Democratic deficit

April 26, 2012

The Higher Education Policy Institute report on universities and devolution produced by Tony Bruce ("Price of avoiding the market: your freedom", 19 April) usefully begins an overdue discussion about the future of universities in the UK as a whole. By drawing attention to differences beyond the borders of BrowneWillettsland, it should help to break down the barriers to serious discussion about future trajectories erected by followers of Margaret Thatcher's notorious "There is no alternative".

But the alternative with regard to university governance proposed in Scotland involves no trade-off between "freedom" and the rejection of market dogma. The questions begged by your headline are: "Whose freedom and to do what?" Time was when the concepts "university autonomy" and "academic freedom" were interchangeable: the former was necessary to protect the latter. What Ferdinand von Prondzynski's review of Scottish governance recognises - as do the key United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation statements on these matters - is that this is no longer self-evidently true.

Universities are increasingly dominated by a highly paid managerialist caste that sees itself as tuned in to the competitive world of neoliberal capitalism; in this, it is dangerously at odds with the views of many of those who sustain what is excellent about UK higher education: lecturers, researchers and support staff. For them, academic freedom is the core value of a university, and they feel increasingly excluded from how the institutional autonomy that once protected it is now exercised.

Von Prondzynski's quite modest proposals seek, inter alia, to redress this widely perceived "democratic deficit" by building on Scottish traditions: first, the idea of a higher education system fulfilling in a modern way the aspirations expressed in the phrase "democratic intellect"; second, the practice in older institutions of having the governing body chaired by an elected "rector"; and, third, respect for those who deliver public services.

The 19th-century Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton believed that "a university is a trust confided by the State to certain hands for the common interest of the nation...[which] ought, by the State, to be from time to time corrected, reformed or recast...[for] the improved accomplishment of its essential ends" - a more balanced approach to debate about the future, perhaps, than Bruce's poorly evidenced antithesis between "freedom" and "avoiding the market".

Terry Brotherstone, Former president, University and College Union Scotland, Scottish Trades Union Congress nominee on the von Prondzynski review panel

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