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Striving for Diversity of Leadership: Governance in Higher Education Institutions

22 Apr 2022 | Dr Adeela ahmed Shafi MBE Findings of the research that underpinned the HE Board Diversity Toolkit presented at CIES, Minneapolis.

Earlier this week, Dr Adeela ahmed Shafi MBE, Associate Professor in Education (University of Gloucestershire) presented her paper, Striving for Diversity of Leadership: Governance in Higher Education Institutions at the Comparative and International Education Society(CIES) Conference in Minneapolis, USA. 

The presentation was based on the work funded by Advance HE and Perrett Laver on the development of the HE Board Diversity Toolkit. The presentation aimed to share some of the findings of the research that underpinned the Toolkit, how it informed the Toolkit and the questions it raised. These included the tensions revealed around a ‘skills versus diversity’ issue, how Boards can embrace ‘disruption’ generated by diversity, and also how simply having a diverse makeup on Boards does not necessarily solve the issue of how to get the best out of a diverse Board. Dr Shafi noted,  “This last point is illustrated by how although gender parity is almost achieved in UK HE Boards, it does not mean women feel included.”

Dr Shafi’s conference abstract is below; her paper will be published in full in due course:

Striving for Diversity of Leadership: Governance in Higher Education Institutions - Dr Adeela ahmed Shafi MBE, University of Gloucestershire, UK

The influence of power, politics and the inequality of opportunity in society is seen across the stratum of society and the Boards (Councils or Trustees) of universities as institutions reflect this same imbalance. This is problematic. in order to foster true and sustainable change so that education institutions can claim to be the generators of new knowledge and to move society forward, then one of the first places to effect and reflect this change has to be at the very top of higher education governance. Fortunately, much work has been conducted across sectors on equality, diversity and inclusion which has brought this into sharper focus, especially since the Black Lives Matter movement. And there has been much work on addressing under-representation and equality to help achieve the goal of inclusivity through diversity. Importantly though, it is a time of action and change, debate is now simply not enough. What is needed, therefore, is practical advice based on this academic research which can be used by university leaders to speed up diversification in governing bodies.

This paper considers the important role of higher education governance as leaders of institutions who shape strategic plans and agendas.  But who makes up the governing boards and makes these decisions?  Overwhelmingly, the university or higher education board is dominated by white, older males who are nearing the end of good, high-end corporate and professional careers. The literature highlights the paucity of diversity at Boards in many sectors but in this paper, we discuss the importance of why and how higher education institutions by their very nature should and must be at the cutting edge of leading change and working towards a more just and equitable world.

The University of Gloucestershire in the UK responded to a collaborative call by Perret Laver and Advance HE to the identified need for support for universities to diversify their Boards by developing a comprehensive practical Toolkit designed to support institutions to tackle under-representation to reach the aim of greater inclusivity.  It is the first national scheme of its kind in the UK and this paper aims to share the findings as a means of good practice with other contexts and countries. 

Qualitative and quantitative data were collected from 44 HEIs across the UK, representing a third of the UK’s HEIs, and 104 governors to inform the development of the Toolkit.  This paper will report on the data, present the Toolkit and discuss the issues raised in the data that might be a key barrier to achieving diversity and addressing the chronic under-representation in UK Boards. This centred around deep-seated attitudes on how diversity may compromise the skills needed on Boards and importantly how to unseat these ingrained (often unconscious) attitudes if we are to envisage genuine change at Board level.  Further, whilst recent developments have had some considerable success in addressing the gender imbalance in UK University Boards, where there is now near a 50-50 split, this research highlighted how this is not the end goal as the data suggests that how much the women feel included is still questionable. In this way, this paper seeks to battle the currents and question the influence of politics and attitudes to forge a change in higher education leadership which will benefit an entire institution and shape its ethos.

Board Diversity Toolkit

Board Diversity Toolkit launched in November 2021 as an output of the Board Diversity Practice Project, run by the University of Gloucestershire, in collaboration with the international executive search firm Perrett Laver as part of Advance HE's 2020-21 Collaborative Development Fund

The Toolkit is designed to help member institutions to improve the diversity and inclusivity of their governing bodies, whether as a Secretary, Chair of Governors, Governance and Nominations Committee member, or anyone interested in tackling under-representation and aiming for inclusion at the Board level in the higher education sector.

Advance HE members can access the Toolkit and accompanying resources here.


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