Diversity among governors ‘may suffer’ under increased regulation

Figures on English governing body members collated by former HEI head suggest some progress on gender, but less on ethnic minorities

December 24, 2019
Source: Getty

Attempts to improve diversity on the governing bodies of England’s universities could falter as institutions become more risk-averse because of increased scrutiny from regulators, it has been warned.

The concern comes as new figures show that although women now make up about 40 per cent of governing body members, the share from minority ethnic backgrounds is estimated to be less than 8 per cent, with many of those being student governors.

There is also wide variation among universities in terms of female members, with several still having less than a third women on their governing body and only a quarter with a female chair.

Alison Wheaton, who is investigating university governance as part of a PhD thesis at the UCL Institute of Education, presented the figures at the Society for Research in Higher Education’s annual conference.

The former chief executive of GSM London, who gathered the data on governing bodies from 120 English universities, said that although the figures suggested progress on gender diversity, there was still a big task ahead in keeping this going.

This was because the terms served by governors were time-limited, so “you have to be mindful that to get it near to 50 per cent, you not only need new female members – quite a lot of replacement [needs] to go on”.

Ms Wheaton also warned that although her data showed more than half of deputy chairs of governors were women, three-quarters of the chairs were men and there was evidence to suggest that many appointments for chair were made externally.

“I think the other risk is that as scrutiny of the governing bodies increases because of the regulatory regime, there is a risk that they become more risk-averse about appointments,” she added.

“Personally, I think it is going to make it more difficult to get people with greater levels of diversity because they won’t be able to tick all the boxes.”

The figures on the types of professional backgrounds held by governors also showed that there were clear skills gaps in some areas. For instance, while more than a third were qualified accountants or auditors, which “you would expect”, Ms Wheaton said that she was “quite astonished” at the lack of practising human resources professionals.

She said that overall there was still work to do to make the composition of governing bodies – on which there is no sector-wide official data collection – and the appointments process much more accessible.

“Whereas [the sector has] bitten the bullet on v-c appointment/pay issues, I do think that governing body composition, governing body nominations…and appointments could be more transparent,” she said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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