University governance shake-up passed by Scottish Parliament
Staff and student will have a greater say over how their university is run after the Scottish Government’s shake up of higher education governance was passed by MSPs.
The chair of a university’s court will be elected by staff and students under the new rules, and both will be represented on the governing body.
The Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill was the subject of some controversy after Universities Scotland led a vocal campaign against the plans, even after the Scottish Government had made some notable concessions.
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The bill was passed by 92 votes to 17. Labour supported the SNP, while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats opposed.
Education Secretary Angela Constance said the new structures would ensure “greater openness and transparency” in the way Scotland’s higher education institutions (HEIs) were run.
“Every voice on campus will be heard as part of elections for chairs, or senior lay members, with staff, students and union representatives involved in the whole recruitment and election process. The historic role of rectors in those universities that have them will also continue,” she said.
Although the bill started as only a few sheets of paper, after fierce criticism it was amended to protect the independence and charitable status of universities.
Amendments to make specialist institutions like the Royal Conservatoire and Scotland’s Rural College exempt were rejected.
“We have listened closely to stakeholders and interested parties over the course of the Bill’s passage and made a number of amendments, both to clarify the Bill, and to make sure it has maximum impact in improving governance practice,” said Constance.
Scottish Labour’s Mark Griffin said: “The cabinet secretary said that she was surprised at the level of opposition, and I am surprised at how difficult it was for us to support the bill as it was drafted, given our support for its general principles. I think that bad drafting, ministerial overreach and, at times, genuine incompetence have put unhelpful pressure on the coalition of support that has existed for the bill.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat Liam McArthur said the government should have taken a more careful approach. “From the outset it has not been clear what the problem is that Ministers are trying to fix,” he said.
Scottish Conservative Liz Smith said every single HEI in Scotland opposed the bill. “I feel very sorry for our universities, which will undoubtedly be faced with additional constitutional and administrative burdens, all because of the Scottish Government’s meddling. In some cases, the bill will diminish rather than enhance universities’ democratic accountability,” she said.
Trade unions and students will now be guaranteed representation on governing bodies. University and College Union (UCU) Scotland official Mary Senior said: “These changes will reconnect the way universities are run with those most affected by decisions – the staff and students – and allow our universities to remain the world leading institutions they are.”
National Union of Students women’s officer in Scotland, Emily Beever, said: “While the Bill as it stands is a big step forward, it’s disappointing that MSPs missed the opportunity to address the gender imbalance that exists on our boards, or ensuring greater scrutiny and transparency on matters like principal’s pay. However, with a review coming on the code of good governance that underpins our universities, and a clear message from MSPs and the Scottish Government that the status quo simply isn’t good enough, staff and students will be continuing that campaign.”