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First ever report into the diversity of HE governors in the UK published by Advance HE

07 Oct 2020 | Dr Natasha Codiroli Mcmaster Report author Dr Natasha Codiroli Mcmaster reveals insights from Advance HE’s analysis of HESA data looking at the diversity characteristics of governors in UK higher education.

Governors play a vital role in the oversight of HE management and strategic direction. However, until recently very little was known about the characteristics of governors in the HE sector. Advance HE has published the first ever report detailing analysis of the equality characteristics of UK HEI governors, Diversity of governors in higher education

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) collects data about staff members’ equality characteristics, including age, disability status, ethnicity, and gender, along with their contract type and institutional characteristics. Recently, HESA have enhanced their staff record through the inclusion of details about governing board members.

Findings from the Advance HE analysis of this data revealed that:

  • Just 41.9% of governing board members were women, compared to 54.6% of staff members overall.
  • Around nine in ten governors were white (89.2%), 5.3% were Asian and 2.6% were Black.
  • 5.4% HE governors were disabled, and a long-standing illness or health condition was the most commonly reported impairment among disabled governing board members.
  • In general, the age profile of governors was higher than for staff overall, but a higher proportion of governors were age 25 and under (reflecting the inclusion of student members on the majority of HEI boards).
  • A higher proportion of HE governors were UK nationals compared to staff overall (93.2% compared to 79.0%), and nearly 1 in 5 BAME governors (18.9%) where non-UK nationals.
  • A fifth (21.7%) of boards had 50% women members or more. In over two in five, 41.6%, women made up fewer than 40% of governors.
  • A fifth (21.1%) of governing boards had no BAME members, and over a third (35.6%) of boards had no disabled members


Proportions of UK HEI governors, and all HEI staff, who are male or female

Proportions of UK HEI governors, and all HEI staff, who are male or female.

Governors from traditionally underrepresented groups in leadership roles in HE tended to have a younger age profile. Higher proportions of women, BAME governors, and disabled governors were aged 25 or under compared to their male, white and non-disabled colleagues. HESA data did not include information about the role of each governor, but this indicates that many of these governors are student members, who provide an important voice to discussions but have shorter terms and potentially less power to influence major discussions.

Percent of governors who are 25 years old or under, by gender, disability status and ethnicity

Percent of governors who are 25 years old or under, by gender, disability status and ethnicity

Another trend observed was that governors from traditionally underrepresented groups are also more likely to be from another underrepresented group. Thus, while it may appear that the overall diversity of each equality characteristic is increasing, the data shows that this was driven by the inclusion of a number of individuals from multiple underrepresented groups. These members hold the additional responsibility of representing voices of multiple groups of traditionally underrepresented groups of people.


It is clear there is a long way to go until UK HE governing boards reflect their students, staff and the population as a whole. Ensuring that boards become more diverse is important for a range of reasons, not least to ensure that different perspectives are available to contribute to the scrutiny and decision-making, but also to the way they are perceived by staff, students and stakeholders.

"More needs to be done to ensure that diversity and inclusion is actively promoted within HE governing boards, and that meaningful steps are taken to ensure that they represent the staff and students they have a duty towards."

Andy Shenstone, Director of Business Development and Delivery at Advance HE

Read Diversity of governors in higher education

Dr Natasha Codiroli Mcmaster is a researcher at Advance HE and author of Diversity of governors in higher education.

Our Connect Benefit Series runs throughout the membership year, focusing on specific themes each month. The series comprises outputs including webinars, publications and blogs. The series is open to all colleagues at Advance HE member institutions.

October’s theme is entitled ‘Delivering on EDI: the critical governance role’ and includes:

  • Diversity of HE Governing Bodies in the UK Report
  • Chatham House Round Table - 22 October
  • Governance Good Practice Grants

Find out more here.

Transforming Governance for a new normal

The virtual governance conference took place on 20 November 2020.

Keynotes, Q&A and discussion:

  • Diversity and inclusivity: The governance imperative Lord Simon Woolley CBE, Director and co-founder of Operation Black Vote
  • Devising new strategies that will be resilient in a time of prolonged and unprecedented turbulence Professor Eunice Simmons, VC, University of Chester
  • The revised Governance Code John Rushforth, Executive Secretary, CUC
  • Key reflection and a look ahead Pre-recorded interview. Nicola Owen, DCE Operations, Lancaster University and Chair AHUA

Panel session:

The role of governance in a new normal: Establishing a new paradigm for governance in an era where Covid never goes away with Michael Queen, Chair, CUC and Chair, University of Sussex, Professor Steve West VC, University of the West of England, Bristol and Martha Longdon, Chair, OfS Student Panel, and chaired by with Andy Shenstone, Director of Business Development, Advance HE


Embedding diversity with guests including Robiu Salisu, Student Inclusion Officer and Member of Courts, University of Bristol and Monica Chadha, VC, Queen Mary University of London

Governance across borders – what can we learn from the nations? with guests including Janet Le Grand QC (Hon), Senior Lay Member of Court, University of Edinburgh, Emyr Roberts, Chair Aberystwyth University Council

The launch of a new governance effectiveness framework and toolkit. Andy Shenstone and Victoria Holbrook, both Advance HE, and Matthew Andrews, University Secretary and Registrar, University of Gloucester

Find out more about our services and support for equality, diversity and inclusion.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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