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Monica Chadha: Who Governs the Governors?

  • 27 March 2020
  • By Monica Chadha

This blog is an edited transcript of a speech delivered by Monica Chadha, Vice Chair of Council, Queen Mary University of London. This is the second of two blogs we are running documenting the speeches delivered at the HEPI / Advance HE Parliamentary Breakfast Seminar ‘Challenging the Status Quo – Who governs the governors’? On Wednesday morning, we ran Chris Sayer’s reflections on this topic.


I’m proud to be a governor and Vice Chair of Council at Queen Mary University of London. It’s not just a fantastic university, but fills a special place in my heart because I studied there as an undergraduate between 1996 and 1999. I was studying History, which in and of itself was quite an achievement. As a child of immigrants, my parents saw more value by way of security, symbolism and substance in being an accountant, a doctor or a lawyer. Thinking back, perhaps this had something to do with the lack of diversity in my class of students.


I don’t think there could be a more important time to play a part in university governance. Much has changed in the last decade from major political changes, to changing expectations of regulators and a laser focus on the delivery of teaching. And then of course there is Brexit. Nearly four years on from the referendum and after we have officially left, we are still in the dark and have little idea what it is likely to mean for our sector.

So, what do I think is the role of a governing body in this day and age, and has the sector got it right?

In many ways it is business as usual, that is to say the role is far more than holding the executive to account. The role of the governing body is to ensure an organisation has the right strategy, resources and governance to achieve its purpose in the context that it operates in.

The quality of relationships, cohesion and alignment of the governing body matters a great deal, with the key relationship being that between the Chair and Vice Chancellor. Most Chairs would probably say that expectations and practice have moved considerably in the last few years and that it is an active and demanding role.


For a sector that places a high value on cognitive diversity, we have an abysmal track record in finding and appointing diverse talent to our governing bodies. This is not just a matter of social justice. In the words of Jon Parker, Chair of the Parker Review, who at the request and support of the then Government, set themselves a challenge: to ensure that by the end of 2021, no member of the FTSE 100 would lack a person of colour as a director. He commented earlier this month, ‘diversity is not a thing but the thing’ Many of those who invest in us, work for us and are taught by us are now monitoring our performance on leadership diversity, because they see it as a sign of whether we are truly ready to face up to the challenge of the modern world. We need only consider Prince William’s recent ticking off of BAFTA about diversity, and over the pond at the Oscars. If people do not see themselves in the movie they will struggle to write themselves into the script.

I, for one, know that the Boards I have sat on or chaired have benefited from having a variety of voices, backgrounds and experiences represented around the table – or as Simon Fanshawe describes as the “combination of difference”. We as university stewards need to be assertive – not least by refusing to work with head-hunters who argue that “the candidates just aren’t there”, which is all the more remarkable given the existence of LinkedIn. Add to this good old-fashioned DIY head-hunting. Chairs need to be unrelenting in this area.

The sector is awash with tools and initiatives to help with diversity on boards which after all is a source of competitive advantage.

Access and Participation

It strikes me that ensuring people rise as high as their talents allow and equality of opportunity, irrespective of background or backstory, goes to the heart of access and participation. For now the Office for Students want to see rapid and radical improvement in securing greater equity in the access and participation of students. It is not unreasonable to assume that our new regulator will follow in the footsteps of the Financial Reporting Council and expect universities to clearly set out how they plan to tackle the lack of diverse appointments in senior leadership positions.

The big elephant in the room, of course, is that governing bodies need to reflect those who teach and learn to deliver the mission.

I can’t help but wonder if higher education is going in the wrong direction of travel. In many ways I am supportive of a bolder and more forceful regulator – who can argue against improving the life chances of a young person – but progress is a double-edged sword. Perhaps meaningful engagement with governing bodies needs serious consideration rather an email alert or occasional workshop from Advance HE or the Office for Students. After all, an email is a poor substitute for a real conversation in a real room.


Universities are complex organisations with a wide range of demanding stakeholders. Value creation and tackling some of the deeply-embedded problems within higher education will take time and significant energy to address. Given the importance of the university sector and income levels well in excess of a £1 billion for some our individual larger institutions, none of this is about ticking a box. Factor in the issue of pensions linked to a collective scheme and it means we’re not in charge of our own destiny.

We can’t afford to shy away from honest and uncomfortable discussions, be that delivery of teaching to minimum quality thresholds, student contact time or the value of ‘low quality courses’. Here I must agree with Nick Hillman when he says:

“it is reasonable for policymakers to ask whether taxpayers are getting good value for their public investment in higher education”.

Regardless of the demanding regulatory environment, governing bodies need to think of their institution in a holistic and integrated way to boost human capital – academic, professional services and the student body – in a way that is lasting and sustainable.


Many will disagree with me on this, but I continue to think we should be moving towards professionalising all governing bodies with an appropriate level of remuneration given the volume of work, responsibilities and reputational risk governors assume.

It is almost inconceivable that the sector has been in the spotlight for overpaying senior staff which sits alongside pockets of amateur governance.


I would like to end by saying that we need to be a lot bolder, slicker and more imaginative in the way in which we approach higher education. It will require our governing bodies to be tip top, a comms strategy to focus on crisply communicating the value of higher education in a way that people can understand from the shop floor to the boardroom. We must continue to disrupt ourselves or face the possibility of being disrupted. We’re outstanding at higher education and in rude health for the most part. I sincerely believe that, at a time when the UK needs education to make a crucial contribution, and when public confidence in our sector is fragile, we must attract and cherry-pick a rainbow of talent to steer higher education to success. Our prosperity as a nation depends on it.

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