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Making our Boards Reflect our Universities

Monday 07-03-2016 - 14:57
Emily beever 400x400 connect

There’s been a lot of rhetoric around the Higher Education Governance Bill, facing amendments and a final vote in the Scottish Parliament tomorrow, that there is “nothing to fix”. Opponents ask “why should we change something that’s not broken?” Whilst we believe the Bill will go a long way to increasing transparency, democracy and accountability in our institutions, we also think it goes some way towards fixing a problem that is too often overlooked: the lack of diversity on our university boards.

Diversity is a term that’s thrown about a lot in board rooms, and I think its meaning has been chipped away at, diminishing its worth. For me, diversity within the context of university governance is about having a board that reflects the university community; one that truly understands the struggles of people who in any way differ from those who have always held power within higher education: white, straight, non-disabled, men. Diversity is about having a board that pushes institutions to think about those who are still kept from achieving in our universities because of the structural barriers in their way.

Unsurprisingly there has been some criticism by those, mainly from the groups who benefit most in the current system, who believe that attempts to increase diversity would suffer in the proposed structure, claiming that women won’t stand for public elections. Try telling that to the countless women around the world who stand for election every year; the 50% of the women who make up the Scottish Cabinet; or the two extremely talented women rectors in Scotland right now, out of the five that exist (and the four who the right to chair court).

The truth is that as recently as 2012 there were no women chairs of any university governing body in Scotland. Three years later, and following a heavy spotlight falling on HE governance, there has been some progress, but let’s not hail this as a finished product. At the end of 2015 the average split of lay members on boards across Scotland was roughly 63% men, 36% women. Four institutions have a governing board with 70+% men.

Elections in wider society are dominated by white men, and so it’s not surprising that it seems like a hostile environment for everyone else. We are interested in working closely with institutions to explore how we can do democracy better. From NUS UK’s much-quoted 2014 Election Report, we know that when a woman, black, disabled, or LGTBQ+ person stands in a students’ association/union election, they have a higher chance of winning.

But gender is far from the only area that we must improve on. Our ‘international’ universities need to reflect their international communities, and increase the representation of our black, disabled, and LGBTQ+ communities. The lack of representation mirrors the barriers many face in accessing, staying in, and succeeding in higher education. The homogeneity of our boards are symptomatic of wider structural barriers within our institutions UK-wide. Only 0.49% of professors in UK academic are Black (85 professors), and only 17 of them are women.  Furthermore, there is a 16.1% degree attainment gap between white students and BME students.  These are issues that our governing boards must be addressing and, to do so effectively, these discussions and strategies have to include the voices of those impacted.

While I support the Bill as it stands, I also think it needs to go further to address the inequalities that exist on our governing bodies. Another crucial aspect to achieving fairer representation is remunerating the chairs of governing bodies. Without it, only those who can afford to give up their time for free can step up. The profile of this group only brings more of the same: straight, white, middle class men (and women) who are close to retirement and can afford to give up time for unpaid work. But beyond remuneration, and bearing in mind the shocking gender imbalance that exists in lay membership, we need to ensure that the rest of the board reflects our university communities. That’s why it’s encouraging to see an amendment has been lodged to introduced 50/50 gender balancing on university governing bodies, and why NUS Scotland are backing this amendment.

I strongly believe the Bill goes a long way to remedying the representative vacuum that currently exists. The Bill is an opportunity to give anyone who’s passionate about education and learning a chance to take a prominent role in the running of a university, an opportunity they may not have through the current selection process. We’ve already seen the diversity of candidates that put their name forward in rector elections, it’s time to extend this democratic nature to all our institutions.

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