Reflections from Leadership Matters: supporting senior women in higher education

Rachael Ross is the course director of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation programme for senior women in higher education. Two years on from its inception, Rachael reflects on why the programme is needed and how it was developed.

Why Leadership Matters?

Just 18%  – or 36 – of the top 200 universities in the world have a female leader, according to the latest THE 2016-17 world university rankings, and men still overwhelmingly dominate the top leadership roles in 166 higher education institutions across the UK (Women Count: Leaders in Education 2016).

Higher education leaders work in a world where rapid cultural change is the norm rather than the exception. Understanding how our institutions are financed and governed, combined with the political savviness needed to navigate them, is essential, and the wider economic and social waves of change require a firmly grounded leadership purpose and resilience.

Women leaders have a huge amount to bring to the higher education sector and fully releasing that potential is, I believe, essential to the long-term health and sustainability of the sector.  But research shows that gender bias in organisations continues to “disrupt the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader”. (Harvard Business Review)

In the development process of Leadership Matters we listened to feedback from leaders across the sector, from our alumni and from the Aurora community. Crucially, the course had to be a safe space where women leaders could develop their own unique authentic leadership and navigate the cultural challenges they face.

As course director of Leadership Matters, the programme created two years ago to meet that need, I feel it is timely to take stock and share some thoughts about my approach and what I believe makes Leadership Matters so suited to senior women leaders.

Clear direction

Leadership Matters is a five-day programme that addresses both technical and personal leadership aims. Participants have a clear goal from the beginning, with each day serving a defined purpose. For example, day one demystifies the financial frameworks of higher education while day two focuses on governance and legal requirements. There is then an action learning set day for women to reflect on their learnings so far in a small peer group. Day four then tackles the cultural and political challenges that all leaders face, working to build participants’ confidence to navigate these in the context of a higher education institution. Finally, on day five, the focus is on participants identifying their true purpose as a leader, and confirming their own leadership identity and “narrative” or story.

As a whole, the programme provides a mix of technical and development skills, ensuring that participants leave feeling more confident in their own leadership, prepared to navigate their organisations’ culture, and equipped with real insights into their organisations’ financial and governance system.

A network of female leaders for continued learning

The programme supports learning groups that live powerfully, well beyond the limits of the programme itself, providing women with continued support as they work towards reaching the highest executive levels. At the heart of this are the Leadership Matters action learning sets, which provide women with the opportunity to build strong ties with a network of peers.

Learning from the experts

I’m proud to have brought together a multidisciplinary team of facilitators and speakers to work on Leadership Matters. Each is an expert in her own field, with deep experience in the academic world, and we all share an ambition to truly equip delegates for senior leadership.

  • Gill Ball OBE, former director of finance at the University of Birmingham
  • Christine Abbott, former university secretary & director of Operations at Birmingham City University
  • Sally Cray, an experienced Leadership and Organisational Development Specialist.

You can read more about myself and my fellow 3 facilitators here.

A personal learning environment

As the programme is designed for senior leaders who are striving to reach the very top tier of higher education, the cohort sizes reflect this. While the Aurora programme now attracts up to 250 women per cohort, Leadership Matters is designed to provide participants with a much more intimate training in cohorts of around 20 women.

Active, sustainable learning

Our job as facilitators is to find a balance between introducing some key concepts and models, allowing time to reflect, and encouraging delegates to experiment by applying the learning to their own personal and organisation context, which makes the learning sustainable well beyond the five days of the programme itself. As a result, Leadership Matters draws particularly on Kolb’s Learning Cycle, which emphasises an active learning style in which we learn from our experiences of life, and reflection is an integral part of such learning.

Leadership matters – now more than ever

“As a result of attending the programme I understand my own impact better and the action learning sets I’ve attended with other members have continued on past the programme itself, and have been invaluable.”  – Kirsteen Coupar, director of student support and employment at London Southbank University

I believe that Leadership Matters has shown itself to be an essential programme – for both women leaders and for the higher education sector as a whole. It is critical that the sector draws on all the talent and potential within its realm, to nurture and develop leaders with the vision and confidence to guide higher education through the turbulent economic and social change it is facing. Leadership Matters is helping to meet this urgent need, supporting women to strive for the highest possible levels of leadership so that they can play their part in steering their institutions to greater success.

Rachael Ross has a background in industrial relations and change management in the energy sector. She is now a leadership and diversity consultant and coach for senior leaders across all sectors. She is the course director for Leadership Matters.

Leadership Matters will be taking place in Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol in Autumn, Winter, and Spring respectively in the next academic year. For more information and to book a place please click here.

5 things every newly appointed student governor needs to know


Student as Governor Conference 2014

Rita Walters, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, Leadership Foundation shares the collective insights from previous participants of the Student as Governor Conference over the years, and their top 5 tips for their successors.

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This will give you a greater awareness of how you can make changes or influence the board in your role and help you prioritise your goals as a governor. What most student governors need to understand is what are the role and responsibilities of a governor, and how the governing body makes decisions. It is worth remembering that the all governors have collective responsibility for any decision made by the governing body, so don’t think of yourself as a second-class citizen. Most student governors will receive information about their role in an induction pack. However, if you haven’t received the information you need, details of the governance structure can often be found on your university’s website. It is usually found on the ‘about us’ page.

2.It’s important to be an informed trustee so get as prepared as you possibly can before the meeting, including reading through the board papers carefully, learning about your fellow board members, and getting an understanding on what is going on at your university. It is worth identifying items on the agenda you want to comment on, and thinking about how best to contribute to any discussion.


Making change happen at any level or organisation is a challenge. This is an opportunity to develop the trust and confidence of other board members in you and, subsequently, support your views on the matters you raise. If you do this then your views are more likely to have greater weight in board meetings.


Your role of a governor includes ensuring that the student perspective is taken into account when key decisions are made so it is crucial that your voice is heard. It is important to balance the challenge and support you give the university’s executive team. Do not be afraid to offer your views and the student perspective. Most governing bodies will want to hear from its student governors, and if they have confidence in them, will pay close attention to what they say.


Higher education is in the midst of some of the most radical changes the sector has ever faced and it is important to keep updated on the wider context Times Higher Education, WonkHE, MediaFHE and the Guardian (especially on Tuesdays) are excellent sources of all news relating to higher education in the UK and across the world. Most offer a weekly digest with all the top stories for the week which will help you become well-informed and able to contribute to the development of board decisions and the policy of the university.

Rita Walters is a Marketing and Communications Coordinator for the Leadership Foundation. She is the marketing lead for the Student as Governor Conference 2017 and a specialist in social media management. Her work includes spreading awareness on the Leadership Foundation’s latest research and leadership development opportunities for new and aspiring higher education leaders.

If you would like to develop your knowledge about being an effective student governor sign up to the Student as Governor Conference 2017 taking place on Wednesday 20 September 2017 at Woburn House Conference Centre in London. Click here to find out more.

To find out more about our work on governance please visit