Fear of failure? (1 of 2)

February 16, 2012

I read with interest the opposition that some Scottish principals expressed at proposals to improve university governance ("Scotland's university chiefs cool on governance review", 9 February). I would be surprised if the conservatism on show was representative.

The review brought forward proposals on increasing transparency, accountability and diversity around how universities are run in Scotland. Surely they have nothing to fear from improving their record on each of those fronts. Those in the "no-change" camp would argue that our tuition-free institutions, which receive £2 billion a year in public funds, are "running well" and have no room to improve. This is far from the reality I have experienced.

Scottish universities are indeed performing well on many measures, but is that because or in spite of current governance arrangements? We have had a number of failures of governance over the past few years, whether on some institutions' finances, the position of the principal, or how course closures or rest-of-UK fees were decided upon.

More fundamentally, look at the gender or social balance of our university courts, the spiralling pay of principals and the drift in purpose of our institutions towards a more commercial approach to our education. From this view there's certainly room for improvement.

We were happy to take part in the university governance review that, alongside lecturers and principals, developed proposals that aim to improve the transparency, accountability and diversity that is too often lacking in universities' decisions. Our aim is to improve the democratic accountability of universities.

Scotland's higher education system is quite rightly on a different track from that in England. It is a track far more in keeping with the democratic tradition of Scottish education - one that can see students as partners in their education rather than as mindless consumers who are dished out a course or two.

That does not mean, however, that students should not be involved in ensuring that they, and the taxpayer, get value for money from higher education. That is why students, like staff, should play a much greater role in appointing and assessing senior management. That includes remuneration panels addressing senior-level pay, a matter on which we have sought increased transparency and restraint for some time.

To make these boards not just transparent but accountable, it is vital that chairs enjoy the support of the university community, and even the wider community, to anchor universities in the needs of the communities and country they serve. This is why we fully support the idea of elected chairs. Given the gross under-representation of women in leadership positions at senior management level of Scottish universities, where they make up more than 50 per cent of the university population, we strongly welcome the proposal for a defined minimum of 40 per cent for women's membership of boards.

Despite protestations from certain quarters, we hope that lecturers, students and senior management will come to agree that these proposals will improve the already excellent education available to students in Scotland.

Self-preservation is never the best way to ensure that we are getting the best that we can out of anything, never mind our £2 billion university sector. Scottish higher education has a proud tradition and a strong international reputation - taking forward its governance will only enhance those.

Robin Parker President, NUS Scotland

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