Dreaming of a more democratic academy

August 21, 2014

As a member of staff at a Scottish university, I found Times Higher Education’s latest issue of particular interest.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s opinion piece “Divergence has delivered results” (News, 14 August) made the familiar case for Scottish exceptionalism – its “democratic intellect” tradition – in matters of higher education ethos. As the author recognises, the recommendations of the Review of Higher Education Governance that he chaired “sparked some debate”, not only as far as the election of governing body chairs but also, one might add, on the proposed introduction of gender quotas on governing boards.

Testament to the sparkling debate is the fact that, more than two years later, there is still no legislation to implement such recommendations. One might even question the current good health of the democratic intellect tradition itself, at least judging from the opinions expressed by Thomas Swann, winner of the “yes” category in the Scottish independence essay competition (“Visions of independence”, Features, 14 August).

Swann writes that: “Scotland’s universities [have] generally gone in much the same direction as those in the rest of the UK” in key areas such as metrics, the research excellence framework, zero-hours contracts and the National Student Survey, hence he concludes that “the Scottish higher education system is little better than in the rest of the UK”. Swann’s rage at the status quo is mitigated only by his (romantic) hope that independence will deliver “another university”. Maybe he imagines a cooperative one (“All together now: towards cooperatives”, Analysis, 14 August), whose implementation would “simply” entail changing a university’s mission, as its proponents (again romantically) envisage.

So where does all this leave a cynically inclined academic who still believes passionately in the possibility of a more democratic academia? In the uncomfortable certainty that whatever the result of the independence referendum Scottish academia is unlikely to become a garden of Eden, because as Felipe Fernández-Armesto realistically acknowledges in “Trouble in paradise” (Opinion, 14 August), “there are serpents in every Eden”.

Anna Notaro
Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design
University of Dundee
Twitter: @notanna1


“There is nothing more fundamental to the protection of academic freedom and the free pursuit of the best…teaching and research than the governance structure of a university…[a] subject not…discussed enough,” comments a recent Council for the Defence of British Universities newsletter. Yet the discontent in Scottish universities about the “democratic deficit” in how they are run finds no echo in Hugh Pennington’s argument for his colleagues to vote “no” in the 18 September referendum on independence (“Visions of independence”, Features, 14 August).

In his call for a “yes” vote – not to endorse the Scottish National Party’s White Paper celebrating “Scottish universities as they are” but to allow the opportunity for a sovereign Scotland “to create a genuine revolution” to address the “hope and rage” of Scots at the current state of affairs – Thomas Swann identifies many of the problems that the senior management system, based on dismissive superiority rather than meaningful consultation, fails to address.

He might have added that, for all the deficiencies of the White Paper to which Pennington rightly draws attention, the Scottish government did commission the 2012 Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland (the von Prondzynski report), and that Michael Russell, the education secretary, has broadly endorsed its conclusions.

They are not revolutionary but they do offer a different trajectory from the one dominant in UK universities. They can provide a starting point for a discussion – whatever the referendum result – for ways in which the historic distinctiveness of Scottish higher education could be developed to meet Swann’s aspirations for both Scotland and perhaps then the rest of the UK, too.

Terry Brotherstone
Former president UCU Scotland and member of the von Prondzynski panel


While Hugh Pennington’s article raises a number of pertinent points, it proves that cobblers should stick to their lasts. The cross-border funding arrangements from the 17th century that he cites as early examples of the benefits of union all occurred during the 1650s. His assertion that “the stronger the union, the more secure the funds” is perhaps more apposite than he intended – in that decade, Scotland was under military occupation by the forces of the English republic.

Alan MacDonald
Senior lecturer in history
University of Dundee

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