Strategic resources

Governors perform an important and complex function in higher education, but what exactly do they do and what skills can they bring to the role? Hannah Fearn investigates.

January 24, 2008

Who are your university governors? If you struggle to come up with a name, you aren't alone. Most people could certainly name the vice-chancellor, long-standing department heads or high-profile academics. But governors are another matter. So who are these powerful but anonymous people?

Few universities list them on their websites, so Times Higher Education set out to find out who they are - and what they do - by polling more than 300 of these individuals. The results were surprising.

We found that the single biggest grouping on the governing bodies consists of people from industry and business. Some 35 per cent of those polled have such a background - perhaps serving to counter accusations that universities are out of touch with the needs of business. The poll also found that most private-sector governors come from more prominent names in industry rather than from small to medium-sized local businesses.

Academics are also well represented, making up 28 per cent of board members. Although most institutions seek a balance between academic staff, non-academic staff and lay members, just 19 per cent of board members come from the public sector. Non-academic university staff make up 9 per cent, and student representatives 6 per cent. Those from the clergy and public life make up 1 and 2 per cent of the average governing body respectively.

There is no single board structure that applies across the sector, but there are three main models, with variations in the way governors carry out their duties.

The Oxbridge model favours a council almost exclusively made up of academics and other internal candidates. The University of Oxford recently attempted to reform its governing body to include more lay members - and failed in the face of academic opposition.

The civic model has governing bodies up to 50-strong, with governors tending to reflect the local community.

The third, called the modern structure of governance, is based on far smaller bodies, usually comprising no more than 20 members, of whom a majority are lay members. Most universities have now moved from the civic to the modern model of governance.

Malcolm Grant, president and provost of University College London, favours a limit of 20 members to carry out what he sees as a critical role within universities. "I think it's tremendously important. It's a way of helping the institution develop its strategy. In part, it's holding the executive, the management, to account, and that's right. That works only if you have a smaller number of people. They're able to ask difficult questions," he explains. "I think you can have much better insight and really get strategic-level debates with a governing body that's manageable."

Grant says that achieving a balance of skills and backgrounds is essential if governors are to do the best job. "We want a gender mix, an age and a skills mix - but, above all, people who have the time and commitment."

Stephen Gardner is a governor of Durham University, director of investor relations for Credit Suisse and a former director of Barclays Bank. He agrees that smaller governing bodies with adequate lay representation, such as the one at Durham, maximise the effectiveness of university governance.

"It's definitely improved the governance," he says. "Academics have a very specific way of looking at their business - they don't always think of it as a business, but it is. It's our job to give guidance early on, and we expect to see (proposals) come back in a different shape. It's by no means a rubber-stamping body."

Obtaining the appropriate mix of skills among governors is vital because they are responsible for making many high-level decisions, ranging from property purchases and the size of the vice-chancellor's pay packet to overarching financial strategy and defining the institution's ambitions. The board is often broken down into a number of special interest groups, making use of specialist skills gained in members' past or present careers.

James Boyle has been a governor at Napier University for four years. The BBC Scotland broadcaster and former chair of the Scottish Arts Council was picked for the role partly because of his experience of change management. "I've had experience of change, and I wanted to contribute that. I wanted to be supportive through the difficulties they would encounter. I'm there to be a critical friend, to challenge," he says.

Jan Richmond, chief executive of Middlesbrough Council, has worked in local government for a decade, and for the past two years she has been a governor at the University of Teesside. She was approached by the university, which has traditionally involved the local council with its work.

Richmond says it is important that the two bodies have shared ideals, and her seat on the governing council helps to formalise that. "We have a lot of common objectives in terms of the development of the town," she says.

Given the frequent tensions between academics and senior management, it is vital to ensure that ordinary academics have a voice among the governors, says Peter Eccles, a senior lecturer in mathematics and governor at the University of Manchester. Eccles, a lecturer since 1971, has given a hand in the design of the university's early retirement scheme, helped craft its estates policy and commented on financial strategy.

"The senior management has a certain view of what's going on in the university. But it is important to have people there who are living with the effects of this on a daily basis. I'm bringing the experience of the teaching side in one of the major schools," he says.

Academic weight is, perhaps, all the more important, given the ambitions of some governors to extend their authority to exerting influence on the academic curriculum.

Aman Dalvi is the chief executive of Gateway to London, a body encouraging investment in the Thames Gateway region. He has been a University of East London governor for three years. "One thing that I think I'm able to contribute to this is that I'm not an academic," he says. "I'm able to bring a business profile into the dealings at UEL and talk from a business perspective. When it comes to standards, I'm able to talk with some authority about what business is looking for and what we should be looking for to ensure that students achieve the right standards."

But much of a governor's work is about helping the university build bridges with communities and sectors they might otherwise find hard to reach. Like Dalvi, councillor John Godward is helping to forge links between the University of Bradford and the city council.

"For long enough, the university and the council were a little standoffish with each other," he says. "It seems to me now that they are each trying their best to work together for the interests of the community. That's where I come in - I'm a conduit between the council and the university." Godward's recent appointment as a governor has led already to the setting-up of a regular drop-in surgery for students where they can meet their local councillors and ask for advice and assistance.

Student governors bring another dimension to board meetings, says James Allan, president of the student union and student representative on the governing council at the University of the Arts London.

"I'm the reality within the board," he says. "Most academic governing boards are middle-aged, grey-haired white men who don't have a sense of the reality of what it's like to be a student at the moment. They see you as the authority. If you're confident enough to speak your mind and give answers to these people, the decision-making can be enhanced."

The role of governor is flexible, and workloads vary between institutions. The University of the Arts board meets five times a year. For each meeting, Allan must produce a report detailing student union priorities and the issues he is working on as president.

Others, such as Richmond at Teesside, admit to fitting the job around a host of other commitments, meaning some sub-committee meetings and student-facing events are missed in favour of her day-to-day commitments.

Governors can also regularly face a conflict of interest in their role. Their day jobs, immersed in the local business or public services sectors, often ensure they possess inside information that could affect decision-making. For example, if a council department were bidding to undertake development or planning work on behalf of the university, Richmond says she would remove herself from the room. "It's clearly about which hat I'm wearing. I declare an interest if there is one," she says. "It's an informal as well as formal process."

Allan admits that he has been worried by a conflict of interest, since what is best for the student union is not necessarily best for the university overall. "I try to see them as two very different things. I find I use the information I know from one to support the other, but I try to keep the two separate. There are things that, if a student asked me, I wouldn't tell," he says.

All this adds up to a rather complex picture. It is impossible to pin down a definition of exactly what a governor does. The task in hand varies considerably depending on the background, skills and availability of each individual, and the way institutions organise their own governance structures.

But there is agreement that governors have an increasingly important and diverse function. Godward says: "I think governors have a bigger role to fulfil than in times past."

So what is the key to becoming a good university governor?

For Gillie Reith, administration manager for the faculty of design and technology and non-academic staff representative on the governing body at The Robert Gordon University, the key is understanding where the role begins and ends. "I'm not querying the management of the university," she says. "I'm looking to make sure that governance is applied and we are giving due process."

And while Reith may have been nominated to sit on the governing board for four years by her colleagues, she sees her role as a neutral and objective representative. "Although I am a staff governor, and therefore I'm elected by that group of professionals, I don't necessarily directly represent them. I'm a full member of the board. I can make decisions on anything."

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