Wholly effective

February 23, 2012

The letters by Robin Parker and by Sally Hunt ("Fear of failure?", 16 February) on the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, chaired by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, point to the need for a serious discussion of its report as a whole. Press coverage so far has tended to focus on the opinions of interested parties responding to particular proposals that are easier to criticise in isolation than when considered as part of a well-made, historically literate argument.

Michael Russell, Scotland's Cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning, recognised that, for all their rightly celebrated successes, Scotland's universities (like those elsewhere) suffer from a disconnect between the perceptions of senior management on the one hand and many staff and students on the other about how well and effectively they are now being run. Moreover, the well-publicised campaign of some principals prior to the 2010 Holyrood elections aimed at creating a sense that, to coin a phrase, "there is no alternative" to student-paid tuition fees had shown them to be out of touch with - and unable to win over - majority opinion in Scottish society.

Russell is to be congratulated on his political courage in setting up a panel to review this dual "democratic deficit", which was more representative of the university community than any previous such exercise I am aware of. (Too often when journalists cite the opinion of the "universities" they mean only senior managers.) And von Prondzynski, through his open-mindedness and willingness to engage with Scottish opinion and intellectual tradition, as well as with the often-cited challenges of the contemporary "globalised" world, did a remarkable job in achieving near-unanimity for a report that represents rational compromise based on serious argument. It is quite short and can be read on the Scottish government website. Inevitably, given the panel's timeframe and limited resources, it can - and should - be improved on in future (a little-reported recommendation is that a centre of independent research into the Scottish tertiary education sector should be set up to inform this process). But for now I believe it should be seen as a serious contribution to the debate about the future of universities - and not only in Scotland - and, following Parker and Hunt, should be read and commented on in that spirit.

Terry Brotherstone, Panel member Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland

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