Students at the heart of governance

Students at the heart of governance
Date12th Jun 2024AuthorGordon HuntCategoriesPolicy and News, Student Life

Gordon Hunt from Scotland’s College Development Network shares this thoughtful blog on the impact of student governors. Drawing on his own work in developing student governance in Scottish colleges, he provides a range of ideas and approaches on how board members can assist student governors to make a full contribution and challenge tokenism. The links to further reading on practice across the UK nations might offer some fresh thinking on student engagement in your own board’s work too. 

Across the nations of the United Kingdom the inclusion of student governors on college boards is a consistent statutory requirement, despite the differences between nations in many other areas of college governance and operations. In Scotland, being a student governor often comes with the role of president of the student association (or a similar role) or by direct election. 

It’s highly likely that the chance to become a governor of the college is low on the list of aspirations when students  first run for the student union or indeed join the college, and finding themselves on the board may be a shock to the system. This shock can be even worse if the board in question doesn’t have robust mechanisms for inducting and supporting their student board members. While the increasing diversity of boards means that the student is less likely to find themselves in a room with a group of elderly gentlemen in suits, it’s still a daunting experience to find yourself part of a formal meeting which often has a substantial set of papers to wade through and its own set of arcane procedures and jargon to decode.

A recent ESRC project, ‘Processes and practices of governing in colleges of further education in the UK,’ spent three years observing the operation of college boards and interviewing board members and governance professionals, as well as reviewing the extensive literature on education governance. This included looking in detail at the role of the student board member, and their briefing paper on the topic, together with a more extensive research article, contains very useful insight into the role of students on college boards.

While the research uncovered a lot of positive approaches to the role and value of student board members, there were also some sceptical comments from other board members on the perceived value of having students on the board and on their ability to contribute effectively, given that their terms of office are often short, and they often lack experience of governance and strategy. Some feel that the inclusion of student board members is paying ‘lip service’ to the need to hear the student voice in college governance.

As with so many things, the value of having student board members can be as low or as high as boards and the people who run them want to make it. With a bit of effort, student board members can be supported to add enormous value to education governance. They are, after all, what our institutions exist for in the first place, and it would seem odd not give them a strong voice in how those institutions are run. Simon Varwell of the Highlands and Islands Student Association (HISA) has highlighted in his research the way in which students can be given control over their learning using Arnstein’s Ladder of Engagement, and his conclusions are, I think, relevant to how we should view the role of student board members. He writes about the need to draw on ‘students’ expertise to ensure that they become not protesters against perceived mismanagement, but positive, constructive co-creators of decisions and agents of change in both their institutions and wider society’.

It's important to remember that while many student board members may lack experience of governance, what they don’t lack is experience. Not just experience of being a student, but experience of work, of caring, of being part of a team, and a wide range of other areas of life.

We need to remember, and support our student board members to understand, that being a board member is not a representative role, regardless of how the board member has been appointed. All our board members must act in the best interests of the college and as individuals, while bringing with them the knowledge that comes from being part of a specific stakeholder group. The ESRC research noted that in the case of student board members ‘this was not well understood and that there was a tendency towards tokenism, though this was certainly not always the case’. We need to be careful to avoid words like ‘representative’ when referring to student (and staff) board members. 

Taking all of this into account, my own work on student board members has centred on how we ensure that they are supported and enabled to be effective. In summary, we propose a set of key actions for all governors that will contribute to enabling effective student board members:

  • Ensure there is an effective induction process that is tailored to the specific needs of student board members.
  • Provide a support structure: a board mentor or buddy who can be available informally to support the student board member.
  • Ensure that the chair and principal are meeting the student board members regularly to get to know them and ensure that they understand the key issues by giving impartial advice.
  • Through the governance professional, provide support pre-meetings to explain any specific issues or decisions that are required from the meeting.
  • Structure the agenda and board discussions to ensure that the student voice is at the heart of any decision, with a key role for the chair in ensuring that discussions are safe, open and honest and that the student board members are encouraged to contribute.
  • Have a system for ‘passing on the knowledge’ from one student board member to the next, perhaps by enabling an overlap between outgoing and incoming board members.

As with so many things, preparation is all. The more we can ensure that our student board members arrive in the board room well-prepared, confident in the issues and in their voice and status, and feeling supported by their fellow board members, the more effective they will be.

It’s simple, but it takes an investment of time and planning. All of us who participate in education governance owe it to our institutions and most of all to our students to make sure it happens.

Gordon Hunt is head of insight, planning and impact at College Development Network (CDN), the professional agency for developing and promoting colleges in Scotland.

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