It is now almost universally recognised that diversity at any level in an organisation, including – perhaps especially – the board, leads to positive change and more effective organisations. University boards are no exception. But when it actually comes to it, universities are falling behind.
This time last year, Advance HE published the first ever report into the diversity of Higher Education (HE) governors in the UK. The findings were stark: nine out of 10 of governing board members were white, and just 5.4 per cent of HE governors were disabled. The report also revealed:
- Just 41.9% of governing board members were women, compared to 54.6% of staff members overall.
- A fifth (21.7%) of boards had 50% women members or more. In over two in five boards, 41.6%, women made up fewer than 40% of governors.
- A fifth (21.1%) of governing boards had no Black, Asian minority ethnic members, and over a third (35.6%) of boards had no disabled members.
This is sharply at odds with the diversity of the sector’s student body.
So, why are representative governing bodies so important and what are the benefits that this will bring?
Reflective of the students and societies that they serve
Universities are highly complex, global organisations, with increasingly diverse staff and student populations, with many attracting students from around the world. As the governing body of a university, it is increasingly evident that to truly successfully operate a board, it should be representative of the community it serves and for which it engages.
Universities otherwise risk creating a disconnect with their student body. For example, in the UK, 13.3 per cent of undergraduate entrants in 2019-20 were from an Asian background, and 9.7 per cent of students were Black. However, 37 per cent of university boards have no Black members at all. There is clearly much to be done to ensure that boards, and the communities they represent, are demographically aligned.
Further to this, board members hold a position of seniority, to which others can aspire. For future leaders, it is important for them to be able to see relatable figures in positions of power. Visibility is crucial.
Variety of life experiences and perspectives
For boards to optimise their ability to make well informed decisions, it is clearly extremely important that they have access to a varied range of opinions, so that they can use those insights and perceptions to scrutinise and support institutions’ executive team effectively to address the critical issues and to develop the strategies to ensure that their institution will not only be successful and sustainable, but that it will thrive, and its people with it.
What’s more, a diverse mindset in the boardroom can also help to pre-empt and solve issues before they arise, tackling them at the root before they come to a head. Previously under-represented individuals can then help to start conversations around issues that may not hitherto have been under consideration, bringing new ways of thinking and addressing important issues that affect the university and students alike. The bringing together of diverse views, we would argue, is virtuous circle. The board will start to challenge itself on whether it is considering issues from broader ranges of perspectives and angles. This is the type of refreshing, energetic constructive input which will help a board deliver true value. And the evidence from sectors outside HE supports this view: an eye-catching statistic from a study carried out by McKinsey in 2019 found that the most diverse companies are more likely to outperform less diverse peers on profitability. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed their less diverse peers by 36 per cent in financial returns.
So, with proven evidence to show that diversity can lead to better outcomes, and with universities striving to offer the best possible service and education for students around the world the question now is – what are we waiting for!
At Perrett Laver and Advance HE, we feel passionately about supporting diversity and inclusion, which is why we have come together, in collaboration with the University of Gloucestershire, to develop a toolkit that helps Higher Education Institutions to make the best of and to improve the effectiveness of their governance by embracing and celebrating more diverse backgrounds, experiences and skills onto board membership.
We really believe – and the evidence is clear – that improving representation will lead to stronger, more dynamic institutions. It will help universities fulfil their mission and deliver great educational outcomes for their students. With so much to gain, now is the time to act.
Lucy Simpson, Head of the UK Board Practice, Perrett Laver and Victoria Holbrook, Assistant Director, Governance, Advance HE