Gender inequality in University Governance

I am fortunate enough to be the Educational Institute of Scotland’s University Lecturers’ Association (EIS-ULA) delegate to the STUC Women’s Conference happening in Dundee this week. One of the (30 or so) motions up for discussion was on gender inequality in higher education governance (full details of motions here). The motion was proposed by Angi Lamb, from the University and Colleges Union, UCU, and I seconded it on behalf of the EIS. Below is my speech.

The story of Scottish higher education is overwhelmingly a good one. Scotland should be proud, rightly proud, of its Higher Education system. The intellectual engagement that happens in our universities rivals, indeed many would say exceeds, that of our southerly neighbour. And this intellectual tradition has, I believe, a crucial role to play in Scottish society, culture and economy. How this system is governed, therefore, must be of concern to us all.

University courts are the governing bodies of all Scottish Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), and membership of these bodies is comprised of a mixture of internal university people: academics, university administrators, sometimes students; and external lay people: those whose skills and expertise complement those of the internal members, and serve to challenge institutional parochialism and provide a broader context for governance, of business, international or other important concerns.

These courts have overall responsibility for the mission and strategic vision for universities, oversight of systems and processes, including employment practices, finance, welfare of students and staff. They also, incidentally, have responsibility for the setting of principals’ salaries, which as we heard earlier, have risen to an average of £242,000 whilst academic and support staff have seen their salaries cut by 13% in real terms in the last 5 years.

The last time there as any kind of reassessment of University governance was in the 60s, when the Robbins report sought to democratise institutions, without really changing very much. So, a couple of years ago, the Scottish Government commissioned a review of the governance arrangements in HE. Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the principal of RGU was appointed the chair of the review panel, and he, along with 4 other white men, undertook a review of the governance arrangements in HE. They spoke to people from each university, academics, administrators, students, and they published their report last year. This review contained many recommendations, which both UCU and EIS broadly welcomed – we would have gone further, but the recommendations themselves would be a fantastic start to improve HE in Scotland.

One of these recommendations was:
“Governing bodies also need to observe the principles of gender balance and of diversity. The panel therefore recommends that each governing body should be required to ensure (over a specified transition period) that at least 40 per cent of the membership is female. Each governing body should also ensure that the membership reflects the principles of equality and diversity more generally, reflecting the diversity of the wider society.”

Another recommendation was:
“All governing bodies should also have effective representation of internal stakeholders. The panel recommends that there should be a minimum of two students on the governing body, nominated by the students’ association/union, one of whom should be the President of the Students’ Association and at least one of whom should be a woman. There should be at least two directly elected staff members. In addition, there should be one member nominated by academic and related unions and one by administrative, technical or support staff unions.”

So, gender equality was very clearly positioned as a crucial aspect of open, transparent governance.

In response to these and other recommendations, university chancellors, principals and senior administrators had several fits, and decided to draw up their own Code of Governance, which largely ignored everything the ‘von Prond’ review said, but was agreed by all Universities, and imposed earlier this year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Code says nothing about gender balance in university governing bodies, nor the active inclusion of women in the key functioning of universities.

At a time of change and uncertainty, when, like with so many other areas of life, HE faces funding pressures, the prospect of tuition fees, restriction in the ability of people to access HE, ever-increasing student debt, and so on, we need strong, effective, open governance.

We want HE to be a significant contributor to what drives Scotland’s future, playing its role as effectively as possible, with the widest consent and support possible. We want our young adults and lifelong learners to be able to fulfil their potential to the greatest extent possible, and with the greatest possible amount of public satisfaction, enthusiasm and support, so that Scotland can be recognised as a place of critical intellectual curiosity, and scientific and cultural innovation.

And so we must have effective and fair governance system. We need to pressure the Scottish Govt to make good its promises it implement the recommendations of von Prond, and implement it in full, including the recognition of the importance of gender balanced governing bodies.

Thank you

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