Just after I arrived in Scotland in 2011 to take up my post of principal of Robert Gordon University, I was asked by the Scottish government to chair a review of higher education governance. For several months I worked with a panel representing various stakeholders in the system, and in 2012 we submitted our report, which contained some 30 recommendations for change. We made a number of suggestions for reform that might maintain public confidence in the higher education sector. We suggested that these reforms would be more easily secured through a code of good governance for Scotland, and also with the help of “a statute for Scotland’s higher education sector setting out the key principles of governance and management”.
After we had submitted our report, the Committee of Scottish Chairs (Higher Education Institutions) set up a steering group to draft a code of good governance, and this was published in 2013. It took on board a number of our recommendations, although not all of them. I took the view at the time – and still hold this view – that the code is a useful addition to the framework of governance, and an improvement on the equivalent code that had previously been adopted by the chairs of all UK universities. However, there were still a number of recommendations in our review that had not been addressed, and in fairness, some of these required legislation if they were to be implemented.
The Scottish government has now issued a consultation document on a proposed Higher Education Governance Bill. This suggests that new legislation may cover six topics that were the subject of recommendations in our governance review: (i) transferring the role of the Privy Council in approving university governance instruments to a new Scottish committee; (ii) creating a new statutory definition of academic freedom; (iii) clarifying the role of principals of the universities; (iv) setting out procedures for selecting a shortlist of candidates for chairs of governing bodies, and choosing the successful candidate through an election; (v) ensuring that governing bodies include staff, student and alumni representatives; and (vi) clarifying the role and composition of academic boards or senates.
The consultation is, of course, only just beginning and views expressed during this process may have an impact on the shape of the legislation that will emerge. However, it is worth making some observations at this stage.
First, the proposals for the legislation reflect recommendations in our review that can be implemented only by statute (as distinct from voluntary action by institutions themselves). Furthermore, the proposals as set out closely follow the terms of our recommendations.
Second, the proposals are in keeping with the overall principle that we enunciated, that universities should be independent public bodies.
Third, the proposals seem to me to observe the balance that must be struck between autonomy, which is vital for innovation and excellence, and the need to respect the stake in higher education held by society, which is reflected in the need for openness and responsible accountability.
There remain recommendations in our report that still need to be addressed, principally by the universities themselves. But the proposed legislation is a valuable step in the development of a mature Scottish model of higher education.