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An engaged and inclusive sector by 2030 – a governance and leadership three-point plan

27 Nov 2019 | Victoria Holbrook Victoria Holbrook, Advance HE Head of Membership, offers a provocation about governance and leadership.

This is an edited version of a provocation about governance and leadership delivered by Victoria at the recent GuildHE annual conference attended by heads and key staff of their member institutions.

I have just three key points in my plan. My top three of ‘must-dos’ if you like. And I need to say that they are intended to speak to every reader, irrespective of your role or experience. We all have a part to play.

2030 is really not very far away. For context, the OfS has given itself 25 years to eliminate gaps in access and participation. In this challenge given to me by GuildHE, I have just over 10! And as I’ve only got a few lines to capture your attention I’ve kept this simple.

I want to start by sharing my story of the potential bias I bring. I am a white, first-in-family, university-educated, just-about millennial woman from a working-class background that was rich in confidence and aspiration. I recognise that these features of my being imbue my lived experience of the world. It means I have to try hard to see things from others perspectives. Today, I’m also wearing two ‘hats’ – one from the development body Advance HE where as part of my role I lead work on good governance; the other as a governor of a GuildHE institution [Plymouth Marjon University].

Point number 1 – we must play with privilege

So why did I tell you my story earlier? Because not only do I recognise that my background gives me certain privileges, I recognise that others will not have them – either at all or in the same way. This is an issue that we all face. It is hugely important for us in the context of governance and leadership in higher education, but often not fully considered.

We all know what the challenges are - a lack of boardroom diversity, access to higher education by the most disadvantaged, the BAME awarding gap and gender equality to name a few.  So we really must tackle the unspoken privilege that threads itself through our lives, at every level. Actively acknowledge it and consciously question it. And we must prioritise preventing it becoming the ‘single story’ of why things are the way they are.

Let’s ask ourselves some questions, and answer them honestly. How seriously are we really taking privilege and bias at the very highest levels of governance and leadership in our sector? Has your governing body considered the effects this might have on decision-making? Does it have an active, long-term strategy to shift its diversity and skills mix? Does any HR or people strategy expect its senior people to live by the values of inclusive leadership? In short, are we modelling behaviours we want to see? If not, why not?

Point number 2 – we must make better choices

We need to make better choices about how we shape our priorities, how we use our time and how we spend our money to ensure that inclusivity is a reality. I have read and discussed many institutional strategies and most come up short on what is actually needed to create change. Given our 10 year horizon in this exercise, I would argue now is the time to start getting specific.

This requires some bravery. A willingness to listen. To accept new voices being heard and priorities being determined in a distributed model of leadership that dispenses with overt hierarchy. All of these are traits that the leadership literature is already telling us the students of today and tomorrow value most in their leaders.

It also means we need to invest in supporting our staff and students in a meaningful, strategic way. Sustaining activities so that they have longevity and impact. That probably means a properly funded, more coordinated and whole institution approach to tackling issues. Workshops alone can’t solve this, although they have a role to play. Disclaimer – we are always happy to provide you with workshops at Advance HE, but we will always ask you why that is the right approach. They often only tackle part of the story.

Point number 3 – we must build confidence

In this febrile world, where Brexit creates endless division, the climate emergency is still contested and social media reinforces tribes like never before, we [the HE sector] have such an important role to play. We can – and should - treat our communities with kindness and compassion, embrace difference and value diversity like never before. But this requires us to be honest with ourselves about the evidence – or lack of it -  of our starting points and understand the impact we want to have. Then we need to shout about our achievements so there is no doubt about our effort and intentions. Communication is vital.

It also requires governing bodies to think about and question what they receive and why, and how they themselves help tell the story of the institution, and by extension the narrative of higher education – individually and collectively. Transparency and honesty is key to building trust and confidence. And if there was a time when that was needed most, it is now.

As I wrap up it strikes me that I could have given you many more sophisticated words, or crowded slides with graphs and quotes and stats. There are endless ways we could look at this agenda and a host of academic research to draw on. But really, what more evidence do we need? I think we know what we need to do, and I hope I’m preaching to the converted. Real, tangible action. Leading by example. Holding our own sector to account for change, just as much as we challenge others. And making it our own business to deliver change in whatever way we can. This is urgent! The story is already being written.


For more information on Advance HE work to support leadership at all levels, EDI and effective governance please contact your Head of Membership or to discuss how we could work with you through our range of Membership benefits or other support. 


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