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Governing bodies

Governing bodies have an integral role in establishing a vision for equality, and legal compliance.

Governing bodies are, as a matter of law, responsible for ensuring their institutions comply with the Equality Act 2010 and meet the proactive public sector equality duty (PSED) and specific duties relevant to their nation.

It is critical that governing bodies are clear on their role:

  • To oversee that the institution meets these legal duties.
  • To put robust systems in place to seek assurances from their executive or senior management team that the legal requirements are being met.

Handbooks for governors

In June 2016, ECU published a handbook for governors of Scottish higher education institutions. It has been produced to meet a need for specific guidance on the Scottish equality and policy context identified by governors and secretaries who took part in our research in 2014–15.

Based on our work in Scotland, we developed handbooks specific to each UK country.

Establishing a vision

The equality duty of the governing body is not simply about legislative compliance.

Just as the governing body develops and agrees the institutional mission, it is also their role to establish a vision for equality, and to move the agenda beyond compliance to an approach that ensures the richness and diversity of society are reflected and celebrated within the institution.

Assurance of equality

Governing bodies use a range of mechanisms to assist them in their oversight, or assurance, of equality within their institutions. ECU research in Scotland in 2014-2015 indicated that the following are effective:

  • Induction, training and development for governing body members to provide the necessary knowledge and understanding of equality and diversity
  • Use of equality committees or equivalent groups, ensuring an effective link and flow of information between the group and the governing body, and that information received is actively considered by the governing body
  • Review of annual reports on equality and diversity by the governing body, interrogating the reports for evidence of progress
  • Integration of equality impact assessment into board papers and governing body decision making
  • Engaging with equality and diversity staff, for example inviting presentations at governing body meetings

Read the full report: Governing bodies, equality and diversity in Scottish HEIs: final report

Governing body diversity

It is commonly accepted that a governing body that is representative of the diversity of the community it serves is more inclusive in its decision-making, and better enabled to help the institution improve performance. A diverse board can:

  • improve performance through input and challenge from a range of perspectives
  • access and attract talent from the widest pool available
  • be more responsive by aligning with a diverse staff and student population
  • achieve better governance, increase innovation and avoid the risks of ‘group think’

While there is limited information available about the diversity of HE governing bodies, nationally we know that women are underrepresented on HE boards. In 2013, the Women Count: leaders in higher education report found that:

  • 32% of all members of HE governing bodies across the UK were women
  • women occupied at least 40% of board seats in almost a fifth of these governing bodies

In 2014-15, ECU undertook research in Scotland to identify the challenges to increasing diversity of HE governing bodies, current practice in this area and examples of effective practice.


  • Limited applicant pool, particularly low applications from women
  • Use of existing networks leading to ‘appointing in own image’
  • Low level of awareness of the opportunity to be a HE governor
  • Limited influence over elections and appointments to the governing body

Action being taken

Action taken to increase the diversity of governing bodies can be described as positive action, which seeks to alleviate disadvantage experienced by people who share a protected characteristic, reduce underrepresentation in relation to particular activities, or meet particular needs.

  • Establishing policies and goals on diversity of governing bodies
  • Raising awareness of the role of the university governor
  • Working with employers to publicise the benefits of HE boards positions
  • Wide and targeted advertising, specifically inviting underrepresented groups
  • Communicating the desirability of diversity to electing and appointing bodies, such as academic boards and students’ unions

Read the full report for more examples from institutions: Governing bodies, equality and diversity in Scottish HEIs: final report