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Empowering student governors

04 Nov 2022 | Ben Vulliamy In this blog, Ben Vulliamy, CEO of the University of York Students' Union, advocates support for student governors to empower them in the Boardroom.

The 2022 Advance HE Governance Conference on 24 November has an agenda which proposes that “it is important to understand how boards govern in the interests of students”. With that in mind, I find myself exploring a few thoughts on the role of the student governor and how education providers can support them to make a real, meaningful and insightful impact within the institution's governance framework. 

While the creation of student governor is increasingly common, the way they are supported, encouraged and empowered has huge variance from one institution to another. Unlike the the fairly standard pathways to become, for example, a finance director, a PVC research or a governor with any other specialism to represent and share within the governance framework, the student governors will have found their way there through very varied pathways. They won’t hold the AAT qualifications, the 10-years’ experience in industry, have been the institutional lead on the REF submission for five years running, or have the life experience the majority of others around the table.  

The student governor’s specialism is a proximity to student experience that is unparalleled by others - their lived experience as a student is deeply current, or at the very least, recent. It is local, and is supplemented by the conversations they have and are having with a wide variety of students and a plurality of student interests’ day-in day-out. Often student governors share that they feel this experience isn't given the same currency or respect as the other governors with 15-years’ experience, two PhDs and first name acquaintances with several currently serving ministers. They walk into the governance framework feeling unequal. 

That feeling, some of it perhaps self-inflicted, is further amplified by material differences that make it harder for them to contribute, participate and govern in the same way as others. They don't have several admin support staff helping them organise their diary, find the legal reference from last year's papers and cross reference the debate against the latest HESA statistics and recruitment data. They don't receive the same remuneration for attending the meeting that other governors might commonly attract. They have a list of Facebook friends involved in their course, their sports clubs, their favourite nightclub and their halls of residence in year one as opposed to a list of peers and wealthy organisational donors. Their feelings of being different are often ingrained because of the material differences in their journey to, and support within, the governance. 

Ultimately, the challenge for the institution is to try to rebalance some of that inequity. I believe they should do that by encouraging them and celebrating their sharing of lived experience, anecdotal evidence and some assumptions based on their personal networks. They should explore how institutions reach out to student voices beyond the board and the individual governor rather than relying on one sole governor's voice. They should be disciplined in avoiding the temptation to label a single student governor being at a table of two dozen people as being ‘extensive consultation’ and instead genuinely reach outside the room to conduct real student consultation and analysis. The desire to create greater equity should cause institutions to ask what training, admin support, coaching and data they offer to the student governor. They should be able to answer the question of what power the institution provides for, recognises and grows within the student governor to redress the power inequity. 

It is not enough to simply invite a student governor to ’be there’; institutions need to consider how they will help them to participate, contribute and govern as an equal if they are to understand how Boards govern in the interests of students. 

Advance HE’s Governance Conference on 24 November will host a panel session exploring both the role of the student governor and the relationship between the Board and the Students' Union.  

I will join the panel along with Janine Braithwaite, Study Support Advisor at the University of West London; Professor Shân Wareing, Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Northampton and Melody Stephen, General Secretary, University of Manchester Students' Union. The panel will be chaired by Miguel Gonzales-Valdes Tejero, Education Officer at the University of Manchester Students' Union and student member of Advance HE’s Governance Strategic Advisory Group. 


Ben Vulliamy recently celebrated 10 years as the Chief Executive at the University of York Students' Union working with elected officers, career and student staff to deliver a range of student venues and events, student support services, one of the largest portfolios of student activities in the UK and a program of representation, campaigning and influencing. Find out more about Ben

Join us at the Governance Conference 2022 - Governing in the interests of students at BMA House, Central London, 24 November 2022. 

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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