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Delivering on EDI: the critical governance role

18 Nov 2020 | Victoria Holbrook shares a summary of Chatham House roundtable discussion: How should HE boards assure institutional progress on equality, diversity and inclusion?

Advance HE was delighted to host an online Chatham House rules discussion for Chairs and governors of its member higher education institutions. The session formed part of a month of activity for members looking at ‘delivering on EDI: the critical governance role’ and was specifically intended to address the question of  how should the board assure institutional progress on equality, diversity and inclusion?

Following an overview by Advance HE Director Gary Loke of the key EDI challenges in the HE landscape and reflection on the role of the Board fulfilling its assurance function (watch the recording), we heard responses from two Chairs. Elizabeth Passey (Convenor of Court, University of Glasgow) reflected on the fundamental link between a diverse board and the ability to empathise and challenge effectively on EDI matters. John Bateman (Chair of Council, University of Worcester) encouraged Boards to take a structured approach with the Executive to establishing EDI aims and objectives and how these would be monitored.

So what did we learn?

Diverse boards drive diverse thinking

Our attendees recognised wholeheartedly that their ability to function well as Boards – and to deliver on their commitments under the CUC Code as well as to students and society – depends upon the quality of the individuals that make it up and the range of perspectives they bring. While it was noted that progress has been made on the gender balance of boards, there is a long way to go to ensure that boards truly benefit from the range of talent and lived experience that exists in society which will lead to necessary new thinking, deliberation and action. In particular, we noted the lack of diversity with regard to race, disability and socio-economic status. If the sector is to make faster, meaningful progress to address the issues it faces – student degree awarding gaps or diverse staff pipelines for example – then diverse, even disruptive, thinking is needed on Boards. Of equal importance is a culture of openness, honest dialogue and challenge which allows such voices to be heard and all board members to ‘belong’ and be included.

Attempts to engage alumni, Board Apprentice schemes and reaching out via networks were cited as examples used to diversify Boards, yet there was a call for more guidance, sharing of practice (especially with navigating regional or provider type contexts) and collective effort. At the same time however, l, concerted and holistic strategies to diversify board membership and develop inclusive board culture aligned to the institution’s wider EDI strategy were not immediately apparent and attendees felt they should ask further questions about this.

The question of remuneration/compensation for governors was surfaced and recognised as having the potential to enable diversity, especially among younger appointees from all backgrounds, and as a proper reflection of the importance of the role. This is not yet widespread practice in HE but a growing number of boards appear to be actively considering its potential (and any revisions to governing documents required).

Chairs as champions

The majority of our attendees were Chairs. In discussion, the innate power of the Chair was a recurring theme, both as an active champion for the consideration of EDI matters at the board and its own diversity, but crucially in setting the tone for a healthy board environment where challenging topics were given sufficient ‘airtime’ and appropriate consideration, with good evidence.

Examples included:

  • How setting the forward agenda with the executive provided an opportunity to reflect on the time and weight given to EDI matters, especially within strategy.
  • The importance of role-modelling, for example in disclosing any disability or bringing lived experience to the fore.
  • How board members with particular expertise and insight were actively engaged in preparing key strategies, discussions or a deeper dive into difficult issues (but without the board ‘delegating’ these matters to them for assurance purposes
  • Ensuring that the board receives (and deliberates) a range of perspectives to inform its assurance role e.g. student or staff updates, informal briefings/sessions, reverse mentoring and external insights.
  • Recognising that it is not the job of board members with protected characteristics to represent (or seek assurance on behalf of) all those with that characteristic nor to undertake associated ‘emotional labour’ on challenging issues; Chairs can encourage all members to take personal responsibility for considering matters from all angles and perspectives and seek support for the Board in exploring this if necessary.

Assuring for all?

Attendees were challenged to think about whose voices were missing in their assurance about the student and staff experience, in the context of the challenges their institutions are seeking to address. All recognised that more could be done to ensure that diverse voices and lived experiences were seen and heard in order to strengthen the confidence around assurance. This might include by:

  • Receiving regular survey data split by different groups and characteristics to ensure that ‘students’ and ‘staff’ are not treated as homogenous groups
  • The Board hosting informal sessions with staff or student groups as learning about each other’s work.
  • Taking the opportunity through strategy development to seek input from a wider range of perspectives
  • Using the commitments of the OfS Access and Participation Plan (where relevant); the Athena SWAN [charter for gender equality] process; or Race Equality Charter commitments as tools for framing indicative KPIs for progress and continued Board focus on what it takes to deliver culture change.
  • Having a sophisticated and holistic approach to risk which considers it from multiple stakeholder perspectives, linked to the strategy and values of the organisation. Linked to this, the need for audit committees to have confidence in the assurance being provided through other committees such as EDI, health and safety and academic board (or equivalents) as part of its overarching role in risk oversight.

We also reflected on the usefulness of the term ‘BAME’ for the purposes of Board assurance. Does this term – Black, Asian and minority ethic – help or hinder when it comes to understanding the reality of individual and intersecting experiences? It may hide issues in certain groups if used too readily. There also appeared to be a tendency to focus on gender and ‘BAME’ but with limited focus on other areas such as disability, LGBTQ+, socio-economic group. As part of seeking to understand issues, engaging with and seeking input from the full range of student and staff groups, the board should seek assurance that the most helpful terms are being used to reflect the student and staff mix at their institution. Data collected and used (quantitative and qualitative) should not obscure issues for certain groups.

Considering all students and staff consistently and fairly is ultimately what is required to give meaningful assurance on EDI; this means that the board needs to ‘reach in’ to the issues and ‘lean out’ to fill gaps in its knowledge and understanding and test its own assumptions.

For further information and support on the issues raised, Advance HE suggests the following:

Board diversity resources:

The Board's assurance role on EDI resources:

Board development days:

Advance HE bespoke board development days – currently delivered online – are a way of gaining tailored support for whole boards on critical issues, drawing on our expertise and insight from working across higher education (with 360 members in 27 countries) in the areas of governance and leadership, EDI and learning and teaching enhancement. We can offer sessions in the following areas, working with you to develop a programme suit your needs:

  • The Board’s understanding of equality diversity and inclusion issues and its role, including consideration of unconscious bias, privilege, board culture and a how to take a develop a whole-institution strategy to EDI.
  • Understanding the HE regulatory and policy landscape and how institutions navigate this.
  • Strategy and horizon-scanning – insights and/or facilitation
  • Insights into board effectiveness drawing on our extensive work and benchmarking.

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