Governance. It’s crucial to the education character, leadership and risk management of institutions which can have turnovers of hundreds of millions of pounds. Though it’s a task that may only come around every five to 10 years, the Board appoints the Vice Chancellor and thus absolutely shapes the university.
But how do student governors take up a role on the Board when they are often at the start of their careers? At least, in their own minds they have not yet started their careers, and the Board will be populated with ‘heavyweights’ who will have many years of their careers already behind them, and sometimes have completed an entire working life and have retired? How do they contribute and make their voices heard, when they may clearly have less experience of managing huge capital investment projects, navigating difficult human resources decisions, reading balance sheets, and political and diplomatic negotiations?
First of all, there has to be a will to see student governors at the table, to value their voices and their experiences, and share power with them. Without this mind-set, the other actions to be inclusive will fail. Therefore, understanding why we have student governors is really important, as is understanding what forms unconscious bias against student governors can take (in terms of perception of age, ethnicity, gender, social class and other ways in which student governors can differ demographically from other Board members). We may tend to link power and authority with age, confidence and sometimes with other demographic characteristics too, and we need to be aware of that potential bias and willing to set it aside.
Secondly, there needs to be an understanding of the barriers student governors face and how to operationalise inclusion, including what practical steps to take that go beyond good intentions.
So address the first of these two points: why is it important to have student governors?
Governance by student governors is improved through:
- authenticity and connection with the student experience – Student governors can embody and reflect changing student demographics, needs and aspirations. Other Board members may have experienced different university culture, different challenges and goals; education character needs to be informed by current student perspectives.
- accountability to students - Boards can run the risk of ‘talking to themselves’ too much; the university doesn’t run for the Board’s benefit, it runs to serve its mission, and student experience and achievement is a major part of that mission. Student governors have an important role in holding universities to account for this part of their mission.
- investing in our future via student governors – one of the very features that can make it harder for student governors to fully participate in Board discussions and decisions is in fact exactly why they should do so: they are people whose careers lie ahead of them and thus will be part of the future, in the way governors who have more of their professional life behind them are not.
Secondly, how can we support student governors to contribute fully? Examples of activities that can help include:
- effective and thoughtful induction arrangements
- meetings to introduce governors and set up personal relationships
- overview of agendas and openness about agenda preparation
- pre-meets with Chair to hear insights and agree issues
- finding creative ways to help the Board hear diverse student voices e.g. via videos which allow editing for clarity and force.
The Chair of the Board has an important role in creating space for student governors to speak, reinforcing their comments with questions for clarification, amplifying their contribution through repetition, and signalling the opportunity to speak in a way which reduces the stress, for example, not going first, no surprises. Chairs can also follow up after the meeting with student governors to see how it went, ask what could have been better and to build in improvements meeting to meeting.
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; Ben Vulliamy, CEO, University of York Students' Union 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.
Shân Wareing is Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Northampton and a National Teaching Fellow. She has been in university leadership for over 20 years, in roles that have involved designing and delivering academic staff development, leading digitally enabled whole institution organisational change, converting face-to-face programmes to online distance learning, restructuring IT and HR departments, redesigning policies and practices in assessment, student complaints and timetabling, and developed Education Strategies in five universities. Find out more about Shân