University governance is changing – but simplistic “representation” is not the answer

The executive secretary of the Committee of University Chairs, John Rushforth, responds to claims that university governance is “cliquish” and “intimidating”

John Rushforth is the Executive Secretary of the Committee of University Chairs.

It’s always interesting to read research into UK HE governance – the diversity of institutions makes it a rich environment to explore interesting issues.

So something that promises an exploration of cultures of governance was something I would want to read. Yet CBDU/Steven Jones’ University Governance: Views from the inside is a limited piece.

There are likely more than 3,000 HE governors in the UK – so interviewing 47, the majority of which are students or staff members, will not give a representative picture (and to be fair, it doesn’t claim to be.)

However, some of the statements made will ring true at some institutions.

A mixed picture

The report points out that many governors “strive to provide the very best strategic oversight they can for their institution” and deem it an honour “to contribute to the governance of the higher education sector.” It then lists various deficiencies, implying that these are widespread across the sector.

For example, the report suggests that the route by which lay governors were recruited is not democratic or clear.

The report recognises that there are nominations committees but cites a perception that these are tokenistic groups that predominantly use the “tap on the shoulder approach”.

Having worked with CUC members for ten years and been lucky to have carried out over a dozen governance reviews, I argue that this area has changed. Current practice is geared to the skills needed to make effective decisions rather than winning popularity contests – the great majority of nominations committees that I have seen have explicit skills matrices which they use to identify gaps in expertise; they then use these frequently to brief recruitment consultants to fill those skills gaps.

It’s also worth pointing out that the skills required these days are not just financial and corporate, although they have their place, alongside a good knowledge of government, charities and public affairs.

Recruiting for complexity

Universities are complex organisations, and we need various skills to run them. The stereotype of male businesspeople does not reflect what we see at CUC because when we analysed the expertise of its members and the areas listed above, we found those with the following areas of experience:

  • Higher Education
  • Health Sector
  • Legal
  • Audit
  • International Business
  • Research
  • Brand Management
  • Management Consultancy
  • Local Authority
  • Digital Entrepreneurship
  • Marketing and communications
  • Public relations
  • Human Resources
  • Fundraising
  • Information Technology
  • Secondary Education
  • Risk Management

The report then goes on to criticise the lack of diversity in the governing bodies, ignoring:

  • The improvements in gender representation. When I started with CUC, there were very few women Chairs – currently, it’s just over 40 per cent – more to be done, of course, but there is real improvement.
  • The efforts that institutions are making. I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked about ways of improving diversity – the issue tends not to be lack of desire but the difficulty in attracting applicants, so increasingly, institutions are experimenting with Board apprenticeship schemes, giving clear instructions to recruitment consultants and using advisory groups as stepping stones. We also now have a few Chairs from an ethnic background – ten years ago we had one.

The report makes some points that will resonate at some institutions about the difficult role of student governors and how intimidating it can be. Again, the research has ignored institutions’ efforts to develop these areas of practice – since I have seen institutions experiment with mentoring, student fora and disadvantaged students talking in groups about their lived experiences.

There is also a growing move to use reverse mentoring schemes to improve understanding of diverse needs.

Induction and financialisation

The report then criticises induction – saying it is designed to emphasise compliance, not the need to upset established hierarchies and represents an attempt to suppress meaningful challenge. Well, most universities are charities, and yes, they are regulated. There are legal requirements imposed on them. Trustees have personal legal responsibilities, and it seems only fair to ensure they understand these.

The report also questions the “financialisation of governance activity” because of a feeling that business issues are beginning to take precedence over educational matters. We are in a financial crisis, with a broken funding model, inadequate student support and rising costs. In those circumstances, not talking about financial issues and the impact of the economic environment would be a dereliction of their duty as a trustee. At the same time, chairs want to discuss more than just the finances.

For example, CUC provides well-attended sessions on Graduate Apprenticeships, Harassment and the Diverse Needs of Future Students, which I know then get picked up and prompt debate back at the institution.

The report suggests that cultures need to change, and that a new approach to governance might seek to rebuild bridges with local groups and advocate for staff and students when appropriate:

“Representation in governance offers an obvious first step towards refreshing culture.

But “representation” is not an option whilst institutions are charities – the duties of trustees are clear to act in the institution’s best interests and not any particular group. And it is worth pointing out that the 2020 research carried out by Advance HE, based on 296 respondents, showed a 93 per cent positive response to questions about governing body commitment to organisational vision, culture and values, and working relationships and behaviour.

So, I do not see that we have to start a shift towards democratic structures that prioritise the interests of staff or students over the public interest (which would include the taxpayer interest) and the legal requirements imposed on charities that also trade. Universities are responsibly run by people who try to balance their different priorities and challenges while prioritising (rightly) the public interest because they are responsible trustees and care about their institution.

I think the challenge for all of us is to recognise the talent we have on our boards and work out how best the executive teams work in partnership with them and encourage all of the board, whether they be lay, student or staff, to engage in these critical strategic debates that will affect the long the future of the sector.

This response represents the author’s personal views rather than those of the Committee of University Chairs.

4 responses to “University governance is changing – but simplistic “representation” is not the answer

  1. The article implies a tension between “representation” and “acting in the charity’s best interests”. This would be the case were stakeholders to join the board purely with a view to “fighting their corner”.

    But if, instead, we see “representation” as a means to add key stakeholder perspectives and experiences to the board, does it not in fact go hand in hand with “acting in the charity’s best interests”, rather than being in tension with it?

    1. I agree that the claimed tension between ‘representation’ and ‘acting in the charity’s best interests’ is dubious, Tom. Representation needn’t mean self-advocacy, nor does a move to greater governing body democracy mean undermining the public/taxpayer interest. What democracy means in this context is that all governors’ views are valued equally, that agenda-setting and other board processes are a collaborative process, and that decisions aren’t taken away from the main board.

      In a similar vein, it’s revealing that the piece above praises the ‘explicit skills matrices’ that are used by Chairs to brief recruitment consultants. Many of the CDBU interviewees regarded these matrices as part of the problem because they disproportionately reflected the perceptions (and professional backgrounds) of those at the top of board hierarchies.

  2. “But “representation” is not an option whilst institutions are charities – the duties of trustees are clear to act in the institution’s best interests and not any particular group.”

    As Tom and Steve point out, this is a very blinkered view of the purpose of representation. Staff would provide a valuable perspective to governing bodies, and are capable of acting in the best interests of the institution. The idea that I, as a staff member, am incapable of acting in the best interests of the institution is insulting.

    It should also be noted that there are already staff-elected members at many institutions; so it quite clearly IS an option. I suspect that many governing bodies don’t exercise this option because they prefer the coziness of the current power hierarchy.

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