The Scottish government’s proposed legislative changes to higher education governance have been condemned by Scottish universities.
The government’s consultation of universities, which ended on 30 January, sparked concerns that the new bill would move Scotland towards a less autonomous model of university governance and try to impose a “one size fits all” approach.
In the foreword to the consultation paper, Michael Russell MSP, cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, said: “Scotland’s universities receive a substantial amount of public investment. For that reason, it is important that an appropriate level of democratic accountability is embedded in the governance arrangements for each institution and to ensure public confidence in the sector is maintained.”
However, Universities Scotland, the representative body for Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions, expressed extreme concern over the proposed bill.
They stated in their response: “At the level of general principle, we are concerned that the Scottish Government is proposing to legislate about matters which are properly for autonomous charitable institutions to manage, and doing so without evidence that the proposals would bring benefit.”
They expressed worry that the proposed election of Chairs by an electorate other than the governing body itself and the appointment of members of governing bodies as “representatives” of particular interest groups would be damaging to effective, inclusive and accountable governance.
Universities Scotland urged the government to put extreme and careful thought into their policy choices in light of their response to the consultation.
The minutes from the most recent meeting of the University court state that their response to the proposals: “should be robust in demonstrating the potentially serious damage to Scottish universities that will ensue from increased governmental involvement in the affairs of what are autonomous charitable institutions, serving a wide range of external stakeholders.”
The court was concerned at the government’s failure to specify what is flawed in the current governance system or to properly define the concerns that the proposed legislation seeks to address.
Noting that other countries are largely lessening their central regulatory framework for universities, allowing them to better meet the demands of the competitive international market, the minutes said: “the inevitable inflexibility of legislation will restrict Scottish universities in their educative mission and inhibit their success. In recent times the Scottish Government has encouraged de-regulation, yet present proposals are wholly contrary to that aim.”
A spokesperson for the University said: “The University responded to the consultation, in order to inform the process legislative change. Responses will be published in due course and we expect they will be used to help shape a draft bill.”