University governance: devil is in the detail

Written by Tom Freeman on 11 November 2015

Finally it seems we are moving onto a new, more productive, phase in the Scottish Government’s ambitious Higher Education Governance Bill.

Yesterday’s Education and Culture Committee saw Education Secretary Angela Constance concede the proposals would be amended or sections would be removed.

The vision of these reforms, such as the election of university chairs by the whole university, is supported by Scottish Labour, so in theory its success should be a forgone conclusion. However the devil is in the detail, or rather the lack of it.


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The bill, which is only a few pages long, has led to concerns ministers will intervene in the running of universities, thereby reclassifying them as ‘public bodies’. This could lead to them losing charitable status and the millions in funding that go with it.

The lack of detail in the bill led to a terse argument in the sector about what the Government’s real intentions in the bill were.

At a Scottish Labour conference fringe even the University and Colleges Union, which wholeheartedly support the bill as it gives staff and students greater representation on governing bodies, said it didn’t want to see the ‘unintended consequences’ of ONS reclassification.

“The bill does not seek to give ministers any new powers over the appointment of chairs or the appointment of members to committees,” Constance told committee yesterday, but added: “There is a willingness on my behalf and on behalf of the Government to look in detail at those concerns and a willingness to attempt to remove the concerns which have been articulated by others.”

Conservative Liz Smith requested sections of the bill suggesting ministerial control be removed from the Bill. The reality though is there isn’t much of the bill to remove.

Constance pledged to listen to stakeholders, but the fact the bill is so thin suggests more of this could have been done already. Radical reforms of the structures of higher education perhaps require more than a few pages of legislation, with some detail on how the ‘unintended consequences’ can be avoided.

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