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Advance HE Governance Conference 2022 - Governing in the interests of students

In the first Advance HE governance conference to be held in person since 2019, keynote speakers and panel discussions offered multiple perspectives on how boards can ensure that the interests of students are at the heart of governance decisions. Themes included the use of data in board governance and its quality and limitation, recruiting and supporting student governors, working with student unions and ensuring free speech on campus.

At a glance – some of the headlines, points of view and ideas shared by speakers and delegates:

  • The Council of University Chair’s (CUC) core principles of HE governance are a “good starting point” for any governing board: integrity, transparency, accountability, honesty, freedom of speech and academic freedom
  • Governors are not in place to be involved in operational decisions; the principle of ‘noses in, fingers out’ (sic) should apply. Governors should feel confident to constructively challenge the vice-chancellor (VC) and senior executive team; that said, good governing board does not operate without constructive tension and disagreement
  • It is the responsibility of governors to make sure VC pay is proportionate and reasonable
  • The volunteer governor model is not sustainable. It can result in over recruitment a narrow demographic – often ‘older white businessmen’, and diversity – widely accepted as vital to a board’s success – is unlikely to improve substantially until governors are paid
  • The frequency with which governing bodies are presented with data on academic assurance and/or the student experience and discuss the quality of that data varies across institutions. It can be helpful to have an annual data plan. Governing bodies need to think about data more dynamically and understand cause and effect, limitations and nuances. Context is critical. There should be greater opportunity to see and discuss ‘warm data’, which integrates context into data collection and analysis
  • The board’s strategic oversight should include student complaints. Governors should also have the opportunity to see responses to the free text elements of the National Student Survey (NSS) and other surveys, which can paint illuminating pictures. In the most recent Advance HE/HEPI student experience survey open comments section, many students raised concerns about strike action and workloads
  • Data needs to be distilled for governors and the executive because levels of expertise vary. Away-days which give dedicated time to understanding the data and reviewing action plans in light of it can be helpful
  • Concerns were raised about moving from the data and analysis into concrete actions. Telling a story and putting a narrative on the data is useful. Governors need to ask ‘who needs to be in the room’ to move from data to action and to ensure accountability so that plans are not left to sit on shelves
  • It is vital that governors have opportunities to hear the student voice. Student governors have the capacity to present the less statistics-based elements of the student experience and to bring another perspective
  • There is a risk that student representatives are ‘not being engaged on an equal footing’ which can lead to the perception that they are not part of driving decisions. On the other hand, student governors need to be prepared to present the evidence for the case they are making
  • The age and diversity profile of governing boards is improved by student governors but they should not be left to do the ‘heavy lifting’ on diversity
  • To be effective, student governors need good quality induction and ongoing support. Boards might wish to explore how to make papers and reports more accessible. The chair has an important role in making sure student governors are not marginalised
  • Governors are often as visible as they might be the student body. There are clear benefits of more visibility and connection between boards and the student union. Chairs might consider meeting with student governors regularly and in a variety of settings, not just formal meeting rooms
  • Boards can bring their own biases to bear, which can prevent them from hearing the authority in the student voice. Listening to students can be hard but governors would be well-advised to overcome doubts. Unconscious bias training can be helpful
  • A system of signalling when people can speak in meetings can avoid confusion and the tendencies for some voices to dominate. Give student governors an overview of agendas before the meeting to allow them to prepare or arrange a pre-meeting with the chair. Mentoring or coaching of new board members can be effective
  • One student governor who spoke at the conference described being “dejected” at what the board spent time talking about and of trying to steer the subject back to the student experience. The governor said she felt “heard but not listened to” and that many of the points she raised were “explained away”. She was aware of the power imbalance and warned that boards needed to make concessions
  • To ensure a pipeline of student governors, universities could ‘headhunt’ prospective candidates, not just sabbatical officers. The university should reach out across subjects and demographics to recruit to the board and consider using academic staff to “spot potential”
  • Some governors questioned the evidence base for the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill and said that many universities already had comprehensive freedom of speech policies
  • More needs to be done to ensure “university governance understands where freedom of speech sits in the hierarch of rights”. There is an assumption that the Equality Act limits freedom of speech but this is based on a misunderstanding of the Act. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has made clear that debating issues of public interest and academic interest is extremely unlikely to constitute harassment of any individual

Implications for governance:

How to operate effectively and in the interests of students is rightly a major preoccupation of governing boards.

Data is central to that mission and a key role of governors is to seek assurance that the data they are receiving enables them to hold their institution to account. Responses from governors during the conference revealed that the presentation of data and opportunities to discuss the findings varied across institutions, as did governors’ confidence in assessing academic assurance data.

The take-home message was that boards would be prudent to question what data they are getting and its quality. They should consider going beyond existing datasets and explore key themes and should be aided in this by the provision of expert analysis alongside the metrics.

One speaker pointed out that the data on continuation, completion and progression (CCP) that is required for evidencing new conditions of registration, is not always reflective of the current cohort. Taking an example of technology courses from her institution, she highlighted the context behind the CCP data, showing that students on the course are mostly male, more mature and Black Asian Minority Ethnic. Understanding the profile of students and the impact of external factors on some groups, such as cost of living concerns, was an important part of governors having the fuller picture.

At some institutions, the use of predictive analytics is being explored; identifying students who are more at risk of lapsing and the points in the student cycle when that is more likely to happen, such as their first module failure. Such metrics can feed into risk registers and provide evidence to support more resources for preventative action.

Delegates heard that student governors provide a vital student perspective to the board but the role is not always an easy one; becoming a fully functioning member can present many challenges to the individual and to the board. The tone is set by the board culture, which to some degree is dictated by the VC and the chair. There must be respect for the contribution made by both independent members and student governors.

One student representative was concerned about the amount of time spent in board meetings discussing topics that ‘seemed’ less focused on the student experience. She advised that boards should note what student governors “were silent about and what they were loud about”.

The quality of the induction for new members was important. Ongoing support also needs to be made available to ensure students feel comfortable in this unfamiliar world.  

Understanding the terminology and the different language used in governance can be a challenge, according to student governors. They also highlighted feelings of “imposter syndrome” and questioned whether they were “worthy to be in the room”. Various measures were outlined to combat this, such as mentoring and pre-meeting chats with chairs. It was suggested that lay governors may be able to better connect with student governors because of their independent status and a perception that they were less likely to have an agenda.

Diversity on boards is improving but progress is slow, the conference heard. The presence of student governors helps but should not be depended on as the sole mechanism to deliver diversity. Only recruiting student governors from sabbatical officers can limit representation; boards should hear from a plurality of voices. At one institution, a recent initiative involved putting together a vox pop video of students talking about their experiences which were shown to governors.

Universities are increasingly providing more opportunities for governors to meet a wider range of students more informally. Working more closely with student unions on this was recommended. These links were welcomed not only for student voice reasons but also because “leadership should be visible”.

Universities have a long track record of championing free speech, rigorous debate and academic freedom. While the obligations around protecting and upholding freedom of speech and fostering good relations between different groups can sometimes seem to compete, delegates heard that existing laws and guidance made clear that one need not undermine the other.

It was suggested that all elements of governance needed to understand the law more clearly to avoid “walking into controversy” and that fostering an open and curious culture within the board and across the institution could reduce tensions.

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