Can women be trusted to govern higher education?

A battle is under way over who is to control Scotland’s universities. The Scottish Government is legislating on the future shape of the post-16 education system. The legislation is wide-ranging, but includes proposals for greater political involvement in the appointment of university governing bodies.  Mike Russell, for the government, is very keen on this idea; the universities are lobbying ferociously against it.

Enter the National Union of Students, who yesterday released a statement condemning the gender imbalance of existing university governing bodies. Based on 2011/12 figures, the NUS claimed that just 25% of board members are women. These figures were duly reported in the Herald on the day that Mike Russell was called to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s education committee, where he said agreed that the figures justified the powers that he has proposed for himself, and even floated the idea of a new amendment allowing him to intervene in order to secure a gender balance.

The first thing I want to say is that the NUS has every right to present these figures, however inconvenient they may be for the universities. University governing bodies are often seen as ceremonial bodies with little real power, but this is only partly right. Governing bodies (usually known as the ‘court’) are increasingly flexing their muscles over their formal role, which is to approve and review the institution’s strategic goals and direction; they can be key allies for particular groups of senior staff; and above all they appoint the principal and can hold him or her to account.

And it is the chairs of university courts who have been meeting Mike Russell, and reportedly annoying him not only by opposing his new Bill, but by the way in which they do it. If the governing bodies do matter, then so does their membership. I checked the NUS data, using more up-to-date membership lists where possible, excluding small specialist colleges, and disregarding university principals (most of whom are male, but that is another issue) who are present ex officio.

Women account for 28% of current members of university governing bodies (usually known as ‘the court’). Men are a majority of all university governing bodies, ranging from 55% at Dundee to an overwhelming 85% at University of the Highlands and Islands. All university governing bodies are chaired by men.  And this is in a system where the majority of students and of staff are female.

It isn’t difficult to see how this situation has come about. University courts are very different bodies, depending on the history of the institution, but all share some common features. They all include a group who are co-opted by existing governors; though some universities advertise such posts, more usually this is a closed process. I found that 74% of those listed in this category were men.

Co-opted representatives usually come from the world of business and public life. Most of the former group are men; one university has a number of co-opted male governors from the dominant (private) industry, and a smaller group of female co-optees who come mostly from quangos and the service sector.

The Herald quoted Alastair Sim of Universities Scotland as claiming that ‘many universities have an equal gender balance amongst their co-opted members’. On my figures, this is so in only one university – Strathclyde – out of fifteen. I have invited him to clarify or correct his claim. No university court has a majority of female co-optees.

Then there are those who sit on court by virtue of some office they hold. These include the main student association officers. They often include representatives of local councils, and in the ancient universities they include Kirk ministers, student-elected rectors, and a few other remainders from past times. The universities have no control over these groups, but they are relatively small in number.

And there are staff representatives: 60% of the governors elected by a predominantly female staff electorate are men. When I was a deputy principal, I well remember discussions in which the principal and chair of court (both then female) lamented the difficulty of getting women academics onto court. Was this because they were unwilling to stand for election (we thought so) – and if so, why?

It should go without saying that the current situation is unacceptable. I can understand some of the problems. Women are a minority in public life. Mike Russell knows this, not least from his experience in the Scottish Government: the First Minister is male, as are five out of seven Cabinet Secretaries and eight out of thirteen Ministers. Wherever we look in public life, we see stark and alarming examples of inequality.

But I expect better of university courts. They could have overcome this and other challenges if they had chosen to do so – and they did not. And if inequality is wrong in principle, it may also turn out to have been remarkably stupid. MSPs have already called governors ‘an old boys’ club’. This is a whiskery old cliché, of course, but the label is likely to stick. It won’t help the sector feel good about itself, and it damages our reputation in the wider world. And it has handed over a weapon to a Minister who has often been described as a ruthless centraliser.

Andrew Denholm’s article in today’s Herald is at:

3 thoughts on “Can women be trusted to govern higher education?

  1. John, do yo think James Naughtie’s posiition as chair is compromised as chair of court of Stirling – as in he’s a BBC broadcaster and Mike Russell may point to that fact in any lobbying Mr N might do?

    • Just a quick factual correction: James Naughtie is Stirling’s Chancellor. Alan Simpson chairs the court; as convener of the Scottish Chairs of Court, he is leading that group’s representations to the Government. I am sure Jim Naughtie will experience the First Minister’s anger over the BBC in other contexts, however.

  2. John, it’s excellent that you raise this as an issue, esp as governing bodies generally are expected to have a much more serious role now. i agree fully with your general thrust, but one disagreement: to say that 8 out of 13 cabinet ministers being men is an example of stark inequality does not make sense to me – unless you are an absolute supporter of 50/50 (where you anyway have a problem with an odd-numbered body. Even 5 out of 7 cabinet secretaries is borderline as an eg of starkness- it’s one off as perfect a balance as you can get.

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