Outside on the inside: how to include student governors

A student’s time as a governor is often characterised by confusion. A lack of familiarity with processes and paperwork might mean they feel perpetually left behind. But students bring a crucial perspective to the trustee table. What can staff do to ensure that students can comfortably contribute to governing-body work?

Briefings and summaries

Initially, the biggest struggle is administrative: student trustees are often thrown in the deep end and required to read hundreds of pages of paperwork without the prop of institutional memory and without briefings or background. On the administrative side, student trustees could benefit from political and policy briefings from staff, however introductory, and summaries introducing particularly complex papers. This is already established good practice at a number of universities. For example, when I started my year as a trustee at the University of Cambridge, I had a helpful introduction to USS and the pensions conflict from the CFO – I might have struggled to keep up with the ongoing dispute without that first briefing, which put the scheme in the financial context of our university.

Getting to know you

Also, very simply, it’s helpful for staff to invite student trustees to the same lunches and discussions as other trustees, to schedule meetings which are likely to include them, and to provide expenses where appropriate. Administrative and academic staff are jointly responsible for setting the tone in meetings, and making student trustees feel welcome is a great way to ensure that they can comfortably contribute to discussions. University staff and student unions separately prepare to welcome student trustees in various ways. But if staff and students could come together and unpack why governing-body spaces can be scary for students, and conversely, why some governors are wary of student trustees, it might help students settle into their new roles and other governors settle into productive working relationships with them.

Power imbalances

A governing board’s culture is equally important. In a governing body meeting, the power imbalance between a student and a senior academic might make it difficult for a student to have confidence in their opinions. Through acknowledging this power imbalance, regularly inviting students to speak and constructively incorporating their views into discussions, university staff can build positive relationships with student governors. It’s also important for staff to acknowledge that this power imbalance might be intensified if, for example, you’re a woman, black, or identify as working class. In 2016, men chaired 81 per cent of all university governing bodies, and governing bodies are largely older, male and white. Your university might have great training on unconscious bias for new members of staff, but have your senior teams and longstanding members of the governing body been offered equality and diversity courses?

Advance HE has a helpful equality and diversity toolkit for governing bodies, and HESA has started to collect data on the makeup of governing bodies. Advance HE recommends that governing bodies ask themselves how diverse they are in respect of gender, ethnicity, culture and age, interrogate their recruitment processes and consider adopting an equality policy and diversity targets, all of which would benefit student governors.

Open or transparent?

Finally, there’s a well-established difference between transparency and openness, and visibly moving from one to the other might help student governors engage more deeply with university governance. A university might be great at transparency, meaning they understand how to provide people with information when they need it, they regularly release data and they have processes that enable the above. But other universities are getting better at being open, meaning they explain what their data means, and they preempt freedom of information requests with open meetings, or by publishing information that they think might be of interest to students, staff and other stakeholders.

For example, Bournemouth University’s governance page links to a page on transparency which outlines the sorts of information they publish regularly, and how to access other information: “we try to make it easy for you to find out about us and the information we hold about you”. In comparison, other universities have pages titled “information compliance”, which while legally accurate, give a different impression. These universities might be transparent, but, at least rhetorically, “information compliance” sounds reluctant rather than open.

The more transparent and open a university, the easier it is for student governors to understand its procedures, policies and culture, and the easier it is for student governors to translate that information to students. Student governors are a governance portal for students, and they can help make university governance comprehensible and university governors accessible. Universities would benefit from wider internal scrutiny and engagement with governance processes, and student governors can help facilitate that engagement if they understand how it all works.

More concretely, staff could explain to students how reserved business in meetings works, and what sort of business is normally reserved, as well as checking that reserved business is appropriately limited – all of which would help to build trust with student governors. Fundamentally, placing trust in student governors enables them to place trust in their institution, which in turn might mean trickle-down trust – the more believable cousin of trickle-down economics.

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