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Pay university board members to end ‘amateur’ governance

Seminar also hears calls for ensuring greater diversity on boards

It is “almost inconceivable” that members of university governing bodies are unpaid considering the salaries of vice-chancellors and other senior management, a conference has heard.

Speaking on 26 February at a seminar hosted in London by the Higher Education Policy Institute and AdvanceHE, Monica Chadha, vice-chair of council at Queen Mary University of London, said that the role of governing bodies needed to be “professionalised”.

“I continue to think we should be moving towards professionalising all governing bodies, with an appropriate level of remuneration for the volume of work, responsibilities, and reputational risk that governors assume,” Chadha (pictured) said.

“It is almost inconceivable that a sector which has been in the spotlight for overpaying senior staff sits alongside pockets of amateur governance. I haven’t quite got my head around that, but actually that is the reality.”

Queen Mary does not currently remunerate its governors.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Chris Sayers, chair of the Committee of University Chairs, said he agreed that it was time for universities to consider paying governors, and that he would “highly recommend” that the chair and other key board members be remunerated. 

Doing so makes it easier to “have a conversation about what is expected”, he said—something which is “tricky to do with a volunteer”. Moving to a model where chairs are remunerated “is something I think we will have to move to,” he added.

Many governor roles are unpaid, voluntary posts at present—something that the conference heard could deter certain groups from considering a role, particularly younger people, or those who are less financially stable.

“By rewarding key posts on boards, you may open them up to people who can’t afford to do these jobs for free,” Sayers told Research Professional News, again speaking in a personal capacity. He added that there was a risk that boards could become the domain of “recently retired, independently wealthy” people if payment is not offered. 

Some universities do remunerate their board members, however—particularly their chairs. For example Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking and a former universities minister, receives £20,000 a year to chair the board of Royal Holloway, University of London—a job she says takes three hours per week, 38 to 40 weeks a year.

Elsewhere in her address, Chadha said UK universities had an “abysmal track record for appointing diverse talent to governing bodies”.

“I have yet to understand why,” she said. Referencing the Parker review, which in 2017 stated that by the end of 2021 no member of the FTSE should lack a person of colour as a director, she urged universities to go even further, calling for diversity “in all of its forms” on university boards. Failure to do so would mean certain groups would feel excluded, she said.

”If people do not see themselves in the movie, they will struggle to write themselves into the script, and that must lie at our door,” Chadha explained

“We, as university stewards, need to be assertive, not least by refusing to work with headhunters who argue that the candidates aren’t out there. Quite frankly I find that remarkable with the existence of LinkedIn, because it is so easy to do.”

Chairs of governors needed to be “unrelenting” in their pursuit of more representative university boards, she added.

Research Professional News has contacted Royal Holloway and Queen Mary for comment.