Universities must make better use of their governors

The gap between the perceptions of governors and academic staff about the key challenges facing institutions need to be plugged, says Janet Legrand

February 10, 2016
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Leaders in higher education face greater challenges than ever before in a competitive global marketplace. One aspect of leadership that is little explored is the role of governors in helping to identify emerging challenges and advising on appropriate support.

New research published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education sampled views from more than 60 governors in UK universities as part of a wider in-depth survey into perceptions of the higher education sector. It offers a rare insight into governors’ perceptions of the key challenges facing universities and highlights the gap between the perceptions of governors and academic staff.

For instance, the survey found that governors tend to view universities, culture and management effectiveness more positively. Nine in 10 governors (89 per cent) felt that change in their institution is managed well, compared with less than half (45 per cent) of staff. When asked about challenges facing leaders in higher education only 9 per cent of governors identified increasing diversity as a means to improve leadership, compared with 51 per cent of higher education staff who thought that their institution’s governing body does not take diversity and equality into account in appointments.

While the sample size of the survey means that it cannot claim to be wholly representative of the UK governor population, it highlights the need to develop more effective ways to support governors in staying in touch with the issues and challenges experienced by staff on a day-to-day level. Stronger relationships at this level would help governors offer even more relevant advice, guidance which reflects concerns of the body of the institution as a whole. Specifically, greater governor endorsement around issues such as diversity could lead to more progress in representation at a senior level.

The Leadership Foundation is already delivering a range of programmes to help governors in their roles, offering guidance on how they can maintain awareness of the wider pressures felt by the academic community and how to bring perspectives of the staff body appropriately to bear on corporate governance – including those from student leadership.

The Leadership Foundation survey also highlighted governors’ calls for universities to attract leaders with experience outside the higher education sector. One-third of governors (32 per cent) felt that leadership within the sector could be improved this way, reflecting the evolving and diverse demands facing leaders as the relationship between society and higher education changes. It could be achieved by recruiting more leaders from other sectors – or even through providing secondments, work shadowing and mentoring opportunities for governors.

This is an important call, which universities need to hear. The role of governors to help universities navigate today’s challenges should not be underestimated, and this survey highlights where improvements can be made to ensure they are making the best possible impact.

Janet Legrand is a partner at law firm DLA Piper, board member of the Leadership Foundation and member of the council of City University London. She is also a member of the audit committee of the University of Cambridge.

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