to-day basis if they are a sabbatical officer. Relationships with the other lay members varies, often dependent on the background of the governor.
Those from the charity and voluntary sector, or those who are alumni of the institution they govern were more likely to understand the role played by student governors whilst students perceived those from corporate backgrounds to be less aware of the student governor role. This suggests that training offered to governors ought to explain the role, and importance, of student governors.
Positive examples of support offered to student governor were largely down to the students proactively seeking this support and were highly dependent on their personal relationships within the institution. There is limited evidence that institution-wide strategies feed into the engagement of students in governing body – and this is a potential weakness given the high turnover of student representatives, and potential for student-institution relationships to fluctuate as new representatives are elected.
Given the importance of relationships for empowering student governors, and given their term limits, formal mentoring between student and lay governors may present an opportunity to better support student governors.
Balancing the power
My research suggested that there are numerous examples of power being manifested within the governing body. Whilst power is physically present through some of the customs of in-person meetings such as fancy lunches and grand boardroom spaces, students largely identified power as being embedded through expectations around governors’ language and meeting conduct.
So whilst power may be manifested differently in in-person and online meetings, there is a need for institutions to interrogate how it affects the engagement of their student governor(s) regardless of how meetings are conducted.
In critically reflecting on their approach to engaging students in governance, institutions may consider:
- how they define the role of a student governor and how this is understood across the governing body,
- how training and support is offered across the lifecycle of a student governor and how they evaluate the effectiveness of this training,
- and how student engagement in governance fits into an institution-wide strategy for student engagement.
Student membership of governing body is a long-established tradition within UK and Irish higher education but one that institutions should not take for granted. Student governors can make just as meaningful impact to institutional governance as their fellow staff and lay governors – but institutions need to recognise their expertise and critically evaluate how they are supported to provide this expertise.
As one of my interviewees reflected:
We’re the largest stakeholders – who best to design the university of tomorrow than the students of today at the table?”