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Inclusion and diversity is critical to good decision making and governing well

03 Jun 2021 | Advance HE Advance HE’s Assistant Director, Governance, Victoria Holbrook spoke alongside board members from the HE sector and beyond at GuildHE’s Spring Conference to discuss inclusive governance and board culture for the future.

Advance HE’s Victoria Holbrook took part in a ‘Governance fit for the future – inclusive governance and board culture’ panel session at GuildHE’s Spring Conference 2021, where she and the panel discussed how boards can learn lessons from the global pandemic to improve board diversity and develop inclusive cultures, where the focus is truly on all stakeholders.

Alongside Monisha Shah, Chair of Rose Bruford and board member of the OfS; Monica Chadha, former Vice Chair of Queen Mary, University of London and Amanda Clack, Chair of the Board at University College of Estate Management (UCEM), Victoria discussed her thoughts on the future of governance and its role in ensuring an inclusive culture and real progress in equality and diversity in institutions, from Board to the student body.

She said: “We want to help the sector make a step change when it comes to inclusive governance. We know from our work there is a real lack of confidence when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion matters, we must collectively address that and ensure that inclusion is fostered throughout our institutions.  

“There will continue to be turbulent times in HE, from the post-pandemic policy landscape and funding settlement, ongoing student education needs on or off campus, staff wellbeing and the impact we want to have on our communities and stakeholders. Do we need a reality check about the level of engagement required between boards and executives to govern well?

“Is 4-5 meetings a year simply enough? What other ways of bringing the Board closer to the actual work of the institution can we foster? It’s not about getting involved in the detail – the governance/management boundary is important - but it is about having the space to build genuine understanding and be assured on all the many fronts we need to be.”

Victoria also touched on the relationship between board and executives necessary to develop a more joined up culture, as well as the relationship between boards and the student body.

“The student experience and academic outcomes is an area where boards tell us repeatedly they feel less confident. The lived experience of the average board member is so far removed from the reality of life as a student, especially one studying now. We need to think creatively about how the board gets a better understanding of lived experiences throughout their institution, and to think about how to make that work in a ‘blended’ campus/online environment to our advantage.”

The theme of stakeholder value in governance was one that all the speakers spoke about, saying that post-pandemic, institutions need to articulate their wider societal value better.

Monisha Shah said: “It isn't enough to have a single purpose; HE has to support wider societal issues. Every stakeholder group is critical for institutions to function well. In HE the responsibility of boards has always been more complex than simply returning money to shareholders.

“Institutions are going to have to continue to deliver for a more diverse range of stakeholders. Inclusion and diversity is going to become really critical for good decision making and I have no doubt that we will see capital and talent move to institutions that demonstrate long term value to a wide range of stakeholders.”

Monica Chadha expressed similar sentiments on ‘stakeholder primacy’, saying that the change is coming, regardless of what institutions do.

“Disrupt or be disrupted. We can decide if we want to go the extra mile towards stakeholder primacy, or we can allow the regulators to do it for us.”

She also said that without diversity, innovation is impossible. As Advance HE research shows higher education boards are a long way from reflecting the diversity we see in modern society, with 41% of board members being female compared to 54% of HE staff in general, and worse disparities when it comes to ethnic minority representation.

“Boards and chairs need to be constantly looking for talent. Inclusiveness is the new currency. Woe betide the board that doesn’t think about it. The biggest challenge for a CEO or VC is to create growth. In order to grow you need to innovate, and to innovate you need diversity.”

Monica also made a plea for Boards to pay greater attention to matters of people – really listening to feedback, diverse voices and staff experiences and paying attention to data that goes beyond an annual survey.

Amanda Clack concurred with the need for diversity at board level, and said that this is not just about the protected or physical characteristics, but that diversity of thought is also required for progress.

“Real estate and construction are among the worst sectors for gender and race equality. However, we know that when we start to focus on EDI it really has an effect. Those companies outperform those that don't.”

She also referenced the recent Advance HE report looking at the diversity of boards in higher education, saying that until then there was very little transparency when it came to the diversity of board members and that this report now sets the baseline.

She said: “As a result, very little was known about the identity of governors in HE until recently. We've made this a priority for us, at UCEM, to continue to lead the way on board diversity and inclusion, which is why last month we are delighted to have become members of the 30% Club, with a 50:50 gender split on our Trustee Board and 75% female Executive and 55.4% female workforce.”

Amanda described the steps UCEM is taking to introduce a new Board role – Student Apprentice – to supplement that of the Student Trustees, enhance the Board’s understanding of the student experience and to provide a pathway development opportunity for emerging Board talent.

Victoria closed her session with a thank you, to all those who have worked so hard through the challenges of the last 18 months.

“I want to say a big thank you and well done to all those who support governance, the leaders and the governors themselves. This last year has been a slog, but we have learned a lot. We are creative, resilient and passionate about doing our best for HE. We absolutely can and should build on the best of that experience in how we take our governance forward.”

Advance HE Governance Professionals Programme 2021

We will consider this topic and explore:

  • the need to balance the senior executives’ own thinking with that of all other stakeholders and how that is a conscious juggle for Boards.
  • understanding the needs, interests and expectations (NIEs) of future stakeholders e.g. future students, their families and employers,
  • how universities can have systematic and robust approaches to hearing all of the voices, recognising the risks that ‘corridor conversations’ become the ‘one voice’,
  • finding more creative ways of listening to avoid survey fatigue among stakeholders and to ensure diversity and inclusivity in what you hear.
Governance Professionals in HE is now open for bookings. 

Core session one: 15 June 2021

Core session two: 2 July 2021


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