HE governance reform would be 'devastating' to autonomy of universities warns academic

Written by Tom Freeman on 7 October 2015 in Feature

Education committee discusses the Higher Education Governance Bill at stage 1

As the first time the opposing sides in the debate on university governance faced each other publicly, yesterday’s Education and Culture Committee was always going to be heated.

Interestingly, it was neither the unions backing the idea of elected chairs nor the principals and chairs who oppose it who provided the most heat, but an academic.

Astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who is the president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said she found the proposals of the Higher Education Governance Bill “really scary” because of how it would be perceived around the world.


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“Starting about the time of the referendum, but picking up momentum now with this legislation, when I’m abroad I find people saying ‘what’s happening to the Scottish university? What’s the government there doing? With the implication there is interference, not quite articulated, the implication that there is suppression of critical thought.

“That is not a word you want to get abroad. That will be devastating to the SNP and the Scottish Universities. But it’s growing and out there already.”

She cautioned not to follow the direction of Ireland which, she said, had a university sector “sad” and “muted”.

Edinburgh University Principal Professor Sir Tim O'Shea also said he was in the “embarrassing situation” of receiving letters from colleagues abroad commiserating him.

“Because this discussion is not just happening in this room, it is being observed around the world. The perception around the world is that this bill, if enacted, will reduce the autonomy of the Scottish universities,” he said.

What was less clear was how the widening of the electoral franchise to all staff and students would affect the autonomy of an institution.

Common Weal director Robin McAlpine said he thought the whole court of a university should be elected.

“I don’t see any way you saying there should be a democratically elected element to the governance of a university, where the staff and students make the decision about what outcome occurs, affects the autonomy of a university. It may affect the autonomy of the senior management team but it doesn’t affect the autonomy of a university. I don’t understand what the unintended consequences are,” he said.

Emily Beever from NUS Scotland said: “We believe universities are academic communities and those stakeholders are staff and students, primarily, and they absolutely should be the ones leading discussions and leading the decisions taking place within our institutions.”

The principal argument against yesterday was that universities are already very successful and well governed, why should the government shake the apple cart?

The role of rector, which is currently elected by staff and students, would undoubtedly change. Would it be undermined by also having a chair elected by the larger body?

The fear is that the legislation would hand powers to Scottish ministers, but whether those fears are founded will depend on the wording of the bill as it progresses into stage 2.

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