Skip to main content

Governing body diversity

02 Oct 2020 | Victoria Holbrook As part of our Member benefit theme for October, ‘Diversity and inclusion – the critical governance role’, we ask: Does our governing body consist of people with a diverse range of characteristics and perspectives to enable us to challenge matters in the round, take sound decisions, innovate and test new strategic thinking?

The following blog is an outtake from our recent paper Governing well with and beyond COVID-19 - Governance briefing 2020-21, by Victoria Holbrook, Assistant Director, Governance and a UK university board member. Governors and staff at any of our member institutions can download the full document as part of their membership package.

We know that diversity and inclusion have been ongoing challenges for higher education institutions – as outlined in our recent member benefit report Understanding Governance Performance and Future Challenges in Higher Education. And the issues are illustrated here in our member benefit briefing: Governing well with and beyond COVID-19: Governance briefing 2020-21

The evidence shows us that while progress has continued to be made with more appointments of those who identify as female, progress with appointing people of colour remains slow. There is also very limited data on those appointed with a disability or other protected characteristics indicating this proportion of the governor population is very small indeed.

It is important to note, however, that we are not simply striving for numbers to fill places. This is about ensuring that our governance structures reflect modern society with its richness of lived experiences and talent, in order for us to deliver our missions with conviction and authenticity and navigate our position in the world.

Many, if not all, of our members have issues to address such as widening participation of students from different groups; ensuring fair degree outcomes; addressing pay gaps; supporting pipelines of diverse teaching and research talent; connecting with and serving their wider communities. Boards need to be equipped with the range of perspectives to navigate and challenge on these issues to support progress being made. As a governor, it is appropriate to ask how the board will be strengthened in this regard and how members will be supported to build their confidence and capability to challenge on these matters appropriately.

The HE Code of Governance draws particular attention to this in its Six Primary Elements of Higher Education Governance, with number four being Equality, inclusivity and diversity. It states:

“The governing body promotes a positive culture which supports ethical behaviour, equality, inclusivity and diversity across the institution, including in the governing body’s own operation and composition. This includes ensuring under-representation and differences in outcomes are challenged and, where practicable, corrective action is taken to ensure fair outcomes for all”

It goes on to say (on page 16), that ‘governing bodies need to review and report on the institution’s approach to equality, inclusivity and diversity…’ (4.3) and that ‘the governing body must routinely reflect on its own composition and consider ways it can encourage diversity in all its forms, thus leading by example’ (4.4)

Actions you/your board could take include:

  • Setting and reviewing progress against KPIs for equality within strategic plans, e.g. retention of male students, degree attainment of black, minority and ethnic (BME) students, number and proportion of female professors.
  • Receiving up-to-date Equality & Diversity data, with annual or six-monthly reviews. Challenging the institution on areas of under-representation or inequity of outcome for equality groups.
  • Working with the equality committee or equivalent group, ensuring an effective link and flow of information between the group and the governing body, and that information received is actively considered by the governing body.
  • Use equality impact assessment as a tool for ensuring equality is considered in decision-making, development of strategy, planning and practice. This is obligatory in Scotland and Wales.
  • Interrogating the executive team about reports on EDI received by the governing body – looking for evidence of progress and compliance.
  • Increasing your knowledge of E&D to enable you to question, challenge and hold the executive to account, e.g. through induction and ongoing training/development, inviting equality staff to present to governing body.
  • Consulting with the Student Union.
  • Better understanding how the organisation’s values embrace diversity and inclusion and reflect behaviours from student to board.

Advance HE members can read the full briefing here.

Your October Member Benefits 

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 2020’s theme was entitled ‘Delivering on EDI: the critical governance role’ and included:

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

Find out more here.


Find out more about the Advance HE Governance Conference 2021: Evolving Governance fit for our futures taking place on 18 November 2021.

Find out more

And further reading is available here:

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.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter