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Younger Independent Governors?

by Frank Toop MBE | Feb 2, 2021 | Governance & Policy

The role of student governors can be difficult as they often enter a governing body with limited experience compared to the other members who are much older than them and who have often reached significant positions in their careers. Also, their term of office is normally 1 or a maximum of 2 years which does not allow much time to get to grips with the Council/Board and have an impact. However, with the right support and encouragement student governors can make a significant contribution to the Council/Board.

Considering the issues students face on governing bodies highlights the age disparity between the independent members of the Council/Board and the student population more generally. The recently published Advance HE – Diversity of Governors in Higher Education study based on the HESA returns for 2018/19 gives the percentage of governors under the age of 45 as 20% – so 80% are over 45 and 18% are over 66. These figures indicate that the vast majority of governors will have attended University 40 years ago. This begs questions such as – does this matter? How well can independent governors connect with student stakeholders and how does this impact the student perception of Councils/Boards?

There are many reasons for this lack of diversity:

  • One of the biggest motivators for volunteer governors is “to give back” and people generally start to think about this having substantially developed their careers;
  • Councils/Boards tend to look for experienced hands with specific skills using skill matrices to target their recruitment of governors; and
  • Councils/Boards tend to want to appoint governors who are the “finished article” rather than considering their potential and how they could develop as governors.

However, there is a strong argument for potential independent governors taking on that role at an earlier stage in their careers and treating this as part of their career development. Although the motivation is normally to “give back”, many governors grow considerably as individuals through their service as governors by:

  • understanding the role of a non-executive and using that understanding in their day-to-day role as an executive;
  • experiencing the wide variety of activity a University undertakes and the challenges it faces;
  • interacting at the Council/Board with other diverse and talented members; and
  • acting as a Council/Board team to ensure the Board is effective and the University successful.

A governor at an earlier stage in their career would in addition benefit from:

  • seeing an institution from a “helicopter view” rather than a divisional level in their day to day role or perhaps if already a CEO of a small organisation – seeing how a large institution functions.
  • developing skills including how to effectively influence agendas and colleagues

When appointing independent governors, there is an argument for considering the age profile of Boards/Councils. There is a considerable talent pool that is currently untapped. Universities could help promote more age diversity in their Councils/Boards and benefit from it.

Some areas that could be usefully considered:

  • If the developmental aspects of the role are properly considered then employers are more likely to be willing to release their staff as they will be able to demonstrate added value for their employer through their governor role. Universities would need to ensure that the arrangements for meetings and papers consider that governors have busy working lives and need to fit in this voluntary activity in a sensible way. One of the most disheartening aspects of being a University governor can be the unfocused paper volume.
  • Universities could use co-opted appointments at a committee level as a development route with the aim of moving the potential candidate to a governor level over a reasonably short period. However, Nominations Committees will need to focus on a candidate’s potential for development and much less on their CV. They would also need to support the individual’s development through training and mentoring.
  • Nominations Committees could reconsider their skills and experience matrices to highlight areas where younger governors could bring work experience e.g, working with or for younger people covering issues such as mental health, wellbeing, housing, financial difficulties, campaigning or promoting cultural change. Also, working in social media and digital.

The Young Trustees Movement exists to double the number of trustees aged under 30 on charity boards by 2024. They state that less than 3% currently are under 30. Having some independent members aged between 20 and 40 should help the student governors integrate more easily and should form a bridge between the older Council/Board members and the student body. However, there are also some very high calibre individuals below the age of 40 running significant enterprises who could be very useful additions to the Council/Board but who need encouragement to volunteer.

Gerry Brown has just launched a short book on the role of governors and encouraging this aspect of volunteering – Making a Difference: Leadership Change and Giving Back. Gerry has had many director roles but is also a member of the University of Exeter Council. It is a useful read for aspiring and existing governors.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in higher education governance.