“A university is not John Lewis” – interview with University and College Union Scotland President Dave Anderson

Written by Tom Freeman on 19 February 2015 in Interviews

The outgoing president looks at the changing face of higher education

The submission made by Universities Scotland to the Scottish Government’s consultation on university governance two weeks ago provoked an angry reaction from trade unions.

No wonder, it claimed their representation on Higher Education governing bodies would “diminish the democratic basis of higher education governance”.

Union members would find themselves in a conflicted position between corporate responsibility and their duty to their union, the submission argued. “This intrinsic conflict of interest was one of the fundamental difficulties with late 1970s experiments with the appointment of trade union representatives to the boards of public corporations,” the paper said.

Holyrood sits down with UCU Scotland President Dave Anderson as he eyes the end of his formal role - he steps down in May – and asks him if his proposed changes to university governance is a throwback to the 1970s.

“I think it’s more a throwback to the 1790s, when you had academics electing the academic leaders running their institutions, and while we’re a long way away from universities electing principals, having an elected staff representative who has trade union backing has a two-way channel open already,” he says.

The Universities Scotland submission suggests having representatives of clear interest groups on university boards falls foul of the Nolan Standards in Public Life, which in the 1990s said people in public office should be objective and accountable. Anderson says the argument is “a red herring”.

“I think it’s personally quite insulting that as a court member, being able to take decisions based on the discussion involved and in the best interests of the institution is somehow incompatible with being a trade union activist and being able to convey the views of staff,” he says.

"While universities remain autonomous, and should remain autonomous, making them democratic and accountable doesn’t damage that"

Universities Scotland speak on behalf of the university principals, according to Anderson, who in turn speak on behalf of the chairs of court, who are keen to maintain the status quo.

The unions, he argues, have been campaigning for more staff and student involvement in decision-making since the code of governance was written in 2013, which he describes as a missed opportunity.

“That code of governance being written by the chairs of court it was really no surprise to anybody that what was presented was pretty much what was already in place. But the momentum we’ve maintained. I think possibly university management themselves are surprised we’ve kept that going,” he says.

The government have yet to conclude on governance, but Anderson seems confident.

“I think there is a head of steam building behind our arguments, in terms of democracy, transparency and accountability.  It’s very difficult to argue against any of those. Certainly speaking to people in the parliament they understand why that’s important. While universities remain autonomous, and should remain autonomous, making them democratic and accountable doesn’t damage that. If anything it protects that.”

A unions conference in October was called ‘reimagining the university’, but Anderson says the perception of what universities are and what they are for has already been shifting during the last four years.

Attracting UK students who pay £9,000 fees has led to students becoming customers, and a focus on research framework scores, has led to short-term budgeting and an increase in commercial interests, he says.

“Institutions and academics are finding it much, much harder to pursue their own particular lines of enquiry, and their own particular research unless it can be funded externally. That external funding is then based on commercial requirements.”

But if universities are to be reimagined, what is a university to him?

"Universities are a collegiate body of staff and students, working with their local community, working with the international community and delivering research and teaching that is fit for purpose and serves the requirements of the area they’re in"

“A university is not John Lewis. That’s where things are being directed, that there’s a bottom line institutions are working to, and the role of university court is to ensure that bottom line shows a surplus rather than a deficit.

“To me personally, and to the majority of UCU Scotland members universities are a collegiate body of staff and students, working with their local community, working with the international community and delivering research and teaching that is fit for purpose and serves the requirements of the area they’re in.”

By the end of May, Anderson will be back as a full-time employee of the University of Glasgow, an institution he says which commits to its community with a long term commitment to attracting students from deprived areas and sending academics out to schools, methods now being rolled out across the country.

“Glasgow has aspirations to be a world leader and to serve its local community, and I don’t think that’s impossible. There’s challenges there in delivering it, but that traditional Scottish model of a broad-based, arts, humanities, science and medicine institution is as relevant now as it was in the enlightenment.”

 

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