SNP focus: Education

Written by Tom Freeman on 17 October 2015 in Feature

Disquiet among education professionals may haunt the SNP next year

 

It’s perhaps understandable for education to have been central to the SNP’s ethos. After all, carving things in stone takes a certain level of commitment, as former leader Alex Salmond did with his “rocks would melt in the sun” comment on student fees.

Some will argue free education is a Scottish idea, born during the 16th century Reformation with an expansion of parish schools, and anyone with aspirations for the country to be independent might see education as the candle of independence which has burned throughout the years of British political union.  

Scotland has some of the oldest universities in the UK, and they remain ‘world-leading’, according to various international markers like the Research Excellence Framework. Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen and Dundee universities were all recently named in the new Times Higher Education World University Rankings, giving the country more universities in the world’s top 200 per head of population than any other nation.


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However, this reputation is under threat from the SNP, if a number of university chairs and academics are to be believed. Why? 

The objections relate to the latest plans to make university governing bodies more accountable and democratic.

The Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill takes forward recommendations from the 2012 review of governance in Scottish higher education institutions, chaired by Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Robert Gordon University principal.

It contains a commitment to have elected chairs in charge of the governing bodies, with seats for staff, students and trade unions.
In a recent Education and Culture Committee meeting, principals and chairs warned of “unintended consequences” to the reforms which would diminish Scotland’s reputation for education on the world stage.

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.

“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 that is “sad” and “muted”.

From merging colleges into public bodies to issuing councils with a fixed teacher numbers ultimatum, many have accused the SNP administration of flexing centralised control. The fear of the Higher Education Governance Bill is that it seeks to do the same over the proudly autonomous university sector.

Last week Education Secretary Angela Constance replaced the entire board of Glasgow Clyde College after what she called “breaching clear rules on expenditure limits, allowing its relationship with student representatives to break down, and failing to investigate governance concerns raised by the principal [Susan Walsh] before her suspension”.

If universities became reclassified, could this kind of action be repeated in the higher education sector? If so, this could mean they lose their charitable status and the tens of millions of pounds in tax breaks which go with it.

Constance insists the bill is not about ministers taking a role in universities, but enabling “every voice on campus to be heard”.

The bill has the support of unions, student leaders and Scottish Labour in opposition.

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

Von Prondzynski himself has warned Parliament the legislature itself should implement the intentions of the bill, rather than ministerial regulations, to avoid compromising institutional autonomy.
“It is vitally important that Scotland’s universities reinforce their undoubted success in learning and scholarship by demonstrating openness, transparency and inclusiveness.

“The bill will significantly support our higher education system in demonstrating both democratic accountability and intellectual integrity, as part of a society that values learning and discovery.”
The criticism has been vocal however. “The bill is a mess and the universities hate it,” said Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson at First Minister’s Questions.

Nicola Sturgeon replied: “It is important we, as a Government, engage with and listen to the views that are expressed from the higher education sector, and we will continue to do that, but let me be clear that the bill is not about introducing ministerial control over universities. It is—I make no apology for this—about ensuring the governance of our universities is transparent and inclusive.”

On the threat to charitable status, Sturgeon referred to Scottish Charity Regulator OSCR, who said the bill’s proposals “would not affect the constitutions of higher education institutions in ways that would give ministers the power to direct or control these institutions’ activities”.

Meanwhile merging FE colleges into regional public bodies has been difficult, according to Audit Scotland. The former principal and chair of Coatbridge College have been called in front of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit Committee to explain why £849,842 was paid to seven staff after colleges in Lanarkshire were merged.

The committee is investigating Audit Scotland’s findings on the sector after it warned that implications from the merger process are continuing for funding, learning provision, and how colleges are managed and scrutinised.

The committee’s Labour convener, Paul Martin MSP, said it had been disappointing the Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council have not yet been able to provide detailed figures to demonstrate efficiencies, after assuring the committee lessons had been learned.

“The £50 million figure for savings has frequently been referred to but we have yet to be convinced and we have sought clarity on the timescale for achieving this saving. Given the cost of the mergers and particular concerns around some severance payments made, we have asked the Scottish Government to provide greater detail on the merger costs and the achieved savings,” he said.

A survey of FE staff by Unison Scotland published last week revealed nine in ten believed the sector is underfunded.

School teachers, meanwhile, have largely accepted a two-year pay and conditions offer from local authorities. EIS members, who represent over four-fifths of the country’s teachers, voted in favour of the deal by 83 per cent to 17 per cent, despite calling the pay offer “meagre”.

There are signs however they, too, are experiencing low morale. Teaching union NASUWT Scotland rejected the pay offer, citing “anger and frustration” at government for “driving up stress levels and contributing to a record low in teacher morale”, according to national official Jane Peckham.

With seeming disquiet among staff and leaders at all levels of education, the SNP may have hard work ahead if it wants some sectoral champions when next year’s elections come around.

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